The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: One

Welcome to this year's Twelve Blogs!  It's going to be a bit different this time, because I'm in the middle of a promotional tour for one novel, delivering the sequel, working on many other things and changing a lot of nappies, all at the same time. So my friends have staged an intervention.  It was Bill Willingham who came up with the idea (and claimed a specific post for himself).  For the next twelve days, the main substance of this blog will be devoted to guest writers talking about... the Twelve Days of Christmas!  That is to say, about each item represented in the song.  We begin, by way of introduction, with someone who actually knows a thing or two about birds, Sharon Stitler, and someone who doesn't really, her husband, Bill Stitler, talking about... A Partridge in a Pear Tree.  Hello, Bill...

'In America we have no tradition of Twelfth Night, a series of parties between Christmas Day and Epiphany. Christmas season is over on Christmas Day and to my young mind the reason the 26th was Boxing Day is because that’s the day we spent taking down the tree, lights, decorations, food, pets, slow-moving siblings and packing them away in boxes as quickly as possible because Dad’s patience has been stretched well past the limit by dealing with the pine needles and the wrapping paper and the tinsel and the endless repetition of “Simply Having A Wonderful Christmastime.”

A confession: I am a secret lover of Christmas. I cannot wait for the decorations to go up, the TV specials to start airing, and for the music to start playing on an endless loop. I can’t get enough. This is an extremely unpopular opinion to have as an adult, though. Grown-ups love to grouse about the commercialism, the noise, the traffic, and most of all, the music. It’s part of the tradition, now, while the children write their letters to Santa, for adults to turn to Twitter and remind us, once again, that they can’t stand “Little Drummer Boy". They’re like recovering addicts, dutifully posting about how long they’ve been clean: “Oh man, it’s been seven days since I last pa-rump-pa-tum-tumbed. Hope I can hold out till the end of the month!”

And I try to be sympathetic, I really do. Most of them are parents who are dealing with their own expectations of giving their children a perfect Christmas. As an additional bonus, it diverts their attention away from “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which is a) my favorite carol from childhood and b) the most hated Christmas song of all time.

Nobody like “Twelve Days” except smart alecky kids who love brain-teasers, and have you ever been at a party with one of those? Go to any holiday party and strike up a song: “Jingle Bells” will be met with enthusiastic response. “Silent Night” and “White Christmas” will give everyone an attempt to be somber, especially if they’ve been hitting the nog, and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” will give everyone a chance to break away around day six and go back to talking about Downton Abbey.

It’s a torture test of a song, so that by the time you get to the twelfth day nobody but the too-smart-for-his-own-good 10 year old cares what My True Love Gave To Me. My curiosity about the song (and the fact that no one would sing it all the way through with me) lead me, of course, to research. You cannot imagine my joy when I found out (via the Encylopedia Brittanica, which contained all the knowledge in the world) that the song wasn’t just a song, it was a memory game, a brain teaser, that singers would come up with their own lyrics to as a challenge to the other players.

Try as I might, I could not get my schoolmates interested in this discovery, much less a practical application of it. Everyone else disliked the song except for singing “FIIIVE! GOOOLD! RIIINGS!” at the top of their voices, and I was asking them to give that up? These children would later grow up and have to get a similar empty rush by shouting “LEN! ARD! BERN! STEIN!” to R.E.M. But I digress.

SMASH CUT TO: many years later and I am happily married to a woman who loves Christmas music as much as I do, creating multiple playlists from songs I didn’t even know existed. And she’s an avid birdwatcher!

The thing, though, the thing that absolutely drives her nuts is when we’re watching movies or TV shows and the bird sounds are inaccurate. The lonely cry of a loon in the mountains? Change the channel. A kookaburra in the jungle? The film is over.

But it works out well because while I’ve turned The Twelve Days of Christmas over and over in my head, it never occurred to me to question the accuracy of the song as a depiction of natural behaviour. Whoo hoo! Get David Attenborough on the phone, I’ve got his next series!

And so it is with some trepidation that I turn to my beloved and ask: “So, would a partridge be in a pear tree?”'

Sharon responds:

'Really? It took you over 700 words to get the actual subject of the article?'

Bill: 'I was setting the mood, you see, becau...'

'Okay, folks, you want to know how this went down? He said, “Oh hey, I’ve been asked to write about one of the verses of The Twelve Days of Christmas,” then a day later followed by, “Honey, um, what do you know about partridges and do they really go into pear trees?”

Let’s get one thing straightened out. What kind of bird are we talking about here? People tend to use partridge, quail and sometimes even grouse interchangeably.  But they are different.

First, there’s Old World quail (partridges, chukars, pheasants) that are in the family Phasianidae and New World Quail (bobwhite, California quail) which are in the family Odontophoridae. In the United States, we don’t have much in the way of native partridges. We have Hungarian partridge (aka gray partridge) and chukars, but those have both been introduced to give hunters something else to chase besides all our native grouse, ducks, geese, doves and bobwhites.

The one thing quail and grouse have in common is that they are all ground dwelling, seed eating birds. You’re not going to see them hanging out in any tree, let alone a pear tree. Perhaps that’s what makes it such an awesome gift for the First Day of Christmas? “Baby, my True Love, I’m so badass that I took this ground dwelling bird that wasn’t meant to perch on twigs and I put in a tree! Boom! I love you!”

It must have been like giving a diamond ring is now-a-days. You put the partridge in a tree--she’ll have to put out!

I suppose the partridge in a pear tree may have been a recently hunted bird, strung up. The partridge is delivered, tethered to a branch upside down, surrounded by pears to be used as a garnish when it’s cooked. I could see this backfiring, it might be the equivalent of giving your True Love a vacuum or a blender and might imply that the receiver has to pluck and cook the partridge and said pears and that may not lead to any hot monkey love.

No matter how you slice it, you’re not going to see a partridge in a pear tree naturally.  I even tried doing a Google Image Search with the idea that some wiseacre bird photographer must have gotten a shot of that, but no, all illustrations and products of the imagination.'

Bill: 'And there you have it. Print this post out and read it at your next holiday gathering. Then suggest everyone gather by the grand piano or MP3 player for a round of "Twelve Days"! You’ll be the hit of the party! Merry Christmas!'

And they sent photos:

'The Grey Partridge (Perdix Perdix) most definitely not in a pear tree.'

Bill Stiteler is a freelance writer and director. You can find him on twitter (@bstiteler) and his website.  His short films have been seen at several extremely nerdy venues, such as Penny Arcade Expo, Origins, and CONvergence.

Sharon Stiteler was given a Peterson Field Guide to Birds when she was seven years old and snapped.  She loves birds, it’s just the way she’s wired. Since 1997, she has made it her goal to get paid to go birding. She runs the popular birding blog, and has been in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on NBC Nightly News as well as making regular appearances on Twin Cities’ TV and radio stations. She’s an internationally professional speaker and storyteller and her writing can has been found in several publications including WildBird Magazine, Outdoor NewsBirds & Blooms, 10,000 Birds and Birding Business. She wrote the books Disapproving Rabbits and City Birds/Country Birds and is #32 in the Geek A Week Trading Card set and works as a National Park Ranger. When she’s not digiscoping or banding birds, she’s an award-winning beekeeper.  Follow her on Twitter @Birdchick.

Thanks, you two. I'll be popping in every day too, to do a variety of year-end things, including my picks of the year in various media, an appreciation of the late Patrick Moore, the results of the This Time Next Year Game, and other things, but I'll be leaving the heavy lifting this time round to my guests. We'll continue tomorrow with Chicks Unravel Time editor L.M. Myles talking about... Two Turtle Doves. Until then, Cheerio!

5 Response to "The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: One"

  • Cavan Scott Says:

    I've always like the Muppets version of 12 days from the John Denver and the Muppets christmas album. The Bing version is rather charming too!

  • Jac Says:

    I've been lucky - I grew up with people who love The Twelve Days of Christmas and sing it at every opportunity, and they introduced me to other people who sing it regularly at Christmas parties (the year we mutated it into A Budgie In A Birdcage is still legendary) and now I sing in a choir that sang the devilishly arranged John Rutter version on Saturday and everyone loved it, audience and singers alike.

    My son is playing "the Penguin in the Pear Tree" in his school play next week and I confess to a little trepidation, but I bet it's going to be good really.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    That whole Muppets/John Denver Christmas album is charming. A penguin is quite a departure.

  • Anonymous Says:

    I grew up with a pet partridge (an English one, like the picture) and he only ended up in the pear tree once, because he saw the starlings doing it and tried to join them. It was a failure, he wobbled on a branch for a bit, then dropped out onto the ground. He was always confused as to his own species, but he rejoined the humans after that experiment.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    At least we've now heard about one partridge that nearly made it.