Five golden rings

Friday 29 December 2017 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Fifth Day of Christmas

Today, dear readers, the more literal-minded among us will be sending the first of eight packages, each containing five gold rings (carats unspecified) in strict compliance with the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Folks generally put more oomph into singing the “five golden rings” part. Today, throw propriety to the winds and shout “F-I-I-I-I-I-VE G-O-O-O-O-O-L-DEN RINGS” at the top of your lungs. Hopefully, nobody calls 911 on you.

Before one participates in such fun activities, one must first identify the Twelve Days of Christmas. Don’t confuse them with last-minute shopping days. The Twelve Days, in the Gregorian calendar, traditionally begin on December 25 (eve of St. Stephen’s Day) and end on January 5 (eve of Epiphany). The Liturgical calendar, however, celebrates an Octave of Christmas (eight days, not 12). Oh dear, there are four extra verses.

Not to worry. The Liturgical season doesn’t end until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The cycle we are celebrating this particular Christmas season has 15 days. Oh dear, the song is lacking three verses. Feel free to compose your own.

Having done extensive research into early folk music, I am well-qualified to answer the question, “What does this song mean, anyway?” The answer is (spoiler alert): nobody knows. 

Many say “The Twelve Days” is just a nonsense song like “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” (or for those with longer memories, “Mairzy Doats” and “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay”). Or maybe it’s one of those cumulative ditties commonly sung in Celtic pubs. Others in this genre include “The Barley Mow,” “The Sheep-shearing Song,” and “The Rattling’ Bog.” I’ve learned these tunes by listening to recordings of The Revels, a stage production company specializing in early folk music. Although there are such pubs here in Falmouth, I’ve never heard tell that the patrons are fond of cumulative singing. Anyway, Christmas carols would seem a bit out of place at Liam’s Irish Pub or the British Beer Company.

The first printed version of The Twelve Days rhyme appeared in a children’s book published in England in 1780. It wasn’t set to music until 1906 (by British composer Frederic Austin). There are three known French versions, probably much older. These are memory games performed in a circle, with each participant attempting to keep the rhyme going. 

There’s also an older English song, “In Those Twelve Days,” a Christmas carol dating back at least to 1625. It’s an interactive song in a question/answer format. The questions are categorically religious.

These two songs are sometimes confused.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song designed to sharpen children’s memory skills — like “Alouette,” “Old McDonald,” and “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.” But, still, what does it mean?

Some are convinced that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” originated among the Catholic faithful back when it was illegal to be Catholic in Protestant England. This theory was first promulgated in 1982 in a scholarly essay by the late Father Hal Stockert of Granville, N.Y. According to Father Stockert, the song is a memory device intended to help Catholic children learn their forbidden catechism lessons. He found this explained, he says, in margin notes scribbled in obscure Latin documents (now lost). His theory hit the Internet in 1995. It has spread like wildfire. 

The gifts have hidden religious meaning, according to this theory. The “five golden rings,” for example, is a secret code for the first five books of the Old Testament. That information, however, would be of little help in actually naming the Books of the Pentateuch. Besides, Protestant and Catholic Bibles have the same Pentateuch. What’s the big secret?

Notice, please, that the gifts arriving at the door during the first seven days of Christmas are all birds, with the possible exception of the rings. There’s speculation that the “rings” referred to are actually five ring-necked pheasants, not jewelry. 

In older versions, “calling birds” is written colly birds — an Old English reference to “coal” (coal-y birds). It describes their coal-black color. They’re black birds. Nobody considers a blackbird’s song melodious, but I hear they’re delicious baked in a pie.

Add up the birds received during The Twelve Days of Christmas and you’ve accrued 12 partridges, 22 doves, 30 hens, 36 blackbirds, 40 pheasants, 42 swans, and the same number of geese. That’s 190 birds.

What to do with all these birds? Eat them, of course! There are medieval French recipes on how to prepare them, should you be interested. 

What does this song mean? I have my own theory. These are people and provisions arriving at The Manor House, where the Lords and Ladies (French, I suspect) are gathering for a 12-day Christmastide feast. There’s a wait staff of 40 maids (also French?) serving the guests. There’s a 34-piece fife and drum ensemble for dancing the popular reels. What we have here, dear readers, is a lavish 16th-century Twelfth Night party. And you thought Christmas was over by December 26!

Pass the partridge, s’il vous plaît

Anchor columnist Father Tim Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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