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.
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.
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.
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!