It’s that time again! Time for another countdown of the 12 Days of Christmas Music. The first year I just picked music I liked. Last year I looked at Christmas music from different cultures/countries around the world. This year has an etymology theme. No, not entomology—that’s bugs.
And while 12 Days of Christmas Bugs actually sounds like a good time, instead I’ll look up origins of a word in a Christmas song each day and post that for funsies along with the song it comes from.
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Okay, all. Thanks for playing, and let’s jump in.
Word of the day: “partridge” from “Twelve Days of Christmas”
Version: “A Musicological Journey through Christmas” by Craig Courtney, performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (scroll to the bottom for a list of the different musicological styles in this version)
So, turns out that the partridge in a pear tree is a very avant-garde partridge. For starters, why is he/she in the tree? The whole point of partridges, according to their originary Greek myth, is that they nest on the ground. So Daedalus was tutoring his nephew, Perdix, in the mechanical arts, and Perdix was a natural. He invented the saw and the compass, and if he had been allowed to continue, we might have mastered teleportation by now. But Daedalus got jealous of Perdix, seeing him as a potential rival, so Daedalus threw Perdix off of a high tower. Athena thought that wasn’t fair and turned Perdix into a bird (conveniently, perdix is still the partridge’s scientific name). Daedalus was banished for this, but Perdix never got over his resulting acrophobia and always built nests on the ground, avoided high places, and wouldn’t fly up very far. Poor Perdix.
Okay, fine, but then why is the partridge in a pear tree? This is one of those life mysteries like how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop. The world may never know. The whole song seems to have French origins, and this may account for the bird’s unusual habitat: folklorists Iona and Peter Opie claim that the French red-legged partridge perches in trees more often than its plainer English brother, the gray partridge. I don’t know that the Opies are really aviary authorities, but it does sound like the French to want to show off their legs, non?
Of course it may not be about the partridge’s legs at all. The English may have heard “perdix” from the French version of the carol and figured they were saying “pear tree.” Oops. Pardon my French, sigh vose plate [s’il vous plaît].
Some people will tell you that this carol was a catechism for Catholic kids to remember different symbols of Christmas. The Canadian guy who popularized this theory in 1979 admitted that he just made it up, but, thanks to the Internet, that legend will probably live on for a long time to come. So just enjoy this unconventional partridge in a tree. He’s mysterious, like the Mona Lisa smile.
*If you’ve made it all the way down here and you still want to know where all the different musicological pieces of today’s song come from, I commend your tenacity. Here you go:
- 1st day: “A partridge from 6th-century Rome” from the tradition of chant
- 2nd day: “Two turtle doves from 15th-century France”
- 3rd day: “Three French hens from 16-century Italy” (probably à la Palestrina, 1525-1594)
- 4th day: “Four calling birds from 17th-century Italy” Vivaldi, 1678-1741, specifically from the Gloria
- 5th day: “Five gold rings in a guild hall in 18th-century Germany” C.P.E. Bach, 1714-1788 (not Handel)
- 6th day: “Six geese a-laying in the Esterhazy court in 18th-century Austria” Haydn, 1732-1809 (not Brahms)
- 7th day: “Seven swans a-swimming in 19th-century France” Saint-Saëns, 1835-1921, specifically from “The Swan” (Le Cygne) fromCarnival of the Animals
- 8th day: “Eight maids a-milking in late 19th-century Bayreuth, Germany” Wagner, 1813-1883, specifically the “Ride of the Valkyries” from the opera Die Walküre
- 9th day: “Nine ladies dancing in late 19th-century Austria” Strauss, 1825-1899, specifically the “Emperor Waltz”
- 10th day: “Ten lords a-leaping in 19th-century Italy” Ponchielli, 1834-1886, specifically from “Dance of the Hours”
- 11th day: “Eleven pipers piping from 19th-century Russia” Tchaikovsky, 1840-1893, specifically from “Dance of the Reed Flutes” from theNutcracker
- 12th day: “Twelve drummers drumming from 20th-century United States” Sousa, 1854-1932, from “Stars and Stripes Forever”