December 23rd, 2011
A few weeks ago, I signed up to participate in a Christmas table decoration contest. I decided to decorate around the theme of the twelve days of Christmas. So, I purchased a template online and began making kirigami cards in the style of the 12 days of Christmas. I also researched the history of the 12 days and created little placards with fun facts about them to display in front of the cards.
It was a really fun project. Unfortunately, the contest was cancelled and so my hard work (approximately 30 hours worth) never paid off. But I figured I'd try to salvage a little something from the project by posting it on my blog. I hope you enjoy it! (Click the images to view the larger version.)
1. Partridge in a Pear Tree
|Most Americans believe that the 12 Days of Christmas are the days leading up to Christmas Day, beginning on December 14th. Unfortunately, this is not historically accurate. In Europe (where the tradition first originated), the first day of Christmas is actually December 25th and ends on January 5th, the night before the Day of Epiphany. The Twelfth Night is supposed to be the night of the biggest Christmas celebration.
2. Turtle Doves
|In many Christian religions, the Feast of Epiphany (Jan. 6th) celebrates the day the Wise Men visited the baby Jesus and testified that he was the Savior of the world. The 12 days of Christmas celebrate the time period during which the Wise Men first saw the star on the day of Nativity and began their travels (Dec. 25th) until the time they arrived at Bethlehem (Jan. 6th). Some Christian cultures actually celebrate Christmas for 40 days, ending on Candlemas (Feb. 2nd).
3. French Hens
|In European Christian cultures, the Day of the Epiphany (Jan. 6th) occurs the day after the Twelfth Day of Christmas. To celebrate this day, Christians in Europe write the letters "C.M.B." in chalk over the doorways of their houses and churches. These letters are supposed to represent that first initials of the three Wise Men's names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. They also write "May Christ bless this house" in Latin next to the initials.
4. Calling Birds
|Shakespeare's famous play Twelfth Night was meant to be performed on the twelfth night of Christmas (Jan. 5th). Since the twelfth night was the night of the biggest Christmas festivities in Shakespeare's time, the title was meant to signal to audiences that the play was a comedy. The title prepares audiences for a play that will be festive, fun, and full of lots of mirth and laughter---just like the twelfth night of Christmas.
5. Golden Rings
|In some European countries, you aren't supposed to put up your Christmas tree or your holiday decorations until Christmas Eve. You only leave them up for the 12 Days of Christmas (ending on Jan. 5th). It is also considered bad luck if you forget to take the decorations down on the last day of Christmas. Some cultures burn a bit of a Yule Log every night of the 12 Days of Christmas starting on Christmas Day.
|The original traditions of the 12 Days of Christmas have largely been forgotten in American culture---probably because it's become more popular to celebrate Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. However, some Christian religions in America still celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas: Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Moravians, the Amish and the Mennonites.
|Some people mistakenly believe that the 12 Days of Christmas song was written and sung in England from 1558 to 1829 when Catholics were prohibited from practicing their religion. Catholics supposedly created the 12 Days to secretly teach children about their faith (e.g. Jesus is the partridge, the turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments, the French Hens are the 3 Wise Men, etc.) There is no historical evidence to support this story and it is probably just a modern-day myth.
|The lyrics of the 12 Days of Christmas are essentially meaningless. They were originally sung as a popular party game in the 18th century. A leader would sing a verse and then everyone would repeat it. After each round, the leader added a new verse and everyone tried to repeat back the entire song in its proper order from memory. If someone made a mistake, they were out of the game. So, the lyrics are probably just nonsense words intended to confuse party-goers.
9. Ladies Dancing
|The first publication of the 12 Days of Christmas song was in a 1780 in an English children's book called Mirth Without Mischief. But most historians believe that the song is much older than that. They think that the song originally came from France because there are three French versions of the song from around this time period. Also, the red-legged partridge, which typically perches in trees, originally lived only in France.
|The 12 Days of Christmas song was popularized in the United States by Emily Brown in 1910. Brown discovered an arrangement of the carol by Frederic Austin while shopping overseas at a bookstore in Oxford, England. She wrote the song into one of her annual Christmas plays and it was performed by the students at Downer College, a girl's college where Brown was a faculty member. The song gradually became popular in America after that performance.
11. Pipers Piping
|Beginning in 1984, PNC Bank has jokingly created an economic indicator using the cost of the items for the 12 Days of Christmas. Every year, PNC tracks what it would cost to actually purchase all the goods and services mentioned in the song as a way of measuring inflation. They call this the "Christmas Price Index" or the "True Cost of Christmas." In 1984, the total cost was $12,623.10. In 2011, the total cost is $24,263.18.
12. Drummers Drumming
|Unlike most popular music, the time signature for the 12 Days of Christmas song is irregular, frequently switching from 3/4 time to 4/4 time. Despite its irregularity, the song has been a Christmas favorite in America ever since the 20th century. There have been many versions of the song, including parodies by performers such as Frank Sinatra, Allan Sherman, Bob and Doug McKenzie, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Garfield, Jeff Foxworthy, Elmo, Phineas and Ferb, and the Simpsons.
Well, I hope you enjoyed reading about the culture and history of one of our obscure holiday traditions. As a reward for making it all the way to the end of this blog entry, here's my Christmas gift to you: a holiday album featuring retro Christmas music from 1946-1969 (or at least in that style). It's called Atomic Christmas: Warm Wishes from a Cold War Era. I hope you enjoy it!