‘twas the tenth night before Christmas.
December 15th is the thirteenth day of the made-up characters calendar and being St Ebay's Day, the day that St Ebay of Great Wastage ran through the town throwing money at shop windows, we shall now tell another story of unnecessary presents.
Quite what drove King Henry VIII to devise such an insane list of Christmas presents for Catherine Parr is not recorded in the annals of history. What we do know is that only royalty could have invented such a thing because as the king, technically all of the swans in England belonged to him and as king, the Lords were all frightened of having their heads randomly separated from their shoulders.
There have been frequent attempts to explain what each of the various items are supposed to mean, including Christian symbolism and secular allegory but as with so many of these things, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one and the simplest explanation here is that this is the ramblings of someone with far too much power and no constraints upon it.
Most of the birds on the list are just plain daft. If we credit the song Greensleeves to Henry VIII, then we can see that he wasn't exactly the most talented of lyricists. The line "four calling birds", ends up being perfunctory more than anything else; what a calling bird is actually supposed to be is anyone's guess. No doubt the lords, milkmaids, pipers and dancing ladies are probably people that he just happened to see that afternoon. Maybe the Jumping Jews of Jerusalem from that episode of Blackadder don't sound quite so silly now.
On the sixteenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Sixteen sows a sizzling,
Fifteen hounds a hunting,
Fourteen foxes running,
Thirteen Jews a jumping?
This assumes that King Henry VIII wrote the song in the first place. We kind of get the impression that he may have been something like Kim Jong Il, who reportedly scored a hole in one in golf in the very first game that he ever played, wrote thousands of pages of poetry and symphonies (though they have mysteriously disappeared) and was a champion chess and go player. This is after all the same man who after having tried to divorce his other Catherine decided to ragequit the Catholic Church, rageburn all of the monasteries and set up his own church with him as the boss; so no one could tell him what to do. This is the same man who turned lots of England's forests into ships, those monasteries into burnt piles of rubble and who squandered most of the built up Tudor fortune. This is the same man who when he had a suit of armour made, also had armour plating made for his moustache.
Maybe it is not so crazy to assume that Henry wrote the song. Apparently he was pretty handy with the lute, so that means that he must have spent some time just playing with chords and notes and seeing what fell out. The fact that this song is essentially the same thing repeated twelve times, makes this sound like a football chant and it's not like they take supreme amounts of skill and talent to write.
If Henry VIII did write the song, we can bet that if he sung it, that nobody would dare tell him that it was annoying or that they didn't like it. They would have been as afraid as Catherine Parr of having their heads separated from their shoulders and that's probably the best reason why such a terrible song continues to survive. On the twelfth day of Christmas I've heard this song so much, I want to hang my head against the wall.