The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Four

As we speak, I'm looking after Tom, with four bottles of expressed breast milk at my side, while Caroline goes on a long-planed treat, her first few hours away from the little man, off to see The Hobbit.  It's working out so far.  He's had a feed, watched some cricket with me, and is now asleep.  Last night's reading and signing in Bath was excellent, with a lively crowd.  (And it was lovely to see old friends like Cheryl Morgan and the SFX team.)  I miss the pubs of Bath.

Tonight, from 6.30pm, I'm being interviewed by Ben Aaronovitch, about London Falling and our careers in general, at Blackwell's Charing Cross, as Pornokitsch's Christmas party. They'll be providing Kraken rum, and a festive time should be had by all.

Talking of London Falling, there's a new blog post by me up the Tor UK site, talking about researching the book, with contributions from several of my anonymous police and intelligence analyst sources.

And here's a rather nice piece from Simon Gilmartin, exploring three of the novel's spooky London locations.

I've got a new festive story, 'The Ghosts of Christmas' coming up soon on, but they'd like you to know that you can get it early, this Saturday to be exact, by signing up to their mailing list.

Now, on to today's guest blogger, writing about 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'.  Today it's novelist and fellow SF Squeecaster Seanan McGuire, talking about... Four Colly Birds.  Hello, Seanan...

Here comes the season, tinsel and holly,
Wreaths on the door and the bells on the trolley,
Beans in the bread and bright blood on the snows...
Ravens, blackbirds, kites and crows.

'Growing up on the California coast meant that for me, the “white Christmas” was a thing found only in Rankin-Bass holiday specials, and the occasional television show that had been filmed someplace exotic, like London, New York, or Cleveland.  I had no idea that snow was something that was actually cold, rather than being mildly chilly, like sticking your head in the refrigerator.  (Silly as this might sound, I mean that literally.  The first time I went to a place that had snow, I leapt out of the car, shrieking, “SNOW SNOW SNOW SNOW!” and jumped into a huge pile of the stuff.  I promptly jumped right back out again, now shrieking “SNOW IS COLD SNOW IS COLD SNOW IS COLD!” and shut myself in the car until we drove someplace warmer.)  Most of the elements of a “classic” winter holiday were always a little foreign to me.

But there were the blackbirds.

Try to step easy, try to be merry,
Whistle through churchyards and never be wary,
But don’t forget what each child surely knows:
Ravens, blackbirds, kites and crows.

I am a child of the folk process: I grew up watching stories shift and change as people retold them.  So it wasn’t really a shock to me when I found an old book of Christmas carols and discovered that there were lots of different lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”  What I found most interesting, though, was that the version in my book didn’t have four calling birds, which are generic and weird and dude, birds, WILL YOU SHUT UP, I’m trying to sleep.  (My mother kept finches.  This may have influenced my opinion of calling birds.)  Instead, it had four colly birds, which my dictionary told me meant “blackbirds.”  I quite liked blackbirds.  We had three different types of them where I lived, big ones and smaller ones and ones with patches of red on their wings, which I thought made them look suitably dressed for being someone’s Christmas present.  Blackbirds, I decided, could stay.

Despite their excision from the common American version of the song, the blackbirds themselves were fairly common in the Christmas-related media I consumed.  They showed up in backgrounds and in long shots, little ink-spots against the snow, and commanded my attention.  I applied most of the crow counting rhymes (you know, “one for sorrow, two for gold...”) to the background birds, and thought that I was being very clever to decode the hidden meanings of things.  My friends were very tolerant.

Watch for the shadow, watch for the feather,
Watch for the turning of wind and of weather,
Follow the magpie wherever she goes;
Ravens, blackbirds, kites and crows.

The winter holidays have a special place in their hearts for the blackbirds, who are, after all, psychopomps in the traditional sense of the word, and whose job often includes escorting the spirits of the dead into the afterlife.  It can be easy to forget that so much of our modern Christmas and holiday symbolism began with beans baked into the bread, and red blood on white snow.  The blackbirds, however, haven’t forgotten, and they’re always on the edges of the picture, waiting for the time when they’ll be needed again.

Oh, hey, those counting rhymes?  If we go by the most common version, your true love giving you four blackbirds is for a boy.  So, you know, “Hey, baby, here’s four blackbirds, that’s for a boy,” which I guess could represent the boy doing the giving or the boy doing the receiving, unless you’re both girls, in which case it represents the boy who isn’t invited to the party.  If you go by the oldest recorded version, “One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a wedding, four for a death.”  So, uh.  I guess those blackbirds probably know something that the rest of us don’t, huh?

Care for the begger-man, care for the widow,
Stop up the doorway and shutter the window,
And tell the North Wind to be kind as he blows...
Ravens, blackbirds, kites and crows.

The thing I like best about blackbirds as a holiday symbol, though, is how universal they are.  You don’t get Christmas snow in California or Australia, but you do get Christmas blackbirds.  There are corvids everywhere in the world, and there’s something called a “blackbird” virtually everywhere that you find corvids.  So it’s a thing no one gets left out of.  No snow for me, no tinsel because it chokes the cats, no sleigh bells or beans in the bread, but I can have blackbirds if I want them.  They’re all hanging out in the tree right outside my window, waiting for something to die so that they can peck at its corpse.

I never said that they were happy symbols of the holiday, now, did I?  But like the pinch of salt you add to the chocolate chip cookies, they balance everything else out, and make it all the sweeter.  I love them so.

But snow is still way too cold for my tastes.'

Honor your father and honor your mother,
Comfort your sister and care for your brother,
Try not to wonder who’s bloodied the snows.
Ravens, blackbirds, kites and crows.

Seanan McGuire was born and raised on the California coast, and believes that white Christmases are best when they happen to somebody else.  She writes both under her own name and under the name "Mira Grant," and has been nominated for five Hugo Awards since she began publishing in 2009.  She lives in a creaky old farmhouse with three enormous blue cats who may or may not actually be bonsai yeti, and is currently engaged in a continent-spanning quest to visit all the Disney parks.  Her next book, Midnight Blue-Light Special, will be out in March, but still makes a lovely holiday gift.

Thank you, Seanan.  I hear stirring from a small boy, so I shall take me leave of you for today.  We'll continue tomorrow with editor, journalist and presenter Rose Fox talking about... Five Gold Rings.  Until then, Cheerio!

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