Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Behind the Music: A Look at The Thirteen Days of Christmas by Jenny Overton

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me A Partridge in a Pear Tree.”
--The Twelve Days of Christmas, Traditional

“When Prudence Kitson asked her father what he would like for Christmas, he sighed and said, ‘A husband for your sister.’” –The Thirteen Days of Christmas, Jenny Overton

Oh boy, it’s that time of year again. How? Why? Wasn’t Halloween last weekend? No?

Okay, I’ll bite. Luckily, it’s early enough in December to see Christmas gleaming on the horizon without panicking too much so to honor the coming craziness, I thought I’d devote a few entries to things of a Yuletide nature. And to start with we have…

The Thirteen Days of Christmas by Jenny Overton based on that inevitable holiday favorite The Twelve Days of Christmas. I’ve always considered The Twelve Days of Christmas the It’s a Small World After All of Christmas carols. It shows up year after year usually to the chagrin of at least one audience member; it features one refrain that repeats over and over with slightly different lyrics; it’s been parodied endlessly; and once you get in your head, it will not leave. If you ever attend a Christmas concert at an elementary, middle, or high school and the program tells you to stay afterwards for a “Special Sing-Along” this will probably be the song they make you sing. What’s more you will probably be made to sing it while holding a giant poster-board with SEVEN SWANS A-SWIMMING in huge letters over your head and shouting your given lyric at the appropriate time. Trust me, I speak of what I know.

That said, I’ve always enjoyed it, in spite of myself and the world. It’s a fun song and I always thought there had to be an interesting story behind it. Who was this true love who had the power to send not only enough birds accommodate an Alfred Hitchcock film, but also actual people dancing and milking and leaping and performing on command? Was he in the slave trade? Was he a god of some kind? And where did his lady keep all her gifts? Was she too in possession of some superhuman abilities? And what was the reason for all this crazy gift-giving? Finally, Overton’s book provides answers.

The Thirteen Days of Christmas takes place in England many years ago when Christmas lasted twelve days (Dec. 25-Jan. 5). Thirteen if you count the Epiphany (Jan. 6). Each day was its own holiday with its own customs. A specific year is never given. I figure it’s pre-18th century since that’s when the song was first printed after spending some time in the oral tradition and it looks like the 15th or 16th judging from the illustrations. Our heroine, the receiver of the gifts, is Annaple Kitson. Since her mother’s death, she has been in charge of the household, much to the chagrin of her father, younger sister and two younger brothers. She’s a lousy cook, a stern taskmaster in all other respects, and her overactive imagination often makes her impossible to live with. She’s being courted by a very sweet, very, very wealthy young man named Francis who is completely crazy about her. When her family decides that the time has come to get Annaple married and out of the house, Francis seems perfect for the job. Unfortunately, Annaple wants nothing to do with Francis. She thinks he’s too boring and unromantic. Of course, anybody would seem boring and unromantic when you have visions of fairy tale princes and passionate shepherds dancing in your head (again, I speak of what I know). In desperation, Annaple’s siblings corner Francis and tell him that in order to win Annaple’s heart he should give her something romantic and inventive for Christmas. She likes to imagine herself as a goose girl in the country so why not some geese? She finds birds romantic so why not a bird? She loves fairy tales so why not a swan or a pipe to remind her of one of her favorites? Francis takes the advice to heart and nobody, least of all Annaple, is prepared for what he actually sends.

Of course, you know the song so you know what he sends. What starts out simply and sweetly enough—a partridge in a pear tree, followed the next day by a pair of turtle doves—quickly turns wild, unpredictable, and hilarious as Francis starts sending over more animals than the house can hold, more milk than the family can drink, and enough hired dancers and drummers to draw crowds from all over town. Annaple’s casual fancies and passing whims turn into extravagant (usually living) presents. Also Overton takes the song literally, meaning that on the fifth day, Francis not only sends five gold rings, but also four more calling birds, three more French hens, two more turtle doves, and of course, another partridge in another pear tree. The end total amounts to 364 individual presents. Spectators start lining up each the morning to see the new batches be delivered and place bets about what he’ll give next. By the third day, Annaple is annoyed, by the sixth, she’s furious, and by the twelfth, she’s in love. I won’t spoil what finally tips her over the edge but it’s very romantic indeed. I probably would have said yes too.

This was one of the most delightful books I’ve read in awhile. That’s a slightly archaic word delightful, used ironically a lot of the time these days (damn these days!) but I mean it sincerely. It was a lot of fun to read and it made me feel good. Even though you know how the song goes, Overton manages to keep the story fresh day after day. The question isn’t what will he bring, it’s how will he bring it, how will Annaple react, and where will the family put it? Some of the funniest passages describe the birds hissing at each other all night and the family having to bathe in milk because there’s just too much.

There’s a very subtle Taming of the Shrew vibe to the entire story. At the start of the book, Annaple is borderline unlikable. Nothing and nobody is good enough for her. She goes on about how perfect farm life must be and what idyllic lives goose girls must lead, completely ignoring how farmers and goose girls actually live. On the sixth day, when Francis sends six geese a-laying, Annaple initially refuses to accept them. The goose girl points out that she won’t get paid if Annaple doesn’t take the geese and Annaple, noticing the girl’s bare feet, decides she can’t let the girl suffer and accepts the presents. By the end, she’s been spoon fed a bit of reality without having to totally give up her imaginative ways.

Francis has an arc of his own, changing from a stuffy, boring type (though I could not for the life of me see what was so boring about him in the beginning) to a fun, imaginative suitor willing to do anything and spend anything (seriously, the guy must have one of those money growing trees I keep hearing about) to win over his ladylove. By the end, I wanted to marry him. Sure, there’s something innately off-putting about the whole “I’m going to bug you until you love me” tactic and I would have liked a little more development between Annaple and Francis but it’s a fun love story meant to be taken with a grain of salt. Overton’s writing crackles with humor and honesty. She captures family relationships wonderfully, mixing together just the right amount of tenderness, love, and tension. Especially scrumptious are the historical details peppered throughout. I learned so much about how Christmas used to be celebrated without even realizing it.

Something I especially liked about the book was how it showed the evolution of the song. With each passing day, the crowd of spectators grows bigger and bigger and they start chanting about the growing amount and variety of presents as they are brought to Annaple’s house. This chant (on the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me…) turns into a song. Overton makes you believe that the song really could have originated this way and then gone on to thrive in oral tradition until somebody (James O. Halliwell, savior of so many English nursery rhymes) wrote it down. It makes the whole story so poignant to think of the courtship of this one couple during this one holiday season being commemorated forever in song, even after many of the traditions they value so much have vanished. It’s astonishing to think of a time when Christmas actually lasted twelve days and every day had its own rituals and customs. It upsets me that so many of those customs have gone by the wayside and makes me wonder how we’ll celebrate Christmas 400 or 500 years from now. At least, these customs haven’t been forgotten even though they are no longer performed that often (at least not in my neighborhood). Overton’s book is proof of that, as is the song that inspired it.

I highly recommend The Thirteen Days of Christmas. Unfortunately, though it’s still alive and well in the UK where it was first published in 1972, it’s no longer in print here in the US. If you’re interested, your local library may have it or they could get it for you—worked for me. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been listening to The Twelve Days of Christmas on loop for the past hour. I think I’m going to go listen to It’s a Small World After All three times at a loud volume and hopefully pass out. Thank you.

In case you're in the mood to listen to the song after all this dissection here's one of my favorite versions....John Denver and the Muppets!

And if not, here are the lyrics written out. It's not like you don't know the tune.


  1. Oh Erin, it goes without saying but I just love your writing. Wonderful article - and I will certainly be hearing The Twelve Days of Christmas differently the next time I hear it (and the many times after that). I'll have to get my hand on this book!

  2. Thanks so much, adorable friend. It means a lot. If you can find it (as I said, try your library) it's definitely worth the read. It goes down like hot chocolate. Thanks for the RT as well.