A “Twelve Days of Christmas” Chapbook Where the Lords Leap on Poles

Among the traditional Christmas songs is “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a memory-and-forfeits game played by the fire that describes the staggering array of gifts bestowed upon one person.  The song has inspired many parodies, most of them too lame to stick in the mind, with the notable exception of Alan Sherman’s, with the diabolical substitution of  a “naked lady with a clock where her stomach ought to be” for the fifth day’s bling.  Then there’s P. D. Q. Bach’s “Twelve Days after Christmas” or Craig Courtney’s  “Musicological Journey Through ‘The Twelve Days’ of Christmas…'”

Upper wrapper of Pitt's "new edition" of the Twelve Days of Christmas (cover title)

Upper wrapper of Pitt’s “new edition” of the Twelve Days of Christmas (cover title)

Accumulative rhymes like “The Twelve Days of Christmas” were enjoyed in the days when people passed the time playing all kinds of complicated word and memory games.  While the Cotsen Children’s Library does not have a copy of Mirth without Mischief (London: Charles Sheppard, ca. 1780), where the rhyme made its first appearance in print, it has a delightful one issued ca. 1810 by of all people the disreputable printer James Pitts in the notoriously seedy Seven Dials district of London.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, Sung in King Pipin’s Hall  begins as usual, illustrated with fine large cut of the partridge in the pear tree.

The first day of Christmas My true love gave to me A partridge in a pear tree..

The first day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree..

But it does not conclude with the drummers drumming (the version of the text animated in the Jacquie Lawson e-card and circulated widely on web sites), but with the lords a-leaping, the earliest version cited by the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.   Note that Jemmy Pitts’s cut of the twelve lords shows them pole vaulting down a hill, instead of executing grand jetés,which is how they are frequently portrayed.

Woodcut of the twelve pole-vaulting lords

Woodcut of the twelve pole-vaulting lords

Be that as it may, at least Pitts adorned one page of his Twelve Days of Christmas with a fine cut of a couple kissing under a ball of mistletoe suspended from the ceiling that Joseph Crawhall might have been proud of.

Under the mistletoe...

Under the mistletoe…

Our inquiring readers may be wondering what King Pippin has to do with “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  This could be an allusion to the hero of The History of Little King Pippin (London: F. Newbery, 1775), who was king of the good boys and presumably had premises suitable for large-scale holiday entertaining!

Addenda on costing out the true love’s Christmas expenses

In 2012, the Huffington Post asked PNC Wealth Management to cost out the haul of the object of the true love’s affections and the numbers came to a hefty $107,000.  But that’s actually way below cost, as Iona and Peter Opie , authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, could have told the money men.   If they had read the rhyme carefully (close reading is a skill everyone needs), they would have realized the mistake in basing the estimate on the last day’s worth of presents only.  The true love had to shell out for not one, but twelve partridges (1 x 12 days), 22 not two doves (2 x 11 days), 30, not three French hens (3 x 10 days) and so forth for a whopping total of 364 items instead of a Grinchy 78.