Lecture No. 51 – Christmas


By now, most of us have been “Christmased out.”  But I would like to read to you one of two articles that are almost totally unconnected except they both deal a bit with Christmas.  I will save the second one for next month.

Several years ago, I subscribed to “Smithsonian” magazine.  I already had a subscription to “National Geographic” and thought “Smithsonian” would be a nice complement to “Geographic.”  Over the years, the content of “Smithsonian” has changed.  That, coupled with endless offers to renew my subscription, led me to question if I really needed both magazines.  I also noticed that often an article in one would be repeated sometimes with a few changes in the other or they would both report on the same subject within a few months of each other.

At some point, I somehow apparently ended up with two subscriptions to “Smithsonian” and started to receive two issues a month.  I let both subscriptions lapse.  I do still receive a daily newsletter from “Smithsonian” with short articles about just about everything you could think of.  For example, the second article appeared with several other articles, a few of which dealt with someone vandalizing a 113-million-year-old dinosaur footprint in Australia, and a piece about the several secret UFO studies conducted by the U.S. government beginning in 1947, etc.   This was the lead story on December 18.

You have probably had it with Christmas carols about now. Cheer up. There are only four more days of Christmas to go. Yes, there are 12 days of Christmas beginning on December 25 until January 6.  Which brings me to the subject of tonight’s talk.

”12 Facts About ‘The 12 Days of Christmas” by Kat Eschner.  Kat Eschner is a freelance writer living in Toronto.


“You might already be getting tired of Christmas carols, but they have a long history.  Here are 12 things to know about a Christmas classic.

“It first appeared in print in 1780.

“According to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes cited on Wikipedia, the earliest printed version of this poem that researchers know of dates back to 1780 and the book Mirth Without Mischief.  In that version, it was a chant or a poem that wasn’t set to music.

“It was originally a kind of poem known as ‘cumulative verse.’

This Christmas classic would be well suited to being a chant or poem – it’s written in a poetic form called “cumulative verse,” where each patterned verse contributes to a longer narrative. If you want another example, think “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” “Rhymed verse may have originated in dancing and singing – cumulative verse in recitation and instruction,” writes Lina Eckenstein in Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes.

Some believe that it was created to teach Catholic children the catechism in a coded way – but it probably wasn’t.

The structure, along with other facets of the song, has caused some to believe that the rhyme was a way for British Catholics to subversively teach Catholic children the catechism, because their religion was controversial in 1700s England.  However, writes David Mikkelson for Snopes, this theory only appeared in the 1990s and isn’t supported by any documentary evidence – meaning it’s deeply unlikely this link authentically exists.

Furthermore, Mikkelson writes, “there was absolutely no reason why any Catholic would have to hide his knowledge of any of the concepts supposedly symbolized in “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” because these were basic articles of faith common to all denominations of Christianity.”  These tenants weren’t directly linked to any celebration of the 12 days of Christmas, which start on December 25 and end on Twelfth Day, January 6, also known as the Feast of the Epiphany.

Like the 12-day celebration of Christmas itself, writes Tanya Pai for Vox, “The 12 days of Christmas” likely has roots that well predate 1780.  It may have been French in origin, she writes.

This theory is backed up by the fact that other poems about the 12 days of Christmas do exist, such as (the) Scottish poem “The Yule Days.” This poem includes a king sending his lady, partridges, geese, ducks, swans, the list goes on – just like the English poem.

“Although the exact origins of the song are unknown, it is highly probable that it began as a memory-and-forfeit game for 12th night celebrations, which would have been said and not sung,” write authors Mark Lawson-Jones and Dominic Walker. “The players gathered in a circle, and the leader would recite a verse and each would repeat it, the leader would add another verse, and speak faster, and so on until a mistake was made by one of the players, who would drop out of the game.” The last player standing was the winner.

Even in English, there are a number of different, less-well-known variants of the lyrics. These range from the relatively innocent – “Ships a sailing” instead of “Pipers piping” – to lyrics that reflect earlier times’ attitudes towards animals, for instance. “Bears a-baiting” or “Badger baiting,” which refers to the practice of getting these animals to fight with dogs. This form of entertainment was relatively common during periods of celebration.

There are a number of animals mentioned in all versions of the song – and many of them are things Europeans would have eaten, leading many to interpret the animal sections as relating to feasting, writes Olga Khazan for “The Atlantic.” That means that a partridge in a pear tree wasn’t just for holiday decorations.

The tune of this now-familiar Christmas carol only dates back to the early 12th century, when it was composed by Fredrick Austin. It’s based on a traditional folk song, but both the lyrics and the melody were altered by the composer.

It’s pretty unlikely that anyone ever received all of the gifts proposed in the song – if so, however, they would have been costly, writes Pai. Today, if someone wished to replicate the list, they’d be looking at more than $30,000.”

“President Lincoln’s Last Christmas” by Kat Eschner.  Kat Eschner is a freelance writer living in Toronto.


President Lincoln’s final Christmas was a historic moment. The telegram he received from General William Tecumseh Sherman signaled that the end of the Civil War was near. But as Lincoln’s personal Christmas story reveals, those conflict-filled years also helped shape a uniquely American Christmas.

Sherman’s telegram to the president, who had been elected to a second term only a month before, read, “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

“Washington celebrated with a 300-gun salute,” writes the Wisconsin State Journal. This victory signaled that the end of the long, bloody battle was that shaped Lincoln’s presidency and the country was likely near. Lincoln wrote back: “Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah.  Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army – officers and men.”

“Although it separated many from their families, permanently or temporarily, the Civil War also helped to shaped Americans’ experience of Christmas, which wasn’t a big holiday before the 1850s.  ‘Like many other such ‘inventions of tradition,’ the creation of an American Christmas was a response to social and personal needs that arose at a particular point in history, in this case a time of sectional conflict and civil war,’ writes Penne Restad for History Today.

By the time of the war, Christmas had gone from being a peripheral holiday celebrated differently all across the country, if it was celebrated at all, to having a uniquely American flavor.

“The Civil War intensified Christmas’s appeal,” Restad writes. “Its celebration of family matched the yearnings of soldiers and those they left behind. Its message of peace and goodwill spoke to the most immediate prayers of all Americans.”

This was true in the White House, too. “Lincoln never really sent out a Christmas message for the simple reason that Christmas did not become a national holiday until 1870, five years after his death,” writes Max Benavidez for Huffington Post. “Until then, Christmas was a normal workday, although people did often have special Christmas dinners with turkey, fruitcake and other treats,

“During the war, Lincoln made Christmas-related efforts – such as having cartoonist Thomas Nast draw an influential illustration of Santa Claus handing out Christmas gifts to Union troops,” Benavidez writes. But Christmas itself wasn’t the big production it would become: In fact, the White House didn’t even have a Christmas tree until 1889. But during the last Christmas of the war and the last Christmas of Lincoln’s life, we do know something about how he kept the holiday.

“On December 25, the Lincolns hosted a Christmas reception for the cabinet,” writes the White House Historical Society. They had some unexpected guests for that evening’s Christmas dinner, the historical society writes. Tad Lincoln, the president’s rambunctious young son who had already helped inspire the tradition of a Presidential turkey pardon, invited several newsboys – child newspaper sellers who worked outdoors in the chilly Washington winter – to the Christmas dinner. “Although the unexpected guests were a surprise to the White House cook, the president welcomed them and allowed them to stay for dinner,” writes the historical association.  The meal must have been a memorable one, for the newsboys at least.