The first teaser question for our Christmas music is above. We are singing a delightful arrangement of this traditional piece. So, what gives? I remember back in elementary school being teased a bit by some Jewish classmates about the superiority of Hanukkah over Christmas: “You only have one day to get presents, but we have eight.” I'm sure I wasn't quick-witted enough to mention the plethora of gift-giving in this song nor its extra days of celebration. So here's the information I didn't have back then.
But first, before you read any further, you must watch the absolutely definitive performance of this song by none other than John Denver and the Muppets. Here's the link:
Okay. Got that? Now you can keep reading.
First of all, the 12 days are counted from the day after Christmas to the Feast of Epiphany, which takes place on January 6 and is the traditional date of the arrival of the Magi, or Three Kings, to visit the Christ child. There's a whole quagmire of information about why these dates were chosen which I don't have the space for here. You can spend your entire holiday season trolling the internet on this subject if you're so inclined. The final night of the twelve days was called, appropriately enough, Twelfth Night. Yes, just like the Shakespeare play. It was a time of merrymaking and feasting.
If you read the posts for last year's Christmas concert you'll remember that some Christmas carols are very old and may incorporate all kinds of legends and folktales, some of which may have originally had nothing to do with the actual Christmas story. (As was the case with “The Holly and the Ivy.”) There is nothing scriptural about the gifts listed in this song, although there have been attempts to find sacred or hidden meanings in them. Instead, the song (which wasn't written down until 1780 but which is certainly much older) is in the category of a memory-and-forfeits game, in which each person in a circle had to recite or sing all the verses up until that point and then add a new one. If you made a mistake or forgot a verse, you had to pay a “forfeit,” usually a kiss or a piece of candy. (“I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” is in this same genre, also called a “cumulative song.”)
There are at least three known French spring or New Year's carols that feature a list of gifts beginning with a partridge, and this whole “pear tree” business apparently refers to the French word for partridge, “perdriz“ or “perdrix,” pronounced, of course, “pear-dree.” So, if all this isn't too arcane, our “partridge in a pear tree” probably isn't in a pear tree at all but is just the bird, with the location tacked on because of the confusion stemming from its French name. Understood correctly, the first seven gifts are all birds, even the “five gold rings.” Most sources say that these rings don't refer to jewelry but to ring-necked pheasants. And, to add to all this semantic chaos, the “calling birds” in verse four are actually “colly” birds, from a regional English word meaning “black.” So they're really blackbirds, but since very few knew what “colly” meant as time went on, all sorts of alternatives were used, including "canary birds," "colour'd birds," "curley birds," and "corley birds" (whatever those may be), before a 1909 written version settled on “calling birds.” The symbolism of at least some of the birds is clear: this is a love song, and the birds are compliments. Partridges were pretty. Turtledoves mated for life and were mentioned in the Song of Solomon in the Jewish Bible (“The flowers are springing up, the season of singing birds has come, and the cooing of turtledoves fills the air” 2:12 NLT). Swans were beautiful and also monogamous. Geese were . . . well, fertile, I guess, since they're laying eggs. All of these birds are also edible, at least theoretically, so they could be part of the feasting. (Remember “Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie”? And of course, from last year's Carmina Burana, the roast swan?)
Once we get past the seven swans, we're in a different territory altogether. One source said that at this point we're clearly at a wedding, with dancing and music. But where do the milkmaids fit in? Who knows for sure, but it's true that they were known for their smooth skin since they tended to be immune to smallpox (because of getting cowpox—you do remember that bit of scientific history, don't you?), so they might be seen as ornamental as well as useful. By the time we get to the end of the song the scene has become pretty riotous, whatever the original occasion may have been. So if you want to think of a Henry VIII-ish figure throwing the gnawed bones of all kinds of birds over his shoulder as he sits at the banquet table and watches the revelry, go ahead. That image may put you in the right frame of mind for singing the song.
The arrangement that the Chorale is singing is just a total blast. Not only do we have the fun of the song itself, but we also get to sing it in twelve different musical styles, starting with ancient Gregorian chant and ending with John Philip Sousa. There's cleverness to spare, including a nice musical joke for the verse "Seven Swans A-Swimming." You may be familiar with Craig Courtney as a composer and arranger of Christian music. I do hope that the Chorale gets to perform something from that category of his work at some point. For now, though, we are thrilled to be doing this witty and charming piece.