In 1989 the Cybis Studio introduced an annual holiday ornament series based on The Twelve Days of Christmas. All were open (non-limited) editions and although their original issue prices are unknown, they all were $595 each on the final (2008) Cybis retail website.
Partridge in a Pear Tree was the first in the series. Because 1989 was also the studio’s 50th Anniverary, all new introductions during that particular year also had the special 50th Anniversary backstamp (see Signatures and Marks for a photo). This ornament is 5” high.
The Twelve Days of Christmas song has had a number of English transcriptions since 1780. Although thirteen of the fifteen most widely used versions start with the partridge, there are two interesting exceptions. Scott’s version in 1892 began “On the first day of Christmas my true love brought to me, a very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.” The 1905 transcription by Sharp seems to have rather an awkward beginning: “On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me [a] goldie ring and the part of a June apple tree.” Quite the mouthful.
Two Turtle Doves is 4” in diameter. In the song’s history Sharp is again the odd man out, because of his add-on: “two turtle doves and the part of a mistletoe bough.” Pear tree, apple tree, mistletoe – sounds as if the True Love was botanically inclined!
Three French Hens stands 3.25” high. Amazingly, every song version agrees on the quantity, place and species!
Four Calling Birds is 4” high. It may come as a surprise to many that “calling birds” is a fairly recent revision, first appearing in the 1909 transcription by Frederick Austin. All prior versions used some version of “colly birds”. Colly, colley and collie are all based on a regional English word meaning black; a “colly bird” would be a raven, crow, rook, etc. In fact, a collier even today means a person engaged in mining coal. Most people today think the calling birds in the song refer to songbirds but the original and longest-running meaning was four black birds.
Five Golden Rings is 4.5” high. An overview of the documented transcriptions of the song all show this as “five gold rings” until the most recent (1966) version by Swortzell in which the word was changed to golden. The change to the two-syllable word appears more prevalent in the USA than in Europe.
Six Geese a-Laying is appropriately egg-shaped and is 4” high. The 1867 version of the song substituted ducks for geese but was the only transcription to have done so.
Seven Swans a-Swimming is 3.5” in diameter. As with gift number six there is a single ‘outlier’ lurking among the historical lyrics, although not from the same source. In Cole’s 1900 version there are seven squabs a-swimming…. which makes no sense whatsoever because pigeons (baby or otherwise) lack the webbed feet that allow swans, ducks, geese etc to paddle.
Eight Maids a-Milking is 4.5” high. Several lyricists have played fast and loose with this gift level. In the 1867 Cliftonian lyric they are hares a-running; Cole in 1900 brought in hounds a-running; and Sharp in 1902 decided it was boys a-singing. The milkmaids have permanently staked their claim since then, though.
Nine Ladies Dancing is 3.25” high and is dated 1997 on the ribbon. The second (detail) photo is of a retail piece having the ribbon’s lettering picked out in green paint. Number 9 has been a busy “days” slot since the beginning. In fact the ladies were relegated to eleventh place for the first six versions, only appeared here in 1867, and repeatedly moved back and forth after that. What with the drummers, lords, and pipers going in and out, the ninth gift looks more like a revolving door! That 1900 renegade, Cole, even stuck bears a-baiting into her version.
Ten Lords a-Leaping is a tower shape of unspecified height on the Cybis page; it has a copyright year of 1998 on the underside. This was another ever-changing slot, with the lords an infrequent visitor and recent tenant. For eight of the 15 versions there were pipers here, relieved occasionally by ships a-sailing (1842), cocks a-crowing (Cole again!), and believe it or not: asses racing. Now that (courtesy of Sharp, 1905) is something you don’t see every day.
Eleven Pipers Piping is likewise “height”-less. For most of the song’s history the dancing ladies lived here, but there were some interesting detours such as ladies spinning (1842), badgers baiting (1867), and bulls a-beating in 1905. I am having trouble envisioning what the bulls could have been beating: matadors? bears on the stock market? Another puzzling alternate was lads a-louping by Scott in 1892; in the same version he also has “corley birds.”
And finally there was Twelve Drummers Drumming to finish the set in 2000; its height is unknown. The second photo is of a piece offered at retail, so I don’t know which of these two colorways was the production version. It is also unique (so far) in that the Cybis signature appears in green paint… the first time I have ever seen it in that color! Were they all signed that way, or did the artist simply decide to use the paint color he or she had on hand at the moment?
The drummers can thank Austin’s 1909 transcription for putting them in this spot at all, because they were never there before. Instead it was mostly populated by the lords and ladies, although bells a-ringing popped in three times: in 1842, 1867 and 1905. Come to think of it, I’m surprised that bells a-ringing didn’t stay the course – doesn’t that conjure up a pleasant mental picture? Unless, of course, you have a hangover from overindulging in too much eggnog!
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