A Song For an On-Going Season

Christmas Island ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ postage stamps

By day’s end on December 26, undressed Christmas trees were piling up  around dumpsters and burn piles, while assorted store employees began stripping shelves of Christmas tchotchkes to make room for Valentine’s Day candy.

That said, and despite a tinge of relief among some that “Christmas is over,” seasonal celebrations are continuing. Beginning on December 25th — Christmas Day — and continuing until Epiphany on January 6th, the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ continue to delight, rich in traditions both religious and secular.

Emerging from early Norse and Germanic cultures, each of the twelve days of the earliest Yule celebrations were meant to correspond to one of the twelve months in the upcoming year. It was believed that events of each day could be read as omens or signs: a way to divine what the new year might bring.

In time, Christians assigned different meanings to the days. For example, December 26th is designated as a day to celebrate St. Stephen: perhaps the first Christian martyr. December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, is dedicated to children killed by King Herod. On the twelfth day, Epiphany commemorates the arrival of Wise Men bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the infant Jesus. Even though Epiphany concludes the formal Christmas season, in Louisiana elaborate King cakes, sugared in traditional Mardi Gras colors of green, purple, and gold, continue to be served from Twelfth Night through Fat Tuesday and the beginning of Lent.

Eventually, various objects became associated with each of the twelve days, and the song we know as “The Twelve Days of Christmas” became popular. Its repetitiveness means it gets very little airplay, but most people at least recognize its first line’s reference to ‘a partridge in a pear tree.’ But lords and ladies are in short supply these days — not to mention milkmaids — so parodies began to showcase more familiar ‘gifts.’

One of my favorites — “The Cajun 12 Days of Christmas” — was created by Jules d’Hemecourt: a well-known Louisiana journalist, lawyer, and radio personality who taught journalism at Louisiana State University for thirty years.

When d’Hemecourt was only three years old, his mother suggested that he recite “The Night Before Christmas” for his grandparents. His recitation was well-received, and it wasn’t long before ‘Tee Jules’ was born. His “Cajun Night Before Christmas” and “Cajun Twelve Days of Christmas” became classics on the bayous, providing south Louisiana children with their own version of the traditional song.

Some of the items mentioned in Tee Jules’s version — cypress knees, fleurs-de-lis, oysters, duck decoys, and shotgun shells — aren’t particularly mysterious. Other gifts are less well known, or described with delightful poetic license. For example the crawfish Tee Jules substituted for the partridge doesn’t live in a fig tree, and the romantic crawfish at the end of the video is improbable, however sweet.

Crawfish, not in a fig tree

Both Voodoo and Santería are a part of Louisiana life. Despite different roots, they share similarities; serious practitioners and casual story-tellers know many of the characters in the pantheon.  Eleguá, represented either as a child or as an old man, represents life’s beginning and ending, as well as the opening and closing of life paths. A bit of a trickster, he enjoys playing jokes on people, and his love of a good party makes him well suited for a twelve-day holiday.

Eleguá contemplating his next trick

The shrimp in Tee Jules’s story clearly are ‘stuffed’ in the way of people who dined upon large holiday meals; perhaps the shrimp dined on others of their kind, stuffed with crawfish in the Cajun way.

The Pousse-Cafés come next, with the odd name that means ‘push coffee.’ Developed as digestifs —  after-dinner and after-coffee drinks meant to aid digestion — they can be difficult to build. Since every liquid has a specific gravity, Pousse-cafés are made by layering; the heaviest liquor is added first, with the lightest at the top. The trick is to pour the different liquids so gently that the surface tension of the previous layer remains intact.

It’s pretty, but one usually is enough

The five Poules d’eau mentioned in the song are the common American Coot. Some online sites translate their name as ‘Moorhen’ or ‘Gallinule, but in Cajun country, the ‘water hens’ are Coots. The name is apt; both the Audubon and Cornell birding sites describe the birds as ‘chicken-like.’

You might see a few Poules d’eau if you were collecting crabs for your boiling pot…

or poling or paddling your flat-bottomed pirogue down the bayou.

This much is certain.  If you’re willing to sing along with Tee Jules, you’ll be well on your way toward passing a good time on the bayou. Père Noël will approve!


Comments always are welcome.

84 thoughts on “A Song For an On-Going Season

    1. It’s a different world — or group of worlds, since the culture in NOLA is so different from that of the south Louisiana bayous, and both differ from the northern part of the state. I really do hope I get to spend more time over there this year. There are a lot of towns I’d like to explore, and a lot of good food to eat.

  1. Never heard that version. However, my husband once brought back from one of his business trips to LA, a Cajun Night Before Christmas, which was quite popular with our young boys.

    1. That’s a terrific version, too. Do you remember if it was Tee Jules’s version? It’s been recorded plenty of times, so it could well have been done by someone else. In any event, what’s not to like about Papa Noel arriving in a pirogue pulled by eight husky alligators?

        1. That’s it! and I love it, because there’s so many of the idioms are included. “Fais-do-do” is one. It means a dance party, but the translation is a sort of baby talk for “go to sleep.” That’s because the kids often were bedded down while the big folks kept on partying.

  2. I love these add-on verse songs — a great way to learn new things. Like the song “The Rattlin’ Bog.” Glad to know about this, Linda!

    1. I’ve never heard “The Rattlin’ Bog.” It’s quite wonderful. I found this version by the Irish Rovers that has the lyrics beneath the video — very helpful, given their tempo. Thanks for adding it; I just added it to my youtube favorites!

    1. Have you ever been to Cajun country at Christmas time? There’s so much to enjoy, especially the bonfires on the levees. I’ve been there for them, and hope to go back next year. I love everything about the area: people, food, music — and the story-telling.

      1. Perhaps we will get there some Christmas time too. At the moment, the only Christmas I spent there was with the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina. Even though the storm had passed months earlier, there was still massive destruction to be dealt with, nobody I saw was celebrating a Cajun Christmas but the community I was in was mostly Vietnamese, with some Blacks and Hispanics. Despite working hard to clean their homes, there were still a few Christmas decorations out. You can read about it in my post: https://ralietravels.wordpress.com/2017/08/31/the-red-cross-in-new-orleans/

        1. Just as an aside, New Orleans isn’t Cajun country. The cultures are quite different, although of course there’s influence both ways. That aside, everyone on the Gulf coast knows what it is to suffer from storms. One of the saddest aspects of Katrina and Rita was that all the focus on NOLA left places like Mississippi nearly forgotten; I happened to visit Gulfport post-storms, and it was as bad as anything could be, although the political situation in NOLA certainly didn’t help.

          As for celebrating in post-disaster situations, I still remember Thanksgiving after Ike had rolled through here, flattening and flooding everything in its path. In a neighborhood down the road, a sailboat that happened to be washed up and deposited in a small park had a plywood sign propped up against it. It said, “It’s Thanksgiving. Give thanks for whatever’s left.”

          1. Agree with you totally on the neglect in the media for areas harder hit the N.O. When I landed, I noticed the trees still had leaves which was not the case in Punta Gorda, Fl. a year earlier when struck by Charlie. In our “welcome” lecture, arriving volunteers were told to disregard what we had heard in the media. We would find the residents hard working, grateful for our help and, like the sign you quoted, grateful for what they had. I happened to be in N.O. The RC was everywhere after Katrina incurring debt that challenged the organization for years while others criticized its performance, ignoring that 96 per cent of the work was done by volunteers.

  3. In this post that has a lot to do with food, your mention of a pirogue made me think of pierogi.

    It’s good that you discussed the poule d’eau. From the pronunciation in the song of the second noun, which comes out sounding like doo, I wouldn’t have understood what was being said.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with pierogi. I was friends with a Chicago-Polish family who served pierogi every Christmas, and believe me: there’s nothing available commercially that comes close. In a way, the difference resembles that between HEB tamales and the ones that come from a friend’s grandmother’s kitchen.

      That pronunciation is interesting, isn’t it. I would have expected ‘eau’ to be pronounced as it is with ‘eau de cologne,’ but not so. Unfamiliar pronunciations like that made it quite a challenge to understand the Cajun barge captains I had to communicate with when plying the intracoastal. After I got better at sorting out their dialect, it was fun to just listen to them chatting.

    1. I expect so. I’ve never had one, primarily because I’m not that fond of the liqueurs that are used. If I’m going to have a traditional NOLA drink, it would be a rum-based Hurricane. My first one has some memories attached. It was at Pete Fountain’s club in New Orleans. I was only sixteen, but my dad bought the drink for me; he loved Dixieland, and I played the clarinet, and it might have been our best vacation ever.

    1. It is different, isn’t it? And yet, for those who were raised in the culture, its as familiar and warm as a good bowl of gumbo. There certainly was no one better than Tee Jules to tell the story.

    1. The biggest difference between the Wilson and Tee Jules versions is the vocabulary. Wilson reads the story with a Cajun accent, while Tee Jules’s version is filled with references and idioms straight out of Cajun culture. Tee Jules’s speech patterns felt more familiar to me, too — more like that of people I’ve gotten to know in the area.

      The bonfires are well worth the time, but they’re not the only delights during the Christmas season. One year I stayed in a B&B in Breaux Bridge; the proprietress took me down to a dance hall called Whiskey River on the Henderson levee and left me there, after making sure one of her friends would bring me home. That whole experience still is on the back shelf, waiting to be turned into a story.

  4. Ooooo I love your posts! How fascinating! I always learn new stuff. Will learn that version too! Hmmm, we need a pacific northwest one. Orca Pods and so forth. Raindrops. Cups of coffee.

  5. This is super cool! And new to me! Loved the video, too. Pousse Cafe sounds like four might be too many! (Did you see the Twelve Days of Tudor Christmas on PBS with Lucy Worsley? Fascinating!)

    1. I missed the Tudor version. Remember me? I’m the one who’s lived without a television since 2011 — not that I mind! What I did learn about recently was the history of Boxing Day. I always thought the name was just a reference to exchanging presents, but it’s more complicated than that — although it’s a relatively new holiday!

  6. Hi Linda,
    thanks for your post teaching us quite some new ideas that our dear Master is collecting for the new editions of his books about symbolism.
    All the best
    The Fab Four of Cley

    1. What a delight it is to think that I might have offered an idea or two to you! Heaven knows I’ve learned a good bit from you, so it’s nice to return the favor, even in a small way. Best wishes for the coming new year — whatever it brings.

    1. Personally, I far prefer Cajun country to New Orleans, but I know that there are others who would zoom right past the places I like best to get to NOLA. One of the nice things about Louisiana is that it’s possible to take in Creole, Cajun, and city cultures in one trip. An extended trip is best, of course, but in the course of a week I once managed a rabbit festival (who doesn’t like rabbit gumbo?), a traditional Cajun music jam (every Saturday morning at the Savoy Music Center in Eunice), and dancing at La Poussiere in Breaux Bridge. Steve Riley’s playing La Poussiere on January 28 — come on down!

  7. Your explanation of Pousse-cafés took me back to my student days at Liverpool, and specifically the Star and Garter Stripes layered in a half pint glass for 50p. Not these days – the pub doesn’t even exist. It had half a stage coach on the wall and there was often a local band playing.

  8. A delightful post, Linda, with plenty of history. My few decorations were gone on the 26th though. I had never heard of this version of Twelve Days of Christmas but I loved it. Cajun culture and food are easy to appreciate to me. Husband and I spent Christmas Eve on the Mississippi and got to experience the Papa Noel fires.

    Cheers for the new year!

    1. Aren’t those cool? My dad was a stamp collector, and I know he would have enjoyed these. They were issued too recently to be part of his collections, though. You still can find them being sold fairly inexpensively. All of the Christmas Island stamps are neat.

        1. That’s interesting! Dad collected world stamps as well as those from the U.S., and I remember some beautiful ones from Europe, including Germany. Those stamps were a great way to begin learning history.

    1. Sometimes I wonder what I haven’t discovered yet, in terms of traditions. It’s only been a few years since I learned from some British friends about first-footing and Hogmanay. Apparently the phrase ‘everyone loves a party’ goes back millennia!

    1. I know you have some affection for the area, as well as some friends there; I’m glad you enjoyed this. My intent is to write more about some Louisiana history and culture this year. Of course, the best laid plans, and all that…

  9. The “variant” versions often make more sense and more fun than the obscurities of the original. In our more culturally diverse and post-Reformation world, we are not so familiar with the calendar of what was at the time the “only game in town.” The 12 days of Christmas also illustrates how the early church took festivals that were already traditional in the pagan culture and just changed “the reason for the season” to something to do with Christianity. I think certain fundamentalist sects would be apalled at how “pagan” most “Christian” celebrations are.

    1. It’s fun to see how many remnants of those old traditions remain. The Yule log is still around in the form of one of my favorite desserts: Bûche De Noël. The practices of bonfires or effigy burning go back more than centuries: millennia. Once our ancestors discovered fire, it makes sense that fire and light would become part of celebrations. Our candlelight midnight services at Christmas have a long lineage.

    1. Thanks, Sheryl! We were cold as could be through Christmas, enjoying one of our occasional Gulf coast freezes. But it was a good holiday; I hope yours was, as well!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! It’s one of my favorites, every year. I do have some wonderful memories of childhood Christmases, but as an adult, my best Christmas celebrations took place in Cajun country; it’s easy to develop an affection for the place.

    1. Thank you so much. It’s a wonderful culture, and well worth celebrating. I wouldn’t mind some of that shrimp right now. They do have wonderful food, exceeded only by their wonderful people.

    1. There are so many interesting cultures tucked into this big country of ours. Louisiana’s blessed not only with the Cajuns, but also with the Creoles that gave rise to zydeco. In that sense, it’s like Mississippi, where Delta and Hill Country blues coexist in a single state — such richness!

    1. It was a well-done video, of course, but Tee Jules was a gem. He truly was a beloved figure during his life, and his love of life and his culture somehow seems to infuse his readings. Every Christmas for about a decade now this has been a part of my Christmas season — just like the crawdad claw poinsettia and the gar scale star that hang on my tree.

    1. What a nice comment, Sheryl. I’ve been a little less than regular with my writing since starting my photo blog (Lagniappe) but I have a few stories still in my draft files that really do deserve to be told. One involves my grandmother, and a couple of them center on my own foolishness. One of the nice things about foolishness is that it often becomes funnier with the passage of time; I think I’m to the point where I can write about those experiences without embarassment, now!

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