Elizabeth Postan in _The Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols_
(1970) has a few useful observations on the carol. She notes that the
"twelve days of Christmas, linking Christmas on Dec. 25 with the Feast of
the Epiphany on January 6, were pronounced a festal tide by the Council of
Tours in 567. This ancient cumulative song and forfeit game, common to
England and France, America and French Canada, dates back to a
thirteenth-century manuscript in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge
(B. 14. 39) entitled 'Twelfth Day.'...The words are enrgetically rural.
All versions generally agree as to the last six lines, which constitute a
refrain. Of those collected in America the other lines have metaphors
which contrast significantly with the tamer imagery of the British
Isles--eleven bears a-leapin' (Vermont),; nine wolves a-howling, eight
deers a-running (Missouri), etc. In American or English, four
colley/colored birds is acceptable; 'part of a juniper tree' for 'a
partridge in a pear tree' is suspect, for the French equivalent
(Franche-Compte) has the real partridge (_perdriole_), a word not
susceptible of distortion and so confirming the sense."
Ever since I encountered T. H. White's _Book of Beasts_ as an
undergraduate, I've wondered whether its twelfth-century opinion on the
partridge carries meaning for "my true love's" gift: "Frequent intercourse
tires [patridges] out. The males fight each other for their mate, and it
is believed that the conquered male submits to venery like a female.
Desire torments the females so much that even if a wind blows toward them
from the males they become pregnant by the smell." On the other hand,
the very over-sexed nature of the bird wins it a reputation as "a
cunning, disgusting bird."
On Sat, 19 Dec 1998, Brian Donaghey wrote:
> >The chair of my department recently volunteered me to talk to a local TV
> >station about the traditional song, "The 12 Days of Christmas," and other
> >than remembering it as a catechetical text (partridge = Christ, 2 turtle
> >doves = the Old and New Testament, 3 French hens = faith, hope, and love,
> >etc), I seem to remember that the song itself is 16th century rather than
> >medieval, though the feast days extend much farther back, of course.
> >I'm the only medievalist in the state, I think, and so I get all the
> >queries about anything "in the olde days," which could mean anything prior
> >to the 20th century.
> >Please respond privately, if you like. I also recently lost my hard drive,
> >so if somebody could post the URL to the medieval-relgion archive, I'd
> >much appreciate it.
> >Daniel T. Kline
> >Assistant Professor of English
> >University of Alaska Anchorage
> >Anchorage, AK 99508
> >email: [log in to unmask]
> >phone: 907/786-4364
> >fax: 907/786-4383
> Dear Daniel,
> I haven't got the <Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes> handy, but you may find
> something in that. I gather that the song is originally French, of some
> antiquity. In a version from wesern France, the gifts are mostly food: one
> boneless stuffing, two breasts of veal, three joints of beef, four pigs'
> trotters, five legs of mutton,six partridges with cabbage, seven spitted
> rabbits, eight plates of salad, nine dishes for a chapterful of canons, ten
> full casks, eleven bosomy maidens, and twelve musketeers with their swords.
> It has been proposed that the gifts of the song may refer to penances
> exacted for failure to observe points of ritual during the period; it is
> attested that in the North of England the song used to form part of a game
> of forfeits in which anyone who could not carry the song a line forward and
> repeat the preceding lines had to contribute something to the amusement of
> the assembly (e.g. a song, or a story). I'l be interested to see what
> others can dig up on this topic.
John R. Shinners e-mail: [log in to unmask]
Associate Professor Phone (office): (219) 284-4494
Humanistic Studies Program Phone (dept.): (219) 284-4485
Saint Mary's College Fax: (219) 284-4716
Notre Dame, IN 46556