Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Musing on the Twelve Days

The writing prompt for yesterday's edition of Holidailies was "The Twelve Days." And since I have to admit I'm failing pretty miserably at coming up with things to write about, I decided to do a little research on the "Twelve Days of Christmas" song. Found out that, while I had always assumed it was probably written by somebody in Tin Pan Alley back at the turn of the 19th/20th Centuries, it's actually an authentic traditional English carol. And although there are various theories on when it first appeared and what it's supposed to signify, no one really has definitive answers for those questions. Is it just a nonsense rhyme meant to inspire joy and gaiety? Or a good mnemonic device to help keep the senses sharp? Or something more meaningful - are the items in the song religious symbols? For instance, some have suggested that the twelve drummers drumming represent the twelve apostles (beating the drum for Jesus?).

Well, whatever it is, it always reminds me of my own favorite "enumeration" thingie (can't really call it a rhyme or verse) - one that was popular in my speech and drama classes back in high school. It supposedly originated as a radio "announcer's test" back in the 1940s, but I first heard it on TV in the '60s when Jerry Lewis used to recite it on the old Tonight Show. Don't know if it has a real title, but I always think of it as "One Hen, Two Ducks," and the idea is to repeat each item as you add a new item, so that at the end, you're repeating all nine items plus the tenth. Seems easy-peasy, but when you're doing it from memory, it can be really maddening. We thought it was hilarious. Well, it was the '60s and we thought a lot of strange things were hilarious. Here we go:
  • One hen
  • Two ducks ("One hen, two ducks")
  • Three squawking geese ("One hen, two ducks, three squawking geese")
  • Four Limerick oysters ("One hen, two ducks, three squawking geese, four etc.")
  • Five corpulent porpoises
  • Six pairs of Don Alverzo's tweezers
  • Seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array
  • Eight brass monkeys from the ancient sacred crypts of Egypt
  • Nine apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic old men on roller skates with a marked propensity toward procrastination and sloth
  • Ten lyrical, spherical, diabolical denizens of the deep who hall stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivery, all at the same time
Of course, none of us had a clue about those tweezers by Don Alverzo. And for the longest time I thought it said "old men on roller skates . . . with a marked propensity toward procrastination and slaw." Messy stuff when you're on roller skates.

These are also very much like the old children's game "I packed my suitcase and in it I put ---" with each person adding a new something to the original something. Sometimes it's referred to as "I packed my grandmother's suitcase." Sometimes the items have to start with succeeding letters of the alphabet. And, of course, there are the more risque versions, too. Not sure where I'm going with any of this, but definitely not there.


  1. Isn't it interesting to discover where memories will take us? I enjoyed your musings.

  2. Interesting post, Joy.... It is fun to think about all of the different arrangements and wordings people have put with that song all through the years.

    What I didn't know about the Twelve Days of Christmas UNTIL I became an adult was that the 'actual' 12 days are the days between Dec. 25 - Jan. 6 (when the wise men come to the manger). That's why certain denominations (Catholic and Episcopalians) celebrate Christmas ALL the way until Jan. 6---leaving their decorations up until that time. We always took ours down on or before Jan 1st.



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