Sunday 6 January 2013

Twelfth Night – Katherine Roberts

Today is Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, when by tradition all decorations must be taken down and packed away unless you want to risk an unlucky year. Historically speaking of course, Twelfth Night was last night, January 5th… but if you still have holly around your fireplace and a few strands of tinsel lurking on your bare-needled tree, DON’T PANIC, because in more recent times Twelfth Night falls on January 6th. It all depends where you start counting (sunrise or midnight?), and considering all the merry making that happens around Christmas time, you (and I) can be forgiven for a little confusion in the numbers department.

But whether you are planning to celebrate the Christian feast of Epiphany, or prefer to undertake the ancient pagan custom of wassailing (though apparently real pagans prefer to do this on the old Twelfth Night of January 17th pre-Gregorian calendar, just to confuse things further), tonight is a good excuse for a final fling before the year kicks off. So here’s a last seasonal post to cheer you up, before you box all things sparkly and shove them into the loft/oubliette for another year.

picture courtesy of wikipedia (creative commons)

The Twelve Days of Christmas has always been one of my favourite carols, even though I always get muddled somewhere around seven and forget exactly how many lords, ladies, pipers etc. are dancing, playing or singing. Thankfully there’s a reason for this other than the early onset of Alzheimers because, like many popular rhymes and songs (and stories), the words tend to get changed and twisted around over the years.

During the 19th century, your true love could have given to you:

A partridge in a pear tree, or a peacock.
Two turtle doves.
Three French hens.
Four calling, colley, corley, curley, collie, coloured, or canary birds. (Or calling canaries, perhaps?)
Five gold rings.
Six geese or ducks a-laying.
Seven swans or squabs (unfledged birds?) a-swimming.
Eight maids a-milking, ladies dancing, hounds a-running, or hares running.
Nine lords a-leaping, drummers drumming, ladies dancing, pipers playing, or bears a-beating.
Ten pipers playing, lords a-leaping, ships a-sailing, or cocks a-crowing.
Eleven ladies dancing (or spinning), lords a-leaping, lads a-louping (not quite sure what this means… anyone know?), badgers a-baiting.
Twelve lords a-leaping, ladies dancing, or bells a-ringing!

So it seems I have good reason for my confusion. And to add a few more interesting gifts into the mix, the song was probably French in origin, and the partridge a red-legged French breed rather than our fat grey type, though what happened to the French hens is anyone's guess.

Le premier jour d’l’année
Que me donn’rez vous ma mie?
Un’ perdrix sole
Qui va, qui vient, qui vole,
Qui vole dans les bois

The first day of the year
What will you give me, my [female] love?
One lone partridge
That goes, that comes, that flies,
That flies in the woods

Which continues along the usual lines with:

Deux touterelles (two turtle-doves)
Trois rameaux de bois (three wooden branches)
Quat' canards volant en l'air (four ducks flying in the air)
Cinq lapins courant par terre (five rabbits running on the ground)
Six chiens courants (six running dogs)
Sept moulins à vent (seven windmills)
Huit vaches mourdants (eight chewing cows)
Neuf boeufs cornus (nine horned bulls)
Dix pigeons blancs (ten white pigeons)
Onze plats d'argent (eleven silver plates)
Douze coqs chantants (twelve crowing cockerels)

Hmm, I’d rather have five gold rings than running rabbits any day… but perhaps they don’t sound so good in French? And eleven silver plates are rather more useful than baiting badgers, I'd say. The windmills would probably be useful to harness wind power and combat my rising energy bills... provided I can put them in someone else’s backyard, of course. I’d also like one of the lords (preferably a handsomely dark and rich one), some fresh milk from the maids' buckets, the swans (because I’m a hopeless romantic), a few of the better pipers, a ship to carry them all, and the peacock because I’ve always wanted one displaying its tail on my lawn, even if it is a very little lawn. Besides, I haven't got a pear tree.

So what’s your favourite version of the Twelve Days of Christmas? (feel free to mix and match as you please - it's your last chance before next year!)

Katherine Roberts' latest book is Lance of Truth, Book 2 of the Pendragon Legacy about King Arthur's daughter Rhianna Pendragon, which began with the Carnegie-nominated Sword of Light.
The final two books in the series will be published this year by Templar.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I could never figure out if it was calling or colley birds either. For years I wondered what a colley bird was. A friend of mine once wrote a very funny story with me in it, in which I send a poor sod all those things and he is not at all impressed. The swans were Sydney Swans (a football team).

Caroline Lawrence said...

I love the French version of Twelve Days! I'm going to start singing ♫ Eight cows a-chewing, Seven windmills spinning, Six running dogs, etc! ♫

Thanks for a fun post, Katherine. Happy New Year!

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely post, Katherine! happy twelfth night... and I wouldn't mind a golden pheasant instead of a peacock, please! Smaller, and just as pretty.

Susan Price said...

Loved the post, Kath. I'll take a peacock in a pear tree, please, 8 hares running, 9 bears beating, 10 pipers and 12 bells. (Came out of a restaurant on Christmas Eve, with my family, to see a huge lit Christmas tree in front of us, while the bells pealed from Halesowen's ancient church. Quite set the mood.)

I think - not sure, but think - that 'louping' means 'to make obesiance', to doff the hat and bow. I seem to remember that True Thomas 'loups low down by his knee' when he meets the Queen of Elfhame.

Katherine Roberts said...

Ah! Doffing the hat? Thanks!

Maybe we should have a History Girls version of the Twelve Days (sung by Caroline on Youtube?), beginning with Kath's "golden pheasant in a pear tree"... ending with the 12 bells pealing.

Hmm, Sue B... a football team instead of the swimming swans? Could be fun!

Mary Hoffman said...

What a lovely post! I always regard 12th Night as 6th January and we got all our decorations down this pm - took hours!

I'll definitely have a peacock. Have to think about the rest.

Theresa Breslin said...

Thanks Kath for such a joyful post to finish up the Season. In Scots 'loup' or 'lowp' is to leap or jump. - so that's another choice for the meaning of 'louping' Still to take ours down, sigh...

adele said...

Late to this! But what a lovely post! I had no idea there was a French version...most interesting!

Katherine Roberts said...

All decorations down now, then?

Looks like we'll have to order in a few more peacocks for next year, and maybe those 'louping lads' can do both leaping (thanks, Theresa) and doffing of hats - I can imagine a folk dance for that.

Happy New Year to everyone!

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