Origins of Christmas Carols

I will add to this file as time permits. I have the information just not the time yet to get it up here!

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Round about Christmas everyone receives something about stories of carols. The Twelve Days of Christmas is always included, along with the notation that it is a "secret catechism" in use during the Elizabethan period of Catholic persecution.

This is absolutely not true!

The Twelve Days of Christmas is a drinking song! It has nothing to do with theology!

It's based on the celebration of the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, culminating in the Eve of the Epiphany. Epiphany marked the traditional Catholic observance of the arrival of the Three Kings to the manger.

The days between Christmas (or December 26, as some have it, with December 26 being "boxing day" - traditionally a day when the wealthy in Britain gave gifts to their servants; these were contained in - you guessed it - a box) and Epiphany were days of indulgence and gift-giving. With the Feast of the Epiphany, all this stopped, so the eve of this feast ("Twelfth Night") was an all-out party with much merriment, eating, and drinking. Twelfth Night was people's last night of frivolity before returning to their "normal" - probably dreary - lives, especially among the non-wealthy.

The Twelve Days of Christmas has nothing at all to do with a catechism, secret or not. Here are a bunch of partially- or fully-inebriated people trying to sing this long "additive song."

"What verse are we singing next?"
"How many things this time?"
"I can't remember all of those!"
"Fiiiiiiive gooo-ooold riiiiiiiiings!"

There is a good deal of variation, historically, on what each stanza concerns, such as "squabs a-swimming," "fiddlers fiddling," "ships a-sailing," "ladies spinning," "lads a-leaping," and so on.

I can shed some more light on a couple of the stanzas. A "calling bird" was originally a "colly bird," which is a blackbird (black as coal). The root is the same one as collier, a coal miner.

A "French hen" may be a reference to the Faverolles breed, the males of the species known for their particularly bright plumage and ruffles around the feet. Yes, I know. This stanza references the female. Yes, probably this is a cleaned-up version. Substitute the one-syllable word for rooster. Hah! Some catechism!

If you have a snootful over the holidays, please enjoy this song responsibly!

'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime

Jesuit priest Jean de Brebeuf was sent as a missionary to the Huron and Iroquois nations during the European colonization of North America. This folk tune from Provence ("A Young Maiden") was probably a favorite from Father Jean's childhood, and he wrote a Christmas trext in the Huron tongue to fit it, personalizing the story by changing a few details to reflect the Huron way of life, a common method the Church used to transmit knowledge orally.

The text is unusual and following stanzas difficult to locate, so I include the full text here.

'Twas in the moon of wintertime
when all the birds had fled.
When mighty Gitchi Manitou
sent angel choirs instead.
And on that night, the stars grew dim
while wand'ring hunters heard the hymn:
"Jesus our King is born. Jesus is born!
In excelsis Deo!"

Within a lodge of broken bark
the tender Babe was found.
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
enwrapped His beauty 'round.
And as the hunter braves drew nigh,
the angel song rang loud and high:
"Jesus our King is born. Jesus is born!
In excelsis Deo!"

Ye children of the forest free,
ye sons of Manitou:
the Holy Child of earth and heav'n
is born this day for you.
Come, kneel before the radiant Boy
who brings you beauty, peace, and joy.
"Jesus our King is born. Jesus is born!
In excelsis Deo!"


copyright 2002-2012, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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