For the twelfth day of Christmas…

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.

In 2012, the Huffington Post asked PNC Wealth Management to cost out the true love’s haul 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.

On to the main point…

In The Twelve Days of Christmas, Sung in King Pipin’s Hall, the text 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!

Santa, Little Miss Christmas, Holly Belle and their creator Elizabeth Anne Voss (alias E. Voss, E. A. Voss, B. Gartrell, Betty Gartrell, and Elizabeth Gartrell).

Some of the most adorable images of the 1950s were reproduced on the covers of paper doll and coloring books, proclaims the web site Paper Goodies from Judy’s Place.

Miss Christmas and Holly Belle paper dolls designed by Elizabeth Anne Voss.

Miss Christmas and Holly Belle paper dolls designed by Elizabeth Anne Voss.

Merrill Publishing Company in Chicago is considered to have published some of the best of its kind.  The proprietor Marion Elizabeth Merrill demanded–and got–quality artwork for printing on thin cardboard stock of books that would sell for just 29¢.  Jean Woodcock bought Merrill in 1979 and in 2008 a selection from Merrill’s archive of original artwork for cover designs was offered for sale by Mitch Itkowitz. 

Among Merrill’s popular illustrators was Elizabeth Anne Voss (1925-1969).  Her pretty little Caucasian girls with almond-shaped eyes wearing dresses  bedizened with bows, ribbons, and trims are instantly recognizable.  Their continuing appeal  is confirmed by the fact that high-quality pdfs of her paintings can be purchased for  printing out and recreating the originals at home in a slightly smaller format.  Voss’s fans have speculated that there were two sisters working for Merrill at the same time because covers in the same style are signed “E. Voss,” “E. A. Voss,” “B. Gartrell,” “Betty Gartrell,” and “Elizabeth Gartrell.”  

Thanks to a recent gift of a small group of covers and artwork by Voss from the late 1950s and early 1960s from her husband Donald H. Voss ’44, *49, I’ve pieced together some information about Betty Anne, as she was known.  She was the daughter of Nancy Reynolds and the engineer Robert D. Gartrell, who is famous in horticultural circles for the Robin Hill Azaleas, a group of hybrids he developed while living in New Jersey.  One cultivar was named after his artist-daughter.   Before her marriage to Donald Voss in 1952, Betty Anne signed her work with her maiden name Gartrell.

A cover signed with Betty Anne's married name.

A cover signed with Betty Anne’s married name.

Covers in the Voss donation suggest that cover designs signed “Gartrell” or “Voss” could be in simultaneous circulation for some years, so it’s no wonder  people have assumed that E. A. Voss and B. Gartrell were two people.  This confusion might have been cleared up much sooner if Voss had illustrated picture books instead of covers, in which case it’s more likely that she would have been the subject of articles in standard reference sources.  

Some of Voss’s best loved images appeared on the covers of books with holiday themes, although typically she did mostly outline drawings for the coloring books.

Voss's title page designs for two editions of Little Miss Christmas and Santa.

Voss’s title page designs for two editions of Little Miss Christmas and Santa.

The copies of Little Miss Christmas and Santa and Little Miss Christmas and Holly-Belle in the Voss donation suggest that Merrill must have asked her to redo the cover paintings periodically to keep them fresh.   Voss designed new gowns and accessories,  added and subtracted figures, which necessitated  rearranging the composition, etc.  The typefaces and their layout could vary significantly from cover to cover, although at first glance they look rather similar.

Two variant covers by Voss for Little Miss Christmas and Santa.

Two variant covers by Voss for Little Miss Christmas and Santa.

The hair styles of Little Miss Christmas and Holly-Belle seem to be the only constants in these two cover designs.

The hair styles of Little Miss Christmas and Holly-Belle seem to be the only constants in these two cover designs.

One of the nicest items in the Voss gift is the copy of Little Miss Christmas and Holly-Belle with Santa Claus in the background.  It’s not a coloring book, as I discovered while processing the collection, but  Betty Anne’s preliminary drawings for the costumes for the two characters fastened into printed covers.

Can you spot the differences between the drawings (left) and the published artwork (right)?

Can you spot the differences between the drawings (left) and the published artwork (right)?

Cotsen is most grateful to Donald Voss for this tribute to his wife, whose work is so characteristic of the period. 

Original Voss artwork showing Santa and Little Miss Christmas.

Original Voss artwork showing Santa and Little Miss Christmas.

So a Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!