'Tis the season

Tradition has it that the Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was a mnemonic used by Catholic priests after the Anglicans took over in England in the sixteenth century and it became illegal on the penalty of death to be a practicing Catholic. As the catechism, some scholars suggest that the partridge represents Jesus, and the succeeding numbers and gifts depict various points of significance to the religious community. For instance, the “Four colly birds” are the four Gospels, the “Eight maids a milking” the Beatitudes, the “Ten Lords a Leaping” the ten commandments. None of the gifts were characteristically Catholic, so the ditty could be openly sung without the authorities knowing it was code. Whether the theory is true or not is still being discussed, but it makes a good Christmas story.


A mnemonic probably exists for every occasion. When I was first learning music, we memorized “Every Good Boy Does Fine” for the lines on the Treble Clef and FACE for the spaces. Another music rule for adjusting the mouthpiece on my saxophone was “Lengthen to loosen, shorten to sharpen.” “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain” is the colors of the rainbow (or the visible spectrum if you’re a scientist) and the difference between DESERT and DESSERT is that the sweet one has two sugars.

And don’t forget the other spelling tricks some of us still use today: “George Henry’s Old Grandmother Rode A Pig Home Yesterday” when you need to spell GEOGRAPHY and “A Red Indian Though He Might Eat Tobacco In Church” obviously developed before political correctness and the demise of the popularity of tobacco to spell ARITHMETIC. (Lately, I’ve heard “A Rat In The House May Eat the Ice Cream.”) I catch myself repeating those each time I need to write those words, which these days isn’t often. Or you mentally repeat “‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’ or when the sound is ‘A’ as in Neighbor and Weigh” then write SCIENCE or THEIR or WEIRD, the so-called “exceptions that prove the rule.” I never did know what that meant for sure, but accepted it as another of those rules to be used when all else fails.

Have you ever really thought about all the little maneuvers we use to manage everyday life and the things we recall each time we have a chore that relates? We look at the sky and remark “Red Sky at Night Sailor’s delight, Red Sky in the morning, Sailors take warning.” There is even a reminder for pilots about air pressure: “High to Low, look out below. Low to High, clear Blue Sky.” I have heard virtually everyone I know recite “Thirty days hath September, April , June and November” then grin and say “that’s the only way I can remember … .” Some things are absolute truths like the shortest distance between two points is a straight line when we argue with the GPS, or “change the ‘Y’ to ‘I’ and add ‘ES’” explaining to a grandkid how to spell “cities.” I still mentally picture “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey” trying to loosen a bolt or a jar lid and “Two waters, one rice” has served me well many times.

Some students learned “My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets” for the order of the planets from the sun out. Of course you needed to know the names of the planets first. Likewise HOMES for remembering the Great Lakes, if you already know their names.

It is generally accepted that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an old French folk song that might have been a game played at Christmastime similar to the one played today: “I’m taking a trip and I will pack ...” with each person adding an item until someone misses. That person has to pay a penalty. Depending on the age of the group playing the game, that might be buying a round for the house, or kissing the nearest person of the opposite sex (we were always careful to sit next to someone we liked when we played as teens) or simply sitting in the middle of the circle until someone else misses.

A variation on the mnemonic idea is an urban legend that the carol was written in the 1920s as a mnemonic for the very first bomb disposal team to help them learn the procedure. The Partridge was finding the bomb, the “Three French Hens” were the most expendable members of the team sent to examine the bomb first. “Lords a Leaping” meant to clear the area, and the “Twelve Drummers Drumming” represented the controlled detonation.

I think I prefer the English Priest version, especially for a Christmas Carol.















Hope it’s a great one for you and your family!

Virginia Walters lives in Kenai.


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