A partridge in a pear tree – that’s what the person in that song received from her true love after Christmas Day. And 12 days later in comes the – cripes! – 12 drummers drumming. Send them back. That’s a noisy end to Christmas.
The 12 days of Christmas cause some confusion today when trees are chucked to the curb on Dec 26. Christmas Day is actually the beginning to the Christmas season. 12 days pass to mark the time it took the Magi to reach Bethlehem. The 12th night begins to close the season’s celebrations. So brush up your Shakespeare and break out the ruffed collars, Twelfth Night is a Christmas play.
Traditionally, the 12 days are a time of revels, plays, mischief and visiting houses for food. Much of the merry-making was done in disguise, a fun holiday distraction in small communities where everyone knew each other on sight. The best wore horse-heads, would not speak and refused to leave until given something. The Puritans banned Christmas in the mid 1600s citing the drunkenness it supposedly caused.
The song is thought to have been used in a game of forfeits: see how far you can get without messing up the gifts and their days. Also believed to have ancient French origins – the partridge is a Red Leg partridge, native to France – it may describe the efforts of a “true love” to win back the favour of someone he failed to court properly. Typical.
The Christmas season actually extends far beyond 12th Night to Feb 2, the feast of Candlemas. But come Jan 6 people would go back to work. Or maybe it was Jan 7. People today can’t agree on when to start counting: Christmas Day or Dec 26, now known as Boxing Day and the best day in Canada. New toys, maybe some money to spend if you’re lucky and a day to do nothing at all. Unless you work in a store. Then it’s chaos.