Historic house administrators can’t just ignore the blather (much as they’d like to!), because they have to deal with docents and guides who may be passing along myths like this one. Letting these things slide only gives them credibility.
Historic house administrators can’t just ignore the blather (much as they’d like to!), because they have to deal with docents and guides who may be passing along myths like this one. Letting these things slide only gives them credibility.
Okay, here’s another Christmas myth. One I hadn’t planned to include on the blog because I didn’t think it was a museum-related myth. But last week I was touring an early-nineteenth-century historic house and the guide presented this fable as truth, so I guess it’s fair game.
There is a secret code myth related to the well-known song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” According to this myth, the song is an underground catechism song for Catholics in England who were oppressed during the late 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s. As the story goes, persecution of Catholics was so severe that they dared not teach their children their beliefs, so this song was written as a memory aid. Here is the supposed “secret” meaning behind the song:
1 Partridge/Pear tree stands for Jesus
2 turtle doves = Old & New Testaments
3 French hens = faith, hope, love or the Holy Trinity or the 3 gifts of Magi (versions differ)
4 collie birds = four gospels
5 golden rings = Pentateuch (first 5 books of Bible)
6 geese a-laying = 6 days God created the Earth
7 swans a-swimming = the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit (prophecy, ministry, teaching, giving, exhortation, leading, compassion . . again, versions differ on these)
8 maids a-milking = the 8 beatitudes (blessed are . . .)
9 drummers drumming = the 9 fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, gentleness, faith, meekness, etc. . . . but not consistent)
10 pipers piping = the ten commandments
11 ladies dancing = the eleven apostles (Judas doesn’t count)
12 lords a-leaping = 12 statements in Apostles’ Creed
With apologies to Eliz. Barrett Browning: How to debunk thee? Let me count the ways . . .
First and foremost, there is no historical documentation. The claim first surfaced in 1979 when it was proposed by a Canadian English teacher and part-time hymnologist who said the idea came from conversations he had with elderly Canadians. “I can at most report what this song’s symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades.” This rather weak statement was soon taken up and popularized by a Catholic priest who claims he saw a reference to it “as an aside” in some very old letters from Irish priests, but his notes were ruined in a basement plumbing leak and the original information is, he said, on “a computer floppy disk that is so old that nobody has a machine that can read it anymore.” (And the dog ate my homework.)
The original song is not even English, but French. And as a Catholic country (that persecuted Protestants), the French had no need to compose songs with secret religious meaning.
How do we know it’s French in origin? It’s hard to date a song: the earliest published form in English comes in a 1780 children’s book, Mirth Without Mischief, but it’s clearly earlier than that. The title page on Mirth Without Mischief (left) says “Sung at King Pepin’s ball.” There is no English King Pepin, but Pepin the Short was the father of Charlemagne. Pepin ruled from 752 to 768. One piece of evidence for French origin is that the partridge was unknown in England until 1770s when it was introduced from France. And the song has that light, dancing feel of a French carol.
Aside: I had wondered, so perhaps you do too, about the difference between a carol and a hymn. A carol is based on dance music, light and dancy, simple, popular, joyful, with a religious impulse. Many were developed in France between 1400-1650. Examples of a carol would include Deck the Halls and Il est ne le divin enfant. Examples of hymns: We Three Kings, O Come All Ye Faithful, and Silent Night.
There is no religious connection to the objects, only to the numbers; in other words, no relationship exists between concept and symbol. How does 8 maids a milking remind one of the 8 beatitudes? How does the irreverent mental picture of lords a-leaping remind one of the Apostles’ Creed?
The symbolism varies with different versions of the song—how can something meant to be a memory aid have so many variations? For example, three French hens supposedly stood for faith, hope, love. Or in some variations, the Holy Trinity. Or in others, the 3 gifts of Magi.
Another major problem: none of the secret meanings are distinctly Catholic; all are also fundamental to Church of England and other Christian denominations. All doctrines have Old and New Testament, 10 commandments, 3 gifts of the Magi, 11 faithful apostles, etc. There is no reason for Catholics to have to hide their knowledge of these religious tenets. Conversely, nothing uniquely Catholic appears here—no mention of the Pope or the Virgin Mary or confession, concepts that had been suppressed by the Anglican church. There is no reason why young Catholics could not be taught openly about the four gospels or the ten commandments.
Finally, the lyrics are entirely secular and playful, not spiritual.
WHAT, THEN, IS THIS SONG?
A memory-and-forfeits game.
Every time the song is mentioned in a book, it is said to be a forfeit game: each person repeats the gifts and when he/she misses one, he pays a forfeit (a kiss or sweetmeat) for the mistake. To wit: an 19th-c. novel, The Ashen Faggot: A Tale of Christmas: “When all the raisins had been extracted and eaten . . . a cry for forfeits arose. So the party sat down round Mabel on benches brought out from under the table, and Mabel began, ‘The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge and a pear tree . . . And so on. Each day was taken up and repeated all round; and for every breakdown (except by little Maggie, who struggled with desperately earnest round eyes to follow the rest correctly, but with very comical results) the player who made the slip was duly noted down by Mabel for a forfeit.’ ”
According to University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor and chairman of the Classics Dept. Edward Phinney in 1990, it is a love song : “If you think of all the things being presented, you realize they’re all gifts from a lover to a woman. Some of them are rather impossible to give, like eight maids a milking and nine ladies dancing. All those ladies and dancing and pipers and drums imply this is a wedding.” Phinney also points out the un-Biblical fertility symbols: partridge is famous aphrodisiac; six geese a-laying are reproducing. Seven verses are birds which are symbols of fertility and the pear itself is a male fertility symbol. Swans are significant in tales about love. “The whole song,” says Phinney, “seems to me to point to a festival of joy and love more appropriate to a secular holiday like Valentine’s Day or May Day than a religious holiday.” That may seem odd, but when you remember that weddings were a prominent feature of the Christmas season, the link seems more plausible.
Rachel Sims wrote “I’m not sure if this is myth or fact because I’ve heard that its a myth and then I’ve heard its a fact. You know when Irish immigrants came to the United States and tried to find work? Were there truly signs in the store windows that say, “No Irish need apply?”
At St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, everyone in American enjoys being a little bit Irish. With the day fast approaching, it seems a good time to address this myth.
This myth has a core of truth to it, although it is exaggerated in collective memory. There were many nineteenth-century newspaper advertisements like the one above that stipulated “No Irish Need Apply.” But according to historian Richard Jensen in a 2002 article in the Journal of Social History, signs on businesses saying “No Irish Need Apply” were rare or nonexistent.
“The fact that Irish vividly ‘remember’ NINA signs is a curious historical puzzle. There are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location. No particular business enterprise is named as a culprit. No historian, archivist, or museum curator has ever located one; no photograph or drawing exists. No other ethnic group complained about being singled out by comparable signs. Only Irish Catholics have reported seeing the sign in America—no Protestant, no Jew, no non-Irish Catholic has reported seeing one. This is especially strange since signs were primarily directed toward these others: the signs said that employment was available here and invited Yankees, French-Canadians, Italians and any other non-Irish to come inside and apply. The business literature, both published and unpublished, never mentions NINA or any policy remotely like it. The newspapers and magazines are silent. The courts are silent. There is no record of an angry youth tossing a brick through the window that held such a sign. Have we not discovered all of the signs of an urban legend?”
Jensen, in my opinion, overstates his thesis here. Certainly there were signs on businesses saying “no colored allowed” and “no Chinese,”or more often, “whites only.” This photo from the Library of Congress collection shows a bar with a sign on the wall that reads, “Positively No Beer Sold to Indians.” But there’s a difference between serving and employing. Many whites-only establishments that refused to serve certain ethnic groups still hired them as laborers.
Why were the Irish discriminated against? They were Catholic, a religion that frightened many Protestants, and the stereotype that they were lazy, dirty drunks was widespread. Some thought of them as a separate, inferior race, one that caused poverty. Their biggest crime, perhaps, was that they took jobs from native-born Americans because they would accept lower wages–the perennial anti-immigrant lament we still hear today. Employers were often eager to hire Irish because they cost less. Sure, some employers refused to hire Irish, black, or other minorities; some establishments refused to serve them. Anti-Irish sentiments were strongest in the middle part of the nineteenth century, when this song,”No Irish Need Apply,” was popular. Listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXkgUqD4_EY
Conclusion: The Irish Catholics faced discrimination. “No Irish Need Apply” newspaper advertisements existed. Workplace signs were not common, but Irish were effectively barred from “better”occupations and shunted into low-paying factory work and domestic service.
The heart-warming tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a Thanksgiving feast and prayers at Plymouth never took place. More accurately, it is a combination of two events that did take place: a harvest feast that occurred in 1621 with about 90 Wampanoag Indians and a day of thanksgiving declared by William Bradford in 1623. The pious Pilgrims did not consider that feast to be a “thanksgiving,” which to them meant solemn day of prayer at church, not a harvest celebration. Historians believe they would not have combined the two events as we do today.
An annual Thanksgiving holiday wasn’t established until the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln made it official.
All this begs the question of where the real first Thanksgiving took place. There are other serious contenders, you know, including Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, where the settlers were specifically instructed to make the day of their arrival in 1619 a day of thanksgiving to be celebrated every year thereafter. But St. Augustine, Florida, may trump them both with its 1565 date. This is where the Spaniards celebrated with a Catholic mass and a fine meal with the Timucua Indians. Now, now, children, no squabbling . . .
The truth is, there were many official days of thanksgiving in colonial America.
Thanksgiving myths: http://www.history.com/minisites/thanksgiving/viewPage?pageId=874
Contributed by readers:
Three myths surfaced in the news this week. Our first chuckle is the myth about myths. Here’s the article–
A billboard in Costa Mesa, Calif., is getting some attention, but it’s certainly not the kind its sponsors were hoping for.
The sign, paid for by atheist group Backyard Skeptics, includes a quote about Christianity attributed to Thomas Jefferson. But further research reveals there’s no solid evidence that Jefferson ever uttered or wrote the words, the Orange County Register first reported.
The billboard includes a picture of Jefferson with the quote: “I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology.”
Experts at the Jefferson Library Collection at Monticello are constantly asked about the quote, the Orange County Register reports. Some say the former president wrote the words in a letter to a Dr. Wood, but officials cannot find trace of any correspondence to a person by that name.
Bruce Gleason, a member of the group, told the Orange County registrar that he should have done a bit more research before putting the words on the sign. (Ya think?)
This story reminded me of the George Washington myths (see posting “Myths of George Washington” from February 2011) that professor Edward G. Lengel of the University of Virginia talked about when his book on that topic was published. As the director of the Washington Papers for the past 15 years, Lengel constantly gets requests to authenticate supposed quotes from Washington, most of which have no basis in fact.
The second item is from N. B. Hilyard. Thanks for bringing this to my attention! It comes from the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History and concerns the secret message supposedly hidden inside Lincoln’s pocket watch. Fact or myth? Turns out, it’s true, or very nearly so. Read about it here:
And the third story comes courtesy of another reader who sent this amusing article from the Nashville Business Journal of Sept. 30, 2011:
“A public art announcement that was barely noticed by some in Nashville has made waves across the rest of the country.
The Metro Arts Commission voted earlier this month to award $300,000 to David Dahlquist, an Iowa-based artist, to install art along the new 28th/31st Avenue connector. As The City Paper reports, Dahlquist aimed to mimic different quilt designs that had originally been used to guide slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
One problem: The quilt-as-guidepost tale is a myth, as many from across the country were happy to inform the arts commission.
Jen Cole, director of the arts commission, told The City Paper the installation will maintain a quilt theme but will no longer commemorate the Underground Railroad.”
That’s cheering, isn’t it, that “many from across the country” debunked the Underground Railroad quilt code myth. It gives me hope that truth will ultimately prevail!
Or this one: The Amish made mistakes in their quilts on purpose because “only God is perfect.” Never mind that Amish quilters have strongly denied this custom.
Quilt historians are a careful bunch, and they take unproven claims very seriously. One went looking for the origins of this “humility block” legend and found the earliest reference dated to 1949. No sources from the 1800s like diaries or letters or published materials mention a practice like this, and no oral tradition could be traced. Perhaps the idea got started when people noticed an odd placement of a piece of fabric or a change in color and wondered whether it was done on purpose.
There is a similar, equally baseless myth that goes with Persian rugs. Supposedly the weaver makes a mistake on purpose so as not to offend Allah.
Ask any quilter, Amish or not, and they’ll tell you that they make plenty of mistakes without even trying.
On the morning of March 22, 1622, Virginia’s Powhatan Indian alliance executed a well-conceived and coordinated attack on English settlements spread more than fifty miles up and down the James River. Warriors from perhaps a dozen of the thirty-two affiliated tribes—Quiyoughcohannocks, Waraskoyacks, Weanocks, Appomatucks, Arrohatecks, and others—fell on men, women, and children in their homes and in their fields, burning houses and barns, killing livestock, mutilating the bodies of their victims. Planned by the Pamunkey headman Opechancanough, kinsman of the deceased paramount chieftain Powhatan, the offensive slew about 350 whites, a sixth of the total in the fifteen-year-old colony. From modern Richmond to Hampton Roads, the onslaught devastated Jamestown’s outlying plantations, but it failed of its purpose: stopping the relentless encroachment of the English. The raid is commonly—and erroneously—called the Good Friday Massacre.
More than one historian has suggested that the attacks were timed to coincide with the Christian Holy Week, thinking that the 1622 raid was on Good Friday. Eminent colonist George Thorpe had often conferred with Opechancanough on matters of religion, trying to convert the old chief to Christianity, and presumably would have shared with him the details of Easter and the resurrection. The Powhatans had a predilection for blending irony and warfare (these are Indians who killed colonists for stealing corn by stuffing corn down their throats, for instance.) It is suggested that Opechancanough planned the attack for Good Friday to emphasize a rejection of the foreigner’s religion.
Easter, however, does not cooperate with this theory, falling as it does on April 21 in 1622, several weeks after the massacre. So how did the myth begin?
It seems to have been a mix-up with the date of Opechancanough’s second major attack, the one in 1644, which actually did occur near Easter, although this was not on Good Friday either. This second attack came on the Thursday before Easter, known by Christians as Maundy Thursday. Seems that a careless historian moved the attack of 1644 back one day—to Good Friday—and confused that with the date of the first attack in 1622. According to ethnohistorian Fred Fausz, this mixup “led to the creation of the myth–unforgivably by a clergyman. In 1871 the Rev. Edward D. Neill got his massacres mixed up; thought the 1644 attack occurred on Good Friday, rather than on Maundy Thursday; and then inadvertently reversed the years! A Neill admirer, Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, embraced the symbolism of heathens slaying Anglicans on that special day of Christian sacrifice. A careless slip became an enduring myth because both men were popular celebrity authors, more prolific than careful, with Neill restating his error in multiple, repetitious books from 1871-1885, while Tyler did likewise from 1904-1915.”
Memorable and catchy, the mistake persists in textbooks and on Internet sites despite the efforts of historians to correct it.
On February 24, in honor of George Washington’s birthday, I attended a lecture at the Virginia Historical Society about the creation of George Washington myths. The speaker was Edward G. Lengel, a history professor at the University of Virginia and, more to the point, the director of the Washington Papers for the past 15 years. He has just published a book, INVENTING GEORGE WASHINGTON: AMERICA’S FOUNDER, IN MYTH AND MEMORY, that deals with Washington myths. As someone who has spent years working with some 140,000 Washington letters, papers, and diaries, he probably knows old George better than anyone alive. His talk was recorded to be shown later on the Book Channel, but no specific date or time was given, so I can’t steer you to that. However, here is the link to his very interesting NPR interview a couple days ago. http://www.npr.org/2011/02/21/133943644/George-Washington-Separating-Man-From-Myth
Or listen to a three-minte snippet here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHkyaoBfDM0
Lengel start his presentation by reviewing several of the thousands of legends and myths that have grown up about Washington. Some are funny (a GW diary was recently discovered in Scotland that mentions the general coming across greenish men who lived in aluminum cones at Valley Forge and they helped him get through the winter), some are annoying (GW grew marijuana at Mount Vernon and smoked it often), and some are infuriating (GW had a child by a slave girl). The first myth-maker, “Parson” Weems, understood that biography was not enough, that stories would bring Washington to the people. Weems realized that a series of anecdotes would make him into a real human being and create a sense of connection to the great man.
The myths about Washington being a great lover, a Lothario, made him appeal to men and women alike, although Lengel said the evidence is all to the contrary. These are the myths about Sally Fairfax and others that portray Martha as dowdy, stupid, and dour, forcing him, in effect, to find romance elsewhere. Facts are to the contrary–Martha was pretty, vivacious, intelligent, and there is not a shred of evidence that Washington was unfaithful.
The pious Christian image that came about during a pious time in American history (the mid-late 19th century) made GW appealing to very religious people. This is the time that the image of GW praying in the snow at Valley Forge was invented, as well as his supposed baptism in the river–Potomac, Hudson, Schuylkill, it changes place depending upon the teller. These events made people feel that GW was “one of us.” Actually, Lengel says, the evidence is all to the contrary. GW was not an atheist, not a Diest, not an evangelical Christian, and not interested in theology. He did go to church sometimes, where he made a point of never kneeling or taking communion, and didn’t mention Jesus on his deathbed. He was, however, a very moral man, one who was influenced more by the philosophy of Stoicism than any particular religion, and he respected all faiths, even attended many churches such as Catholic and Jewish synagogues.
Some myths are simply statements that GW was supposed to have said, according to Glen Beck or some other announcer. Lengel says his office gets frequent questions from reporters asking whether it is true that GW said such-and-such, and most often, it is not. So Lengel’s office acts as a sort of Snopes for GW!
Lengel concluded that the myths serve an important purpose. We want them to be true because they seem to bring Washington into our lives. We still need him and want him to be real. His talk, which lasted only about 40 minutes, was most interesting. I learned a lot! The large lecture hall was literally packed. I hope you get the chance to hear his entire talk on the Book Channel.
According to this myth, the bottom two panels of a six-panel wooden door were designed to represent an open Bible, and the middle stile and rail were meant to form a cross. This story is trotted out to show how pious our ancestors were. Or how laughably superstitious they were to think this would ward off witches.
Remember Myth #6 about the Holy Lord hinges? Same thing here. Both are based on the erroneous belief that all early Americans were very religious and highly superstitious. The truth is, some were and some weren’t. But no one at the time thought of his door as Christian symbolism. The six-panel design is just one of many wooden door styles that was popular back then and still is today.
An extension of this story—that the Holy Lord hinges were intended to protect the house from witches—regularly makes the rounds as well, even in hardware stores!
HL hinges are a stronger version of simple symmetrical H hinges. They are useful for supporting the weight of a heavy wooden door. The key is the extra supporting arm that fastens to the door. This piece can be on top, in which case it would look like an HΓ, or on the bottom, where it resembles at L, or it can be mounted on the other side as the mirror image of these two. Leaving aside the hard fact that many colonists had little or no interest in religion, no documentation exists for the belief that their hardware had any symbolic value.