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Archive for Sunday, December 24, 2006

Professor brought ‘12 Days of Christmas’ to U.S. from England

December 24, 2006

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— Whatever you think of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," you can thank, or blame, a Milwaukee college professor for bringing the holiday carol across the Atlantic Ocean.

Emily Frances Brown had no idea the song celebrating partridges, pear trees, French hens and lords a-leaping would one day become so popular. Brown, an English professor at Milwaukee-Downer College, found the song while browsing in a bookstore in Oxford, England, in 1910.

She bought the sheet music, tucked it into her luggage and brought it back to Milwaukee.

"We told anybody who would listen - of course, we didn't have a big audience then - that it was first performed at Milwaukee Downer College," said Marjory Irvin, who taught music at Downer from 1948 to 1964.

Downer merged with Lawrence University in Appleton, where Irvin taught until 1987. The Downer campus became home to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Brown was long gone from Downer College by the time Irvin joined the faculty, but she heard plenty of stories about the English professor who organized and wrote annual Christmas productions. Brown's students first sang "The Twelve Days of Christmas" in 1910, and the song quickly became a staple on the Milwaukee campus.

Irvin had never heard the song until she was hired at Downer. She accompanied on organ while students sang it during daily chapel in Merrill Hall.

"My first thought was one of pure panic, because I was trying to play it in correct rhythm, but the girls kept getting faster and faster," Irvin recalled. "The bigger the number the faster they sang, and I couldn't hold them back, so it was scary, but then I realized that's the way they sang it."

It was several years before Irvin, who is partial to "What Child Is This?" began hearing the song elsewhere. She wasn't surprised it became popular because it's a fun song, she said.

"It might be because it has the nice list of odd gifts that gave it a certain antique feel," said Ron Wiecki, a music librarian at University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose favorite Christmas song is "Jingle Bells." "It's sort of like '99 Bottles of Beer.'"

Each year the song gets attention when the media estimate the cost of each item in the song. This year the total is up to $18,920, due, in part, to rising wages for dancers and musicians, though the maids a-milking still get the federal minimum wage.

Hal Leonard Corp., the world's largest music print publisher, sells "The Twelve Days of Christmas" sheet music for $3.95, as well as in several collections of Christmas carols.

It's not a big seller, said the Milwaukee company's chairman and CEO, Keith Mardak, because anyone can sell it without paying royalties. Songs written before 1922 are considered in the public domain.

Some believe "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has symbolic meaning that's related to Christian theology, with the "true love" in the song representing God, said Rick Walters, vice president of Hal Leonard's classical division.

Depending on which Internet site you check, "The 12 Days of Christmas" was written in England as a "catechism song" to help Catholics learn their faith during times of religious oppression, or came from France as a "forfeits" song celebrated on Twelfth Night - preceding Epiphany, Jan. 6 - where singers had to pay up if they could not correctly remember the list of gifts in the song.

Or, it dates back to a 13th-century manuscript at Cambridge called "Twelfth Day."

There are many stories of the song's origins and just about as many different verses, with hares a-running instead of swans a-swimming, bears a-baiting instead of ladies dancing and bulls a-roaring instead of lords a-leaping.

Some believe it's a catechism song with each verse having a meaning: the two turtle doves representing the Old and New Testaments, the four calling birds are the four Gospels, the 10 lords a-leaping standing in for the 10 Commandments, etc.

Whatever its meaning, the song that was bought almost a century ago by a Milwaukee college professor in an Oxford bookshop is now inextricably linked to the Christmas holiday.

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