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Sunday, January 01, 2006

On the Eighth Day of Christmas...Eight Maids A-Milking
by Chuck

Christmas E-Cards

On the eighth day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.

The eight maids a-milking addresses two of the major themes of sixteenth century English celebrations and parties during the Christmas holidays – food and romance. What is a feast or party without food? Especially foods that are not common and are reserved for special occasions.

Until the advent of refrigeration, milk was not a common drink because it spoils quickly. However, milk based products that did not spoil such as cheese, sour milk (which is actually a cultured milk much like yogurt and is neither sour tasting nor spoiled) and custards were prized treats. Cheese and sour milk are the result of processes that expose milk to so called friendly bacteria which convert the milk to a state where it can be preserved for a longer period and is also tasty. Custard is similar but this involves the cooking of the milk, which kills the harmful bacteria thereby extending the period during which it can be safely consumed.

The maids, of course, refer to the women who would milk the cows to obtain the milk in the first place. In times past milking of cows or goats was typically a job for women. However, the term maid is also the shortened form of maiden which is a young, unmarried, woman.

The term eight maids a-milking evokes images of the food, especially the special holiday foods, to be enjoyed at this festive time of year as well as the possibilities for romance which was a big attraction for the younger people. In sixteenth century England the term to go a-milking had strong romantic and sexual connotations. It was a term that men used when they wanted to ask a woman to marry them or to have a simple sexual encounter. Like similar expressions people use today, asking a woman to go a-milking was a code used by men to test a woman's response to their intentions. Words have meaning and they carry emotional impact. Requests also require a response. Will you marry me and will you go a-milking with me may convey the same message but the nonsense phrase go a-milking does not carry the emotional impact of marry me. Coded phrases like this allow people to converse more freely while at the same time allowing them to retract a statement more easily. When a man asks a woman to marry him and she says no what can he respond back with without looking desperate and/or foolish? But, when he asks a woman to go a-milking with him and she replies with a no he can easily come back with something like well, I just thought you would like some company when you go to milk the cows. In this case his proposal was received and understood but rejected, at least temporarily, however he is able to dismiss it as a misunderstanding of what he really meant. Both laugh and can proceed without loss of dignity on either side.

As mentioned above, these feasts or parties were a time for large groups of people to come together and have fun. This was a situation where standards could be relaxed somewhat for both married and unmarried people. Single women were not guarded and chaperoned as closely as they were normally. A large party with feasting, singing, dancing, drinking, etc. in a large manor home or castle offered plenty of opportunities for men and women to meet and socialize. It was a great opportunity for single men with honorable intentions to meet and be alone with eligible single women. It also offered opportunities for illicit trysts regardless of the couple's state of matrimony. Rather than discouraging such behavior, the large crowd made it easier for couples to break away from friends and family and mingle among strangers. Also, the large manor houses or castles in which these feasts were held had numerous rooms and alcoves which, along with the noise of the party and dim light (candles were the only source of light) made it very easy to be alone.

The maids a-milking stanza and the other stanzas clearly describe secular feasting which is why many argue that The Twelve Days of Christmas is a secular carol like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and other modern secular carols. It may have evolved from earlier religious carols but by the time it was written down and published it had become a carol describing the secular feasting side of Christmas.

Tomorrow I will present the first of two theories that claim that the obvious secular symbols in this carol are really codes for religious themes.

Copyright © 2005-2006 by Charles J. Nugent Jr. and Victor L. Nugent.

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