Monday, December 29, 2008

Green Grow The Rushes

Counting songs are in every culture.

They are used to categorize the world around us, keep track of useful things, remember events in history and enumerate our religious beliefs. There is even a modern song that lists the elements of the periodic table.

At Christmas time, we sing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and mostly roll on the floor laughing at the crazy image of receiving all this strange loot from a lover. Inevitably, someone puts forth the theory that this song is a coded instruction about

  • Judaism, used during a time when Jews were persecuted in England
  • Protestantism, from a time when Protestants were persecuted in England
  • Catholicism, from a time when Catholics were persecuted in England

  • has pretty much put those theories to bed, as the song actually predates Catholic and Protestant persecutions, and the Judaic theology link is pretty tenuous.

    It COULD be a menu.

    The "Twelve Drummers Drumming" might refer to a game dish. "Drummer" is the colloquial word for "rabbit" in the south of England. And a brace of drummers, as many as you could hold in one hand by gripping each upside-down by the hind leg in a sort of grisly bouquet, is about six. So two braces of drummers would have been a respectable contribution to a Christmas feast.

    Given the British passion for announcing the pudding dish with a bag-piper, Eleven Pipers Piping could be the figgy puddings arriving with due ceremony and "piping hot"!

    The "Ten Lords a-Leaping" could refer to "stags" or male deer. It's a pagan reference to the Cernunnos, Lord of the Wood, a god who appeared as a stag. Venison! Yum! (alas, Cernunnos also appears as a man with antlers. Semi-divine cannibalism! Yum!)

    "Nine Ladies Dancing" seems straightforward enough: it could easily refer to the serving women. But in Denmark there is a trifle dish called a "Veiled Country Lass" which uses a delightful excess of clotted cream, just the type of over-indulgence for a mid-winter feast. And it jiggles nicely, like a plump dancing girl.

    "Eight Maids A-Milking" is nice alliteration and leaves the door open for interpretation of any number of dairy products. It's better imagery than "Eight Cheese a-Stinking".

    "Seven Swans A-Swimming" brings up the unpleasant Medieval custom of cooking a beast and then posing it in a lifelike pose for presentation to the guests. People used to eat swans, but it would not have been outré at the time to pose them swimming in their own gravy. Ikk.

    "Six Geese A-Laying"....see previous comment, although there was also a vogue for presenting poultry and eggs in a common dish. For real excitement look up balut.

    One of the more ancient versions of this rhyme substitutes "ringed pheasant" for "Five Gold Rings". There actually is a rather gaudy pheasant called a "golden pheasant" which is also rather tasty.

    The Four Calling Birds is a corruption of 'coally birds", or black birds, which as we know from "Sing a Song of Sixpence" were at one time an acceptable addition to a menu.

    The "Three French Hens" are self-explanatory to those of us who eat a lot of chicken. Christian apologists have substituted the Three Great Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, but sometimes a chicken is just a chicken.

    Two Turtle Doves may seem unusual for lunch, but in fact the turtle dove is listed as one of the birds acceptable for temple sacrifice in Leviticus.

    "A Partridge in a Pear Tree" is a fetching image, with the lover presenting to his beloved a potted fruit tree, having invested HUGE amounts of money and time to force the captive tree to bear leaves and bloom out of season. However, in French, to say "a partridge" you would say "une perdrix" or "oon pair-dree". So it looks as though the last line is a bilingual doubling.

    And a partridge: une perdrix.

    So, we have :
    Two brace of rabbits
    Eleven figgy puddings still steaming from the pot
    Ten servings of venison
    Nine trifles
    Seven roasted swans in gravy
    Six roasted geese, with some sort of egg dish
    Five roasted pheasants
    Four Roasted black-birds (perhaps in a pie?)
    Three roasted chickens
    Two roasted turtle doves
    and a roasted partridge (une perdrix)

    If the venison is roasted whole, the entire series of birds and game can be handily inserted one inside the other to produce a dish reminiscent of the "turducken", a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey all roasted together.

    Lest you think this is a lot of meat for one meal, in those days is was not uncommon for a wealthy person to serve MUCH more than the modern person would countenance, both as an expression of conspicuous consumption and as a way of preserving the festive food against spoilage during the "Twelve Days" of celebration, a time of chaos and lax housekeeping.

    Another counting song I rather enjoy is "Green Grow the Rushes", just because it is similarly weird/obscure.

    It begins with one:

    "I'll give you One-oh
    Green grow the rushes-oh.
    What is your One-oh?
    One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.

    and progresses by increments, always repeating the peculiar call-and-response litany

    I'll give you Two-oh
    Green grow the rushes-oh.
    What is your Two-oh?
    Two, two, the lily-white boys cloth-ed all in green-oh
    One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.

    I'll give you Three-oh
    Green grow the rushes-oh.
    What is your Three-oh?
    Three, three the rivals
    Two, two, the lily-white boys cloth-ed all in green-oh
    One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.

    and (according to Wikipedia) the song culminates with this twelve-fold stanza:

    I'll sing you twelve, Ho (or oh)
    Green grow the rushes, Ho
    What are your twelve, Ho?
    Twelve for the twelve Apostles
    Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,
    Ten for the ten commandments,
    Nine for the nine bright shiners,
    Eight for the April Rainers, (or April Showerers)
    Seven for the seven stars in the sky,
    Six for the six proud walkers, (or brown walkers)
    Five for the symbols at your door, (or my door)
    Four for the Gospel makers,
    Three, three, the rivals,
    Two, two, the lily-white boys,
    Clothèd all in green, Ho (or Clothe them all in green, oh or Dressèd all in green, o)
    One is one and all alone (sometimes One is one and one alone, One and one is all alone, or One is one and stands alone)
    And evermore shall be (it) so.

    It turns out that this is an astronomy lesson! Well...with some bible stuff tacked on at both ends.

    Twelve apostles there were, even after the loss of Judas, because Matthias was elected to replace Judas. This might actually be a hidden astrological reference, as there are also 12 Zodiacal constellations.
    Eleven of the original apostles "went to Heaven" because Judas, the 12th, sinned and presumably went to Hell. However, this might also be an astronomical reference as the Bible refers to "the sun, moon and eleven stars" in the dream of Joseph, but properly translated "eleven stars" refers to "eleven constellations". Libra was a late addition, at about 700 BC.
    Ten commandments, seems a no-brainer, but the ten brightest stars in the sky seen from the Northern Hemisphere are
    Alpha Centauri A
    all of which can be seen with the naked eye and were well known to middle eastern sky-watchers.
    Nine "bright shiners" are often thought to be the nine choirs of angels but could also just as easily be the same stars as the previous line without Sirius, which cannot be seen south of the equator. (If you believe in prophecy, it might also indicate that a planet hitherto unobserved would be added to the six seen with the naked eye.) I'm a little cranky about the "choirs of angels" thing.
    "Eight for the April Rainers" refers to a cluster of blue stars, in the constellation Taurus, called the Pleiades, which are also called the "Seven Sisters" (there are actually up to 14 observable with the naked eye), and appear above the south horizon just in time for the rains of early Spring.
    "Seven for the seven stars in the sky" probably means the five observable planets plus the sun and moon. It might be the Pleiades again ("Seven Sisters"?) showing that the cluster is variable depending on the weather.
    "Six for the six proud walkers" is obscure. The "brown walkers" version may be a late reference to the "underground railroad" for escaping American slaves. There being six stars in Ursa Major, which escapees used as a heavenly marker for North, and freedom. It might be a corruption of "waters", representing the known seas of the time: Atlantic, Mediterranean, Black, Baltic, Caspian, North and Indian (in the Middle Ages the Europeans had yet to encounter the Pacific).
    "Five for the symbols at your door" could mean any of:

  • the five easily observable planets (i.e. "at your door" because you can just walk out and see them)
  • the planetary signs of the Zodiac, which people still use as mystical protection
  • five vowel runes of the Nordic alphabet (the number of vowel runes varies from four to seven, depending on when in history and where in geography one looks)
  • the Pentateuch (i.e. "at your door" because of the Jewish custom of encasing scriptures in mezuzahs over each door of the house)
  • the five points of the pentagram, sometimes used as a "hex" or protective symbol on the door

  • The Four Gospel Makers,
    of course, are
    and John.
    (Don't be gettin' in my face about the Gospels of Thomas, Barnabbas, Mary and the like. I don't defend canonical scripture choices, I just acknowledge them). However, there are also four points to the compass, thus four winds personified in popular mythology, also four seasons that define weather and star patterns.

    "Three, three, the Rivals" has for generations been interpreted as representing the holy Trinity of the Christian God-Head, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But the Trinity are not "rivals" in Christian dogma, they are the same Person. The three "rivals" are probably the Sun, the Moon and the planet Venus, which are by far the brightest heavenly bodies we can see, and they often appear in the sky at the same time in the early morning or just at dusk.

    The Two "Lily-White boys" is sometimes thought of as representing

  • Holly, which is an evergreen and has white flowers, and mistletoe, which has white berries and is sacred to pagan cultures.
  • a nasty bit of post-pagan political manipulation in which local Jews in Britain were accused of murdering two little Christian boys. It wasn't true, the murders probably never happened, but that didn't stop the locals from killing most of the local Jews, taking possession of their property, making local saints of the non-existent martyrs and selling their fabricated relics as nostrums for various Medieval diseases.
  • the stars Castor and Pollux, named for the semi-Divine sons of the God Zeus, represented in the constellation Gemini (the Twins). Gemini becomes visible from the Northern hemisphere in Spring. hence "clothed all in green-oh".

  • "One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so" is usually thought to be a re-statement of the Jewish declaration

    "Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord: He is One".

    It might also be a reminder that the Sun is the center of the solar system and we only have the one.

    Which all goes to show that even when we don't agree on the nature of the universe, we still like to keep track of the stuff in it.

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