c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) For 23 years, William Studwell, professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University, has named a “Carol of the Year.” For 2008, the former librarian has chosen “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which he describes as a secular song that’s nonetheless timed to the 12-day religious period between Christmas and Epiphany.
Studwell, 72, not only researches carols but other kinds of music, including college fight songs, circus music and patriotic tunes. He admits he, like many people, sometimes has trouble remembering all the verses to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that all return to a certain partridge in a pear tree.
Some comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why did you pick “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as this year’s carol?
A: Because it’s a very interesting song, though somewhat aggravating. It’s not one of my favorites. Some people love it. Some people hate it. It doesn’t have a great tune, although there are dozens of dozens of variations. Once you get beyond the five golden rings, it gets a little confusing.
Q: You time its origin to a period in England between 1660 and 1740, and between two religiously significant times _ the Puritan Revolution and the rise of Methodism. What’s significant about that period?
A: This is not a conservative song, not a religious song, (but) a very secular song, so it probably would most likely have been written during a secular time.
Q: Some writers have claimed the song was intended to teach messages to Catholic children when the Catholic Church was underground in the 1600s and 1700s in England. What do you think of that idea?
A: Most likely the popular secular folk song came first. This was not originally a Catholic song, no matter what you hear on the Internet. … Neutral reference books say this is nonsense. If there was such a catechism device, a secret code, it was derived from the original secular song. It’s a derivative, not the source.
Q: So, it’s more a secular tune about a religious time period _ the 12 days of Christmas _ than a religious melody?
A: Yes. It has no depth in it at all. Every religious song, every religious carol has at least depth in it, something that has some spirituality in it. This is frothy, light and frothy.
Q: There are parodies of this song that have less to do with religion and more to do with secular items _ from onion rings to beer. Is it more parodied than other carols?
A: Yes. Actually, this is almost a parody carol. Two reasons why I think it lasts: One, people like to think of all the nice things they can get, even if they don’t think of lords-a-leaping. They think of diamonds or toys or something else. It’s (also) such a playful thing. You can twist it back and forth. It’s not fixed like “Silent Night” or “O Holy Night.” It’s a play toy.
Q: Do you know of any times people have changed the words to have more religious meaning?
A: No, other than the perhaps fictitious catechism myth.
Q: Do you, like others, have trouble remembering all 12 of the gifts in the song?
A: I don’t remember anything beyond the five golden rings reliably.
Q: Since it’s not one of your personal favorites, what are your favorite Christmas carols?
A: My personal favorite of all time is “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” However, I published a relatively limited edition book in 2006 called “An Easy Guide to Christmas Carols.” I rated the top 25 carols. I rated “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” as No. 6. My No. 1 is “Silent Night.”
Q: Where does “The Twelve Days of Christmas” fall in that list, if at all?
A: It doesn’t … because there were at least 10 other ones before that.
Q: You picked “O Holy Night” as the first topic of your research. Do you see that as a far cry from “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in terms of a top Christmas carol?
A: Oh, yes. “O Holy Night” is probably the most intense, great carol there is. It’s like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
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