Dear Straight Dope:
Do you happen to know the lyrics to Walt Kelly's "Twelve Days of Crispness"?
SDStaff Dex replies:
Walt Kelly achieved renown for his comic strip Pogo, which was syndicated from 1949 until his death in 1975. (OK, Kelly’s wife Selby kept the strip going for a little while after that.) Featuring a cast of animal characters living in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, Pogo was a critically lauded mix of unadulterated silliness, pointed political satire, gleeful slapstick, and amazing wordplay. (One famous line, as it appeared on an Earth Day poster in 1970: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Kelly loved songs with nonsense lyrics: he wrote plenty of his own for his characters to sing, and he often had them mangle the words to existing songs, including several Christmas carols. His best-known carol by far was “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie”; Cecil once tracked down all six known verses to that one. But there was also the one that begins “Good King Sourkraut looked out / On his feets uneven,” and there were multiple takes on “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” evolving (if one can call it that) over the years but never getting beyond day three, as far as we’ve been able to determine.
The first appearance of the fractured “Twelve Days” was on December 23, 1952, sung by a rabbit character typically referred to simply as the Rabbit:
On the first day of crispness,
My true love sent to me,
One turkle dove,
Two pounds of ham,
An’ a parsnip in a pear tree!
On the second day of crispness
At this point he’s cut off by an irritated Churchy LaFemme, the turtle, who tells him it’s Christmas, not crispness, and a partridge, not a parsnip, in the tree. The Rabbit responds indignantly: “What you got against parsnips? They is body builders. What is partridges ever do for you?”
A year later, on December 23, 1953, the Rabbit interrupts Churchy’s rendition of “Deck Us All” with another attempt, this time starting with the second verse:
On the secon’ day of crispness,
My true love sent to me,
Two turtle doves
an’ a parsnip in a pan-tree.
Again Churchy snaps that it’s supposed to be a partridge, and again the Rabbit objects: “Why do you hate the poor parsnips so?”
Here the trail goes slightly cold. The complete Pogo strips are now available in book form only through early 1954; after that we have to rely on the books of collected comics that were published during the strip’s run, which don’t include every single strip that made it into the papers or always make clear the dates on which the strips originally ran.
But other gags about the song did appear over the years, including a re-enactment of the carol for a Christmas pageant that only gets as far as an owl in a birch tree (no genuine partridge or pear tree being handy). One year (probably 1956) Albert the Alligator analyzes the original carol’s lyrics, concluding that no “true love” would subject her sweetheart to such a barrage of gifts: “You call that love? Sendin’ over all those poultry? Clackin’ and quackin’ and goofin’ around . . . She must of hated him.”
And in the strips of December 15-16, 1967, we find the most elaborate extant version of the song. Now it’s Churchy doing the singing, and he introduces it as a new carol called “MacTruloff”:
Conifers stay of Crispness,
A parsnip Anna Pantry.
Honor Sick an’ Davey Criss-Cross,
MacTruloff said to me,
Anna Pottage inner
Under Thursday of Crystal Ball
Free Friends’ Wens,
After taking a few days off, Churchy resumes on December 20 with a reworked version of the third verse:
Under Thursday of Crispness,
Three wench friends,
An’ the parson
Up a psaltree.
My favorite was always the “three wench friends,” of course – it’s a natural. My recollection is that there was also a version with the line “MacTruloff centipede,” but so far I’ve been unable to locate it.
Later Kelly had more fun with the song. Starting on December 27, 1972, he presented the original carol “Twelve Days of Christmas” as a parade running across the strip for several days in a row. The gifts are all given to the irascible Miz Beaver, who on December 31 shouts “EE-nough!” and is next seen holding the partridge in the pear tree, surrounded by geese, hens, cows, etc, at Miggle’s Gift Exchange and Return Counter.
You may ask: why all the nonsense? Back in 1951, Walt Kelly provided his own justification. When one character objects that the rest of the crew are mangling the words to a carol, the response comes back: “Who listens to the words?”
SDStaff Dex, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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