Revisited Myth #120: Using X for “kiss” comes from illiterate people signing a document and kissing their signature.

May 22, 2017

The myth says that the use of using X to mean “kiss” began in the Middle Ages, when most people were unable to read or write. Documents were often signed using an X. Kissing the X represented an oath to fulfill obligations specified in the document. The X and the kiss eventually became synonymous.

Sounds like a myth, but it’s true. Using a cross as a signature has been common since the Middle Ages. The X is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ and it was used as an abbreviation for that word–hence Xmas for Christmas. To kiss your mark indicated a sworn signature, like swearing an oath.

So why does O mean hugs? I couldn’t find a thing about that, but I believe O came much more recently as the logical accompaniment to X because of its association in “noughts and crosses” or Tic-tac-toe, the ancient game that uses Xs and Os.


Revisited Myth # 102: “Twelve Days of Christmas” song has a secret meaning.

December 19, 2015

 

A partridge not in a pear tree

A partridge not in a pear tree

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.” 

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.

12 Days Mirth MischiefHow 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? 2002-959How 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.

 

 

Comments:
Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
71.56.173.116 In reply to WriterMelle.
I don’t believe it means bird covered with soot; rather birds that are black like soot. Blackbirds.

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WriterMelle
writermelle.com
melissalind@live.com
162.251.14.78
I think that giving away colly birds wouldn’t be a very nice thing to do since they were quite sooty….as in covered with soot.

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.82.204 In reply to kbchrist.
It refers to the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany (Jan. 6).

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kbchrist
kbchrist@gmail.com
100.2.135.69
Do you know of any reason for it to be 12 days? My understanding was that it was the twelve days between Christmas and Kings’ Day, but with the courting connotations that seems unlikely

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.147.133 In reply to azambone.
Oh, geez, I’m so embarrassed! Colonial Williamsburg had me give a public lecture last November about this myth–another example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.

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azambone
azambone@me.com
72.82.234.247
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
One of the most annoying and unkillable Christmas history myths is that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is actually a secret catechism…or something. It particularly annoys me because I once accepted it. And it was even more annoying when I heard a nice lady at Colonial Williamsburg not only repeating the myth at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern one night, but also passing out handouts explaining the “code.”

Anyway, given that the twelve days of Christmas are over, you’ll have to wait until next year to correct your annoying, know-it-all Aunt Sally when she trots this one out.

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fireside feasts
CMCapeStar@aol.com
173.68.14.21
“none of the secret meanings are distinctly Catholic; all are also fundamental to Church of England and other Christian denominations.”
Yeah, but Catholicism came first. The others were created later and in protest against it. Not that I’m disputing the myth as a whole, but this line…not so much! It doesn’t hold up.

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.147.133 In reply to Deborah Brower.
You’re very welcome! Thanks go to you for your contributions, too.
I have a few more myths in the works, but will run out soon. Then I think I’ll start to re-post the old ones, maybe adding a little or incorporating some of the comments into the text. We’ll see.

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Deborah Brower
eirdrum@fastmail.com
70.192.217.220
Congratulations and thanks for all your hard work providing another year of debunking. The topics are always interesting and responses informative. It is really helpful to have a forum to sort this stuff out in a friendly way. Have a appy and equally successful New Year!

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.147.133 In reply to Katherine Louise.
Yes, the order changes in different versions, which is yet another reason against the “secret meaning” that I hadn’t come across. The only order that seems genuinely historical is the division between birds and people: the first 7 gifts are birds, the last 5 are people. Fun topic, huh??


Revisited Myth #101: Colonial Americans decorated their homes with fresh fruit at Christmas.

December 9, 2015

D2008-BTL-0109-2004

The approaching holidays require a Christmas myth or two . . . so let’s start with the idea that colonial Americans in general celebrated and decorated for Christmas. That’s erroneous. Many early Americans didn’t acknowledge Christmas at all, let alone celebrate or decorate for it. These included the Puritans in New England and various denominations throughout the middle and southern colonies like Amish, Baptists, Congregationalists, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quakers. But for many in the central and southern colonies, Christmas was a holiday season.

Let’s go to the biggest decorating myth in American Christmas history–the idea that our colonial forebears decked their homes with fruited wreaths.

The idea of decorating the doors with rare fresh fruit where it would hang until it rotted or was eaten by squirrels would have horrified everyone in colonial America, no matter how wealthy they were. Fresh fruit was rare to nonexistent during the winter and if one were fortunate enough to have some imported oranges from the Caribbean or late apples from New England, one ate them.

D2009-BTL-1223-1006

This myth originated with the DellaRobbia-style decorating that began in Williamsburg in the 1930s (when the town was being restored with Rockefeller money) as a compromise with its residents. As far as we can tell, colonists did not decorate the outside of their houses at all, but Americans in the 1930s most certainly did, and Williamsburg residents were not happy to be told that authenticity demanded they forego all their Christmas decorations. Nor did the Colonial Williamsburg executives relish the thought of blinking colored lights and reindeer glowing from the rooftops of the restored town. It was decided to encourage natural decoration with materials that would have been available to the colonists, such as greenery, dried seed pods, fruit, pinecones, gourds, oyster shells, and so forth. But no matter how often Foundation executives stressed that this was NOT a colonial decorating method but a modern-day compromise, the erroneous impression spread.

Christmas Stock

 

5 Responses to Myth # 101: Colonial Americans decorated their homes with fresh fruit on Christmas.
Melissa Nesbitt says:
December 22, 2012 at 11:10 am (Edit)
But now, WHO can imagine a Colonial Williamsburg Christmas without fruited wreaths? It has spread of course… I’m “guilty” of doing a Williamsburg style wreath for my own front door on occasion. Love it! 🙂

Have a question though, Mary–what about the “pomander balls” made of oranges and/or apples stuffed with cloves? Where did that come from?

Reply
Mary Miley says:
December 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm (Edit)
Hello Melissa. Nothing wrong with “Williamsburg” decorating. I love it too! It’s just that it isn’t colonial. As for pomanders, I remember doing research on those about thirty years ago. While the details escape me, I remember that the word comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, or apple of amber (gold) or ambergris (ambergris, from sperm whales, was a fixative used to hold scent). The scented ball was originally thought to ward off illnesses. Soon spread to other parts of Europe from France. You can see prints of medieval and renaissance ladies wearing a pomander on their belt. Later (not sure when), sticking a piece of round fruit with cloves gave a nice scent that lasted a long time because the cloves preserved the fruit. More recently, it became associated with Christmas. Wishing you lovely holidays!

Mary Mary Miley Theobald

Reply
Melissa Nesbitt says:
December 29, 2012 at 7:06 pm (Edit)
Thank you much, Mary! I’ve just now gotten back to read your comment. Hope your holidays were good as well.

That was interesting to know about how the Williamsburg decorations came about as a “compromise” with the residents. I wish I’d had that information last year when I gave a talk at our local DAR chapter’s Christmas luncheon. I did mention the part about fruit not being used as decorations, but now I can add this information when asked. LOVE your blog!

Roger W. Fuller says:
December 23, 2012 at 10:33 am (Edit)
I find it hard to believe that many colonists even celebrated Xmas, at least in New England.

Reply
azambone says:
December 24, 2012 at 9:07 am (Edit)
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
An example of how a mild and harmless myth can be perpetuated despite the best intentions of those involved.

Reply


Christmas . . . is it Merry or Happy?

December 21, 2014

This isn’t an actual myth, but in honor of the holidays, I thought I’d post this bit of research submitted by Kenneth Archbold of Mount Vernon, who reports that people there were debating which greeting–Merry Christmas or Happy Christmas–would have been used during George Washington’s time. 

350px-MTVernonseenfromtheriver

From what I’ve been able to find out, “Merry Christmas” is indeed what one was more likely to use at the time, if any greeting was used at all. Different sources trace the origin of the phrase back to different dates, but in each case that I’ve seen, they all pre-date the 18th Century. The casual use of the phrase in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” seems to suggest that it was already well-known to the English by the early to mid-19th Century. “Happy Christmas” seems to have originated in the late 19th Century and, in the opinions of some, grew out of the temperance movement in an effort diminish any association of Christmas with the alcohol fueled celebrations of Christmas past (the word “merry” being often associated with drinking, indulgence and raucous celebrations).

If you were to step back in time to 18th-century America, how likely would you have been to hear any greeting at all on Christmas day? As you probably already know, that depended on where exactly you were. If you were in New England, the answer would be none at all since the Puritans had banned the holiday in the mid-17th century, and it wouldn’t be celebrated there again until the early 19th century. The Quakers in Pennsylvania might not have outlawed it, but they didn’t really observe it either. Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, etc. on the other hand celebrated Christmas as we might expect with parties, dances, big dinners, decorating with holly and mistletoe (no Christmas tree, though) and good Christmas cheer. An article on the subject is here: http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/christmasthen.html  According to this article, Christmas was celebrated most heartily in the Southern colonies.

So all considered, I think it is appropriate to gladly wish visitors to Mount Vernon and Williamsburg a Merry Christmas.


Myth #101 Revisited: Colonial Americans decorated their homes at Christmas.

December 21, 2013

D2008-BTL-0109-2004

     I had to find a Christmas myth for this week . . . so let’s start with the idea that colonial Americans in general celebrated and decorated for Christmas. Many early Americans didn’t acknowledge Christmas at all, let alone celebrate or decorate for it. These included the Puritans in New England and various denominations throughout the middle and southern colonies like Amish, Baptists, Congregationalists, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quakers. But for many in the central and southern colonies, Christmas was a holiday season. 

     Let’s go to the biggest decorating myth in American Christmas history–the idea that our colonial forebears decked their homes with fruited wreaths.

     The idea of decorating the doors with rare fresh fruit where it would hang until it rotted or was eaten by squirrels would have horrified everyone in colonial America, no matter how wealthy they were. Fresh fruit was rare to nonexistent during the winter and if one were fortunate enough to have some imported oranges from the Caribbean or late apples from New England, one ate them.

D2009-BTL-1223-1006

     This myth originated with the DellaRobbia-style decorating that began in Williamsburg in the 1930s (when the town was being restored with Rockefeller money) as a compromise with its residents. As far as we can tell, colonists did not decorate the outside of their houses at all, but Americans in the 1930s most certainly did, and Williamsburg residents were not happy to be told that authenticity demanded they forego all Christmas decorations. Nor did the Colonial Williamsburg executives relish the thought of blinking colored lights and reindeer glowing from the rooftops of the restored town. It was decided to encourage natural decoration with materials that would have been available to the colonists, such as greenery, dried seed pods, fruit, pinecones, gourds, oyster shells, and so forth. But no matter how often Foundation executives stressed that this was NOT a colonial decorating method but a modern-day compromise, the erroneous impression spread.

 

Myth # 74 Revisited: The Christmas tree tradition was brought to America by the German immigrants.

December 15, 2013

Well, yes and no. Ironically, the German Christmas tree came to America from England, courtesy of an English queen.

The Christmas tree is a German tradition that can be traced back to the 1500s to Strasbourg, which is now part of France. (See Myth #73)  But it was a minor tradition confined to the Alsace region that did not spread to the rest of Germany until after 1750. German-speaking immigrants had been coming to America in significant numbers since the late 17th century. Many came from parts of Germany where the decorated tree custom was unknown. Many did not celebrate Christmas at all, for religious reasons (like the Puritans in New England). So, not all German immigrants were aware of the Christmas tree custom, and some of those who were aware of it opposed all celebration of Christmas. 

But some German immigrants did celebrate the holiday with a decorated tree. There are numerous references to Christmas trees in America, each competing to be first in its state or region, and a few lay claim to the 1700s. Whenever the name of the family setting up one of these early trees is known, it is a German-sounding name. But this quaint German custom might well have died out as immigrants assimilated had it not been for the influence of an English queen.

When Queen Victoria’s German-born husband and first cousin, Prince Albert, arranged for a fir tree to be brought from his homeland and decorated in 1841, it created a minor sensation throughout the English-speaking world, thanks to the newly important media: the magazine. Everyone knew about Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree. A print of the royal family gathered about the Christmas tree at Windsor Castle appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848, then in Godey’s Lady’s Bookin 1850, and was reprinted again ten years later. The six-foot fir sits on a table, each tier laden with a dozen or more lighted wax tapers. An angel with outstretched arms poses at the top. Gilt gingerbread ornaments and tiny baskets filled with sweets hang by ribbons from the branches. Clustered around the base of the tree are dolls and soldiers and toys.

The queen’s Christmas tree certainly caught the public’s imagination. It was not, however, the first German tree in England, as is commonly thought. Queen Victoria had seen one as a girl in 1832. The little princess wrote excitedly in her diary that her Aunt Sophia had set up two “trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed around the tree.” And long before that, in 1789, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, the last king of America, sent to her native Meckelberg-Strelitz in northern Germany for a Christmas tree. The queen’s physician, Dr. John Watkins, described it as “a charming imported German custom, [with] bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins in papers, fruits, and toys most tastefully arranged” on its branches. Charming it may have been, but it didn’t stick. More than three generations would pass before the custom took root in England and in America. 

Once the royal seal of approval had been stamped solidly on the Christmas tree, the practice spread throughout England and America and, to a lesser extent, to other parts of the world, through magazine pictures and articles. Upper-class Victorian Englishmen loved to imitate the royal family, and Americans followed suit. Late in the century, larger floor-to-ceiling trees replaced the tabletop size. 

The Christmas trees that existed in America before the Queen Victoria media blitz seemed to have involved Moravians (now the Czech Republic), Alsatians (now France), or other German-Americans, and the custom had shown no sign of spreading beyond those narrow ethnic groups. The writer of an 1825 article in The Saturday Evening Post mentions seeing trees in the windows of many houses in Philadelphia, a city with a large German population. He wrote, Their “green boughs [were] laden with fruit, richer than the golden apples of the Hesperides, or the sparkling diamonds that clustered on the branches in the wonderful cave of Aladdin.” Gilded apples and nuts hung from the branches as did marzipan ornaments, sugar cakes, miniature mince pies, spicy cookies cut from molds in the shape of stars, birds, fish, butterflies, and flowers. A woman visiting German friends in Boston in 1832 wrote about their unusual tree hung with gilded eggshell cups filled with candies. 

Not until the mid-nineteenth century did Christmas trees start spreading to homes with no known German connection. In Virginia, Judge Nathaniel Beverley Tucker adopted the custom after a German friend introduced him to the Christmas tree in 1842. Robert E. Lee’s children enjoyed a tabletop tree at their quarters at West Point, NY, in 1853 when their father was Superintendent of the Military Academy. President Franklin Pierce set up a “German tree” in the White House in 1856. Newspapers and women’s magazines like Ladies Home Journal and Godey’s Lady’s Book spread the Christmas tree custom to all ethnic groups and economic classes.

Merry Christmas to all! 


Myth #73 Revisited: The Christmas tree is an old German tradition dating back to the Middle Ages.

December 7, 2013
Strasbourg, from a 1492 text

This time of year, most museums and historic sites put up a Christmas tree which they endeavor to make relevant by decorating it to a certain date–a Victorian tree, a Civil War tree, or a 1940s tree, for example. Usually a docent or placard will say something like, “The Christmas tree was an old German tradition with roots in the Middle Ages,” or, “. . . with roots in the pagan festivals that dated back to the time of ancient Rome.” There is no evidence for either statement. No records from the Middle Ages or earlier mention or portray a Christmas tree.

Some cite the old tradition of a paradise tree as a plausible ancestor to the Christmas tree, but the link sounds weak to me. Judge for yourself: The paradise tree was a standard stage prop in one of the popular religious plays (called mystery plays), the one about Adam and Eve. It was hung, appropriately enough, with what passed for red apples. Although it would seem an oxymoron, December 24 was, in those years, commonly celebrated as Adam and Eve’s birthday—thus their association with Christmas. Those who see the paradise tree as the precursor to our Christmas tree claim, with some logic if no proof, that the apples evolved into our round ornaments. 

The earliest hint of the Christmas tree custom can be found in 1561 in a sternly worded Alsatian (German) prohibition that forbade anyone to “have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoes’ length.” Whether this was a fire precaution, a conservation measure, a religious prohibition, or something entirely different, we will probably never know, but authorities wouldn’t have passed a law against excessive Christmas trees if people hadn’t been putting them in their homes. A few decades later in 1605, one year before the Jamestown adventurers sailed to Virginia, the first description of a decorated Christmas tree shows up–also in Alsace. “At Christmas they set up fir-trees in the parlors at Strasbourg and hang roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets, &c.”

The custom spread slowly among wealthy, upperclass Germans—it was certainly not common in average homes. Nor was it popular with everyone. One German minister in Strasbourg deplored the frivolous practice: “Among other trifles with which the people often occupy the Christmas time more than with God’s word, is also the Christmas or fir tree, which they erect in the house, and hang with dolls and sugar and thereupon shake and cause to lose its bloom. Where the habit comes from, I know not. It is a bit of child’s play . . . Far better were it for the children to be dedicated to the spiritual cedar tree, Jesus Christ.” 

The Christmas tree custom originated in the German Rhineland (although Strasbourg is now on the France side of the border), probably in the 1500s. It may be older than that, but the proof is lacking. (Claims about Latvia or Estonia having the first documented Christmas tree in 1510 or thereabouts are hard to verify; even if they prove solid, the premise remains the same, as these were Germanic people too, especially in the Baltic port cities.) 

medieval Strasbourg

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