As a child, I was always fascinated by some of the mysterious and often archaic lyrics of traditional Christmas songs. For instance, what the criminy is a bobtail in “Jingle Bells” (“Bells on bobtails ring / making spirits bright”)? And why was a terrible monster stalking an elderly woman in the soon-to-be-adorned corridors of “Deck the Halls” (“Troll the ancient yuletide Carol”)? And while we’re at it, Mr. “Winter Wonderland,” who the hell is Parson Brown, and why should I name my snowman after him? (“In the meadow we can build a snowman / Then pretend that he is Parson Brown”).
Then there’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” in which a dude gives his true love a partridge, two doves, three hens, four calling birds, six geese and seven swans—which is an awful lot of bird shit for his true love to clean up. And where in her house is this true love going to fit 12 drummers and their drum kits? Will they be drumming the whole time? Does she have to feed them, too? What about eight maids a-milking? Is she Vitamin D-deficient? Can they be re-gifted? And as far as pipers go, I’ve got two words for you: Jethro Tull. Seeing Tull in concert is bad enough with only one Ian Anderson on flute. Can you imagine 11? Give your true love 11 pipers piping and she’s gonna have to shove both turtledoves into her ears.
The point is, these lyrics are clearly symbolic. But of what? It’s a mystery that plagued my youth. However, because there was no Internet back then, I pretty much had to let it go unsolved. Until a few days ago, that is, when I heard “Twelve Days” on the radio and pondered those words again for the first time in 30 years. And that old frustration came rushing back. Then it hit me: Hey! We have Internet now. I can just, you know, Google it.
Well, guess what? Google didn’t know, either. Turns out nobody truly knows what those lyrics mean. There are some theories, though.
One of the more popular theories is that the song was written in a place and time when it was illegal to practice Christianity and that it contains hidden meanings intended to pass down the faith. For instance, the partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus Christ on the cross. Two turtledoves are the Old and New Testaments. Three French hens stand for faith, hope and love. Four calling birds are the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Five golden rings represent The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). Six geese a-laying = six days of creation. Seven swans a-swimming are the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. Eight maids a-milking are the eight Beatitudes. Nine ladies dancing are nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. Ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments. Eleven pipers = eleven faithful disciples. And 12 drummers = the Apostles’ Creed, which has 12 doctrines.
Of course, this is a wildly silly theory. Not just because there’s no evidence supporting it; nor because of the logistical problem that, in a place where practicing Christianity is prohibited, Christmas carols would certainly be prohibited, too—especially long, boring, stupid ones with the word “Christmas” in every other line.
No, the main reason that theory is ridiculous is because there’s no relationship between the religious concepts and the symbols. For instance, how do eight udder-tugging maidens symbolize the Beatitudes? What do leaping lords have to do with the Ten Commandments? Without a concrete relationship, it’s easy to see how, working backward, you can apply these lyrics to almost anything.
For instance, let’s call it “The 12 Days of America.” Easy-peasy. In this case, the partridge is the president and the pear tree is the White House. Two turtledoves are the primary documents of our founding (the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence). Three French hens are the three branches of government. Four calling birds represent the four official U.S. regions (Northeast, Midwest, South and West). Five golden rings is the Pentagon. Six geese represent Six Flags amusement parks (whee!). Seven swans stands for how many seasons the series West Wing aired. Eight years is how long the American Revolution lasted. Nine ladies dancing are the Supreme Court justices. Ten lords a-leaping is the Bill of Rights. Eleven pipers symbolize how high Jethro Tull’s amps reach. And 12 drummers represent America’s 12-jurist legal system.
How about “The 12 Days of Auto Manufacturing”? The partridge is Henry Ford. Two turtledoves are the Model A and Model T. Three French hens is the automobile holy trinity (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler).
Or, how about “The 12 days of Pot Smoking”? The partridge is the bong. The two turtledoves are schwag and kind bud. Three French hens represent Hostess, Little Debbie and Keebler, etc.
Oh, and while we’re setting the record straight: “Troll” means to sing in a loud and carefree manner. “Bobtail” is a horse that had its tail altered in a now-illegal procedure called “docking and nicking.” And “Parson Brown”? Well, Parson is another word for preacher. The lovers named their snowman “Parson” so it could marry them in the meadow.
Now, here’s a coincidence / conspiracy for you: In the TV movie Frosty the Snowman, Frosty and Crystal hired one Parson Brown to marry them. Wow! It really is a small world, though I wouldn’t want to clean up all the bird crap.
Happy Holidays, bitches!
Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Edwin Decker blogs at www.edwindecker.com. Follow him on Twitter @edwindecker or find him on Facebook.
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