Thursday, April 04, 2019

COLUMN: 12 Days


Last week, I had the pleasure of attending "Seasons of Light," Augustana's annual Christmas program presented at the John Deere Planetarium. The multimedia show used the planetarium's projector, astronomical images, music and narration to explain how holiday traditions are connected to the sky. It was a short but charming presentation, and I even managed to learn a thing or two.

Primarily, I learned that I want a planetarium. There's nothing I love more than stargazing, but whenever I get the itch, it's either overcast or I'm somewhere rife with light pollution. If I can't see the real universe, why not build a fake one in my spare bedroom? Anyone have a how-to guide?

I also learned that some constellations are just silly. "See that dim star right there?" (No? Maybe?) "Connect it to those other dim stars over there, and... it's a unicorn!" Umm... no. It's vague dots in the (fake) sky that I could barely see. I look more like a unicorn than those dots did. I'm starting to think whoever invented some of these constellations was a bored stoner who showed up at the planetarium on the wrong night for laser Pink Floyd.

But I also learned a cool thing or two about our holiday traditions.

As you're probably aware, the Bible never tells us the actual date of Jesus' birth. At some point, early Christians just settled on December 25th as the day of celebration. This was likely due to its proximity to the winter solstice, a period of rebirth already celebrated by ancient people whenever the magic heat circle in the sky stops heading south for the winter.

But as it turns out, December 25th wasn't a unanimous choice. Some Eastern sects preferred to celebrate Christmas Day in early January instead. The compromise between the differing dates became what we know today as the twelve days of Christmas -- a nearly two week celebration extending from Christmas Day to the western ecclesiastical Feast of Epiphany.

This was news to me, because I had always assumed that the "12 Days of Christmas" began twelve days PRIOR to Christmas, culminating on Christmas Day. But no, it BEGINS on Christmas and extends for 12 days after. This means the actual "twelfth day of Christmas" would be the fifth of January -- otherwise known as MY BIRTHDAY. On the twelfth day of Christmas, your true love brought to you: ME! Ta-da!

I can't help but feel a little ripped off here. I've gotten some amazing, thoughtful, and heartfelt birthday gifts over the years. But here I am, the living embodiment of the twelfth day of Christmas, and I have yet to receive even one drummer drumming. I'm about to turn 48. The way I see it, somebody owes me 576 drum solos.

Or maybe not, because "The 12 Days of Christmas" is the weirdest of all Christmas tunes.

"Honey, as you know, you are my true love and I yours. And as an expression of our timeless and eternal romance, I give unto you... a bird. In a tree."
"Umm... thanks, but..."
"BUT WAIT! To prove my unending infatuation, tomorrow I shall give you two more birds! And the day after? THREE more birds!"
"What the..."
"Ah, but the day after THAT? To celebrate our true love, I shall give you -- yes, you guessed it -- four more birds, but THESE birds will be EXTRA NOISY!"
"I don't think..."
"Then, on Day 5, you shall receive FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!"
"Okay, wait, now we're talking."
"Yes, five golden rings... which you should wear as protection a couple days later when I give you seven aggressively mean birds!"
"Stop it. Just stop it."
"But that's only after Day 6, when I shall give you six birds laying eggs to make ADDITIONAL birds!"
"So the best way to express your love for me is with 23+ birds?"
"Oh, that's just the start. On the next day, I shall present you with... eight maids a-milking!"
"A-milking WHAT, exactly?"
"Well... I suppose that's yet to be determined. I kind of ran out of ideas after all the birds. The next 4 days, I'm just going to fill the house with a bunch of strangers who are gonna dance and leap around to a wicked flute-and-drum jam session."
"Roger, we need to talk."

And if you take the song literally, it's even crazier. On the first day, you get a partridge in a pear tree. But on the second day, it's two turtle doves AND a partridge in a pear tree. Does that mean by day twelve, the true love ends up with a literal partridge family, not to mention 42 ill-tempered swans, 30 leaping lords, and forty maids a-milking everything in sight? At some point, you have to start worrying about the structural integrity of their home.

If you math out the entire song, that would make 364 total gifts, a present for every single day of the year, save one. I can only presume that on the 365th day of Christmas, some unfortunate soul's true love would give to them a visit by the ASPCA and perhaps Homeland Security and quite possibly a felony charge of trading in exotic animals and human trafficking.

Just so all of you know, on the first day of Christmas AND the 17,520th day of Shane, I'd be fine with a gift certificate. After all, I've got a planetarium to build.

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