Twelve Days of Christmas

According to some sites, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” has a hidden Christmas meaning. It’s a secret code for either persecuted Christians or persecuted Catholics, depending on the story being told. Snopes says this is cobblers and that the song is a counting rhyme. But Snopes also says that “gold rings” refers to pheasants and that’s wrong, because the earliest printed version has an illustration of rings, not birds.

12_five_gold_rings

Five gold rings from Mirth Without Mischief. [Wikipedia commons]

The Twelve Days rhyme first appeared in print in 1780, in Mirth Without Mischief, a book for non-mischievous good children. It has the curious sub-heading “Sung at King Pepin’s Ball”. England never had a King Pepin, but France did, thus adding to the idea that the song is originally French. So what about the French hens, three of them? Certainly they were not faverolles, as some suggest, because that bird was not bred until the 1860s. Maybe in the original they were simply “poulets”.

12_days-title

Or perhaps they were something else,  something other than hens. There are several versions in France of a counting song called “The Partridge/ la Peridriole”. The oldest (possibly) says that on the first of May the singer gave his love “a partridge that flies in the trees”. Then he gives her two blue jays sitting on their eggs, three crows, and, in lieu of hens, four blackbirds “with eyes of pearls”. And so on for seven birds. “Blue jays” = “geais bleus” (geese a-laying?). The “calling birds” were originally “colley birds”, i.e., “black birds”, in the English version of 1780, so may be derived from the French blackbirds. A later version of “la Perdriole” includes two turtledoves and ups the number of gifts (and days) to nine. The next version has twelve months of the year and adds milk cows, handsome lads, and beautiful maids. Saskatchewan Métis sang a ten-gift version that included items from the other three. (All these versions may be found here.)

The “Twelve Days” of the English version probably mean the twelve days between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany. In the Faroes, there are fifteen days and gifts. In the north of England, only ten. (The North always gets short-changed.)

12_faroe-islands-1994-stamps-christmas-um-nh-mint

1994 Faroese stamps showing fifteen days of Christmas. Start on the right with one feather, two geese… [via picclic.co.uk]

So, a counting song. Kids would have to sing it without forgetting or confusing anything. If they couldn’t, they paid a forfeit, or, for older kids, gave a kiss. There are many counting songs sung in the world, including a few more Christmas ones:

Children, go where I send thee.
How shall I send thee?
I shall send thee one by one.
One for the baby Jesus,
who was born, born, born in Bethlehem. (several versions on YouTube)

And that brings us back around to Christian meanings hidden in the Twelve Days. Not likely. Christians have been pretty ambivalent, and sometimes hostile, to the very concept of Christmas. Christ’s Mass is a relatively late addition to Christian holy days and one disdained by early church fathers. At the time Mirth Without Mischief was published Scots Presbyterians forbade the celebration. I suppose they allowed counting songs though. Hmm, perhaps the “code” is an attempt to pretty up Christmas for hard-nose Puritans and Calvinists. No? Well, Merry Christmas anyway.

 

 

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Christmas Poop

As the immortal Arnold once said, “Not everyone in the world celebrates Christmas the same way. Everywhere is different.” Why, he himself was visited by the Devil as part of his native Yuletide tradition. True story. One place that is very different is Catalonia.

Catalan nativity scenes usually include a figure known as Caganer, which is to say, Shitter. Caganer may be a small boy or a grown man dressed in traditional Catalan costume who is taking a dump in a corner of the creche:

Caganer figure from Barcelona [Ekasha; Wikipedia.com]

Caganer figure from Barcelona [Ekasha; Wikipedia.com]

But there are many variations on the Caganer theme:

Partial screen shot for "caganer catalog" on Google Images. This hardly scratches the surface. You can find Caganer Putin, Einstein, Antonio Gaudi, Edward and his bride (in wedding dress, kissing). Hello Kitty, every single character from Star Wars (may the farts be with you), Tintin and Snowy pooping in tandem, and every single soccer player in history.

Partial screen shot for “caganer catalog” on Google Images. This hardly scratches the surface. You can find Caganer Putin, Einstein, Antonio Gaudi, Edward and his bride (in wedding dress, kissing). Hello Kitty, every single character from Star Wars (may the farts be with you), Tintin and Snowy pooping in tandem, and every single soccer player in history.

I suppose that the Caganer figures are a way of expressing humanity’s need for humility since sometimes we all have to go. But maybe I’m full of shit. You can buy Caganer figures via caganer.com or fold your own paper version from here (#10).

Catalonia has a second Christmas shit tradition: Tió de Nadal. Tió is a log. A face is attached to one cut side and the log is then propped up on a bipod as though this anthropomorphized object was trying to raise itself from the ground:

Tió de Nadal [Toniher, Wikimedia Commons]

Tió de Nadal [Toniher, Wikimedia Commons]

Tió has good reason to raise up and run (if he had stick legs) because on Christmas Catalan kids beat him with a stick Singing:

Shit, Log
shit nougats
hazelnuts and cheese,
if you don’t shit well,
I’ll hit you with a stick,
shit, log!

And Tió responds, crapping out goodies. His nether parts (the other end of the log) are covered with a cloth that is pulled back to reveal a pile of candy — chocolate, I assume, including some of those truffles that look like little dried turds — then adds a bit of smelly herring to indicate that the kids have beaten all the shit out of him and he is now evacuating his undigested dinner.

Catalan kids hitting the log[a href="http://suitelife.com/2010/12/15/caga-tio-and-caganer/">Suite life

Catalan kids hitting the log [via Suite Life ]

All of this is grist for the psychologist’s mill since “log” can equal a turd and shit is connected with wealth and stuff — but that’s boring. The real question is: what is the relationship between Tió de Nadal and Caganer? And, until a few years ago, there was none. But then Benito Cereno and Anthony Clark created a tale for Comics Alliance which tells the real back story behind these two mythic figures. Click on the sample below to read the entire thing:

poop_Benito Cereno & Anthony Clark Bring You a True X-Mas Story of Poop Candy [Exclus

The Christian War On Christmas

It’s that time of the year again, that time when right-wing fantasists bloviate about the War On Christmas. In a sense, they are correct — there have been efforts to do away with Christmas for centuries — but these anti-Xmas efforts have been Christian in origin. My mother’s Scots Presbyterian ancestors banned Christmas in 1583, faced down a royal attempt to reinstate the holiday, and outlawed it by Parliamentary decree in 1640. English Puritans followed suit. During the period when England’s government was a Christian dictatorship, it was illegal to throw a party or hang any decorations.

Christian opposition to Christmas reflected a deep suspicion of its pagan roots. Besides the north European Yule celebration, there was Roman Saturnalia, a celebration of the Winter solstice, when people dressed up, sang and danced, gambled, exchanged gifts, feasted and partied. There was a notion of turning things around (so that the dying day would begin to lengthen once more) and masters served slaves, high was low, and rules were broken.

December illustration for a Roman "calendar" of 354. Dicing is part of Saturnalia. [via Wikipedia]

December illustration for a Roman “calendar” of 354. Dicing is part of Saturnalia. [via Wikipedia]

Early Christians were generally conflicted about the idea of celebrating. Birthdays were regarded with suspicion because emperors had public celebrations of their own birth and anything that seemed like emperor-worship was anathema. Celebrating the birthday of a god was a serious problem. Still, pragmatic religious followers recognized that folks love a party and eventually came around to giving a date to Jesus’ birth (different dates for different sects) and naming it a holy day. Christ’s Mass was the early medieval version.

Medieval Christmas was a wild affair that incorporated many aspects of both Yule and Saturnalia. There was a Lord of Misrule, adapted from a similar figure in the Roman holiday, who presided over merriment and foolishness. There was a feast. There were holiday trappings like holly and miseltoe and Yule logs — all this was given a Christian plating of course, but underneath it was still the same old mid-winter party.

Frontispiece for The Vindication of Christmas", published 1652. The Puritan on the left says "Come not here." to Old Christmas in the center who replies, "I bring good cheer." The man on the street bids Old Christmas welcome, "Do not fear." Yes, it all rhymes.

Frontispiece for The Vindication of Christmas, published 1652. The Puritan on the left says “Come not here.” to Old Christmas in the center who replies, “I bring good cheer.” The man on the street bids Old Christmas welcome, “Do not fear.” Yes, it all rhymes.

Still, some Christians were suspicious of Christmas and after the Reformation, many Protestants denounced Christmas as wicked Popery. In England, it didn’t help that the champions of Christmas, the Stuart kings, were suspected of Catholic sympathies. This all culminated in the Puritan shut-down of the holiday which resulted in pro-Christmas riots. The Restoration brought back Christmas right away and it has been a great British holiday ever since. Mind you, the Puritans and Presbyterians still didn’t do much celebrating — then or any other time — but eventually they were worn down. American Presbyterians began joining in Yuletide celebrations in the mid-19th Century and there was little objection when President Grant declared December 25th to be a national holiday.

This license to party was questioned by certain Christians. New American faiths such as Seventh Day Adventism and Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to celebrate either Christmas or birthdays, so reverting back to earlier beliefs. And, as Christmas became more and more a day characterized by consumer values, American preachers began advocating that people “put Christ back into Christmas”. This also echoed some early Christian thinkers opposed to the holiday:

This festival teaches even the little children, artless and simple, to be greedy, and accustoms them to go from house to house and to offer novel gifts, fruits covered with silver tinsel. For these they receive, in return, gifts double their value, and thus the tender minds of the young begin to be impressed with that which is commercial and sordid.
[Asterias, Bishop of Amasea, in a sermon given January 1, 400 AD]

[via irregular.com]

[via irregular.com]

But those who inveigh against the “War On Christmas” generally are supporting consumerism — Christmas trees in shopping malls and the like. Of course it could not be otherwise since the War On Christmas is part of the cynical right-wing project to enlist Christians as political supporters. The large enterprises behind this project are not about to oppose the commercialization of Christmas or anything else that is good for business.

Well, I’m what Jimmy Swaggart calls a Secular Humanist, a label that I embrace. And I love Christmas. Not speaking for Christians but just for me, Christmas is a big party right when you shouldn’t have one. You know things are going to get worse. There’s going to be more snow and it’s going to get colder, cold enough so your pipes may freeze,  so cold that trees freeze in the forest and you hear them in the night cracking. Then even when it gets warmer all that snow thaws and refreezes and there’s mud and nasty slush everywhere. Christmas comes right at the beginning of the worst time of the year. And the days are short. You get up in the dark, you go to work, the sun comes up a little after, just gray light though, the sun is weak. Then, about three, you look up and the sun is setting and it gets dark and you go home in the dark. But at Christmas the days start to get a little longer and that’s the thing, you know you’ve turned some kind of corner, the light is coming back and things will get better eventually, even though you’ve got three miserable months to go. So, you throw a party, a big party, and everybody celebrates! They eat too much and they drink too much and they spend too much money and do stupid silly things and it’s all a kind of defiance. It’s saying, “Come on, show me the worst you got, I’m laughing!” This setup, this deal that humans get here on Earth — that’s what we’re defying. We’re saying, “I can take the worst there is and still celebrate!” Because, you know what? No matter how bad it sometimes gets, life is still pretty good.

Occupy Christmas

It’s Christmas for the 1%, too, and they say, “Bah, humbug!” to Occupy Wall Street. John A. Allison IV, a director of BB&T Corp., the ninth-largest U.S. bank: “Instead of an attack on the 1 percent, let’s call it an attack on the very productive. This attack is destructive.” Bernard Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, is more outfront: He said he isn’t worried that speaking out might make him a target of protesters. “Who gives a crap about some imbecile?” Marcus said. “Are you kidding me?” Oh, but others feel the pain, “It still feels lonely,” sighs Allison.

Scrooge

Well, yes, Christmas used to be a time when the wealthy could count on support from within. Remember Scrooge? “Are there no workhouses?” No, Ebeneezer, sadly they’ve all been privatized. And how about Henry F. Potter, “Are you running a business or a charity ward?” he asks George Bailey. Now that particular movie was investigated by the FBI because it seemed to be anti-capitalist propaganda. Is OWS being investigated? Well, probably, but that pinko in the White House just doesn’t have the jam to call in a drone strike on American citizens. (What? He did what? But that guy was a Muslim, right? So, all right then.)

And, hey! isn’t George Bailey a bit like the current bankers who lent too much money on too little collateral?  “From Bailey to bail-out”, right? Not exactly, because George has a savings and loan operation like the ones that used to be invested in the community. Outfits like Northern Rock were making loans of 120% of property value because they got caught up in the greed of the day, we’re told. Actually, that ship sailed back in the 1980s when Reagan bailed out corrupt savings and loan companies, thus setting a standard for today.

Not Scrooge, Leon Cooperman.

Anyway, we should all remember what Leon Cooperman, former CEO of Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s money-management unit, has to say: “Capitalists ‘are not the scourge that they are too often made out to be’ and the wealthy aren’t ‘a monolithic, selfish and unfeeling lot,’ Cooperman wrote [in an open letter to President Obama]. They make products that ‘fill store shelves at Christmas’ and provide health care to millions.” Exactly. Without the rich, why we probably wouldn’t have Christmas at all. So thank you, Mr. Cooperman; don’t feel lonely, Mr. Allison: the vast, imbecilic 99% still wish you a Merry Christmas!