“On the First Day of Christmas
My True Love Sent to Me …
A Clever Greek Turned Into a Bird”
Elise Kannan wrapped a scarf around her neck, the tight loops of cashmere yarn rubbing softly beneath her chin. The air she breathed into her lungs was cold and damp and smelled a bit of exhaust, but she would hardly expect anything different. She lived in London, after all. And it was December. There were no blooming things to perfume the cold, wet air, but bright red bows blossomed from Christmas wreaths and tiny, white lights decorated storefronts and street lamps like handfuls of shiny sequins.
She hailed a taxi and climbed in, pulling her travel case beside her. “Heathrow, please,” she instructed the driver as the little black car moved back into the flow of traffic. She’d taken this journey more times than she could count, most often for work. She was a historian and spent most of her time inside the British Museum where she was both curator and student. This trip was also an exploratory one; aimed at gaining knowledge after much reading and researching and studying. It wasn’t necessarily for the nine to five job, however. She shook her head and smirked. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d clocked in at nine, or left the office by five. She’d seen less of her flat in the last seven years, and more of the museum. Weekends off were scarce. Her refrigerator held few perishable items, but her collection of take out menus was impressive.
This was a personal trip, more for pleasure than business. But she still meant to learn something. It was the holiday season and her journey had everything to do with Christmas. Well, a Christmas song, anyway. It had all come up as a joke one night, she and her friend, Freddie, whom she enjoyed dinner with once a week at the pub near her place. It was at the tail end of November and he was complaining about the Christmas program he was beginning to organize for his students.
“It’s always the same, isn’t it?” he groused. “’The First Noel’, of course, and ‘Away in a Manger’.”
“And don’t forget ‘I Saw Three Ships’,” Elise reminded him.
“Oh, yes.” And with that he finished his pint. “And that bloody ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’. That one goes on for an eternity.”
Elise shook her head. “That’s quite a lovely song. One of my favorites.”
He blew a yeasty smelling gust of air in her direction. “Really?” He looked genuinely perplexed. “It’s hard enough getting adults to remember the words to that one, let alone a bunch of children. Ah, the first few days seem to stick in the brain from one year to the next, but you get past the five golden rings and no one seems to know whether they’ve got geese or pipers and if they’re drumming or swimming.”
“Milking, maybe?” Elise laughed. “Or leaping perhaps.”
Freddie cocked an eyebrow and studied her with intense brown eyes. “You remember the whole bloody song, don’t you?” he asked. When Elise blushed and shrugged her shoulders, he let out a raucous bit of laughter. “You do! You little freak of nature, you.”
“If you tell anyone I’ll just deny it.”
“Anyone who knows you at all will know you’re lying.”
Elise laughed, but a seed had been planted in her inquisitive brain. She’d done some research later that evening, more than any normal person would admit to, and found that the old Christmas carol held more intrigue than she would have ever imagined.
The earliest known version of the lyrics was published in 1780 under the title "The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin's Ball". It was in a children’s book called Mirth without Mischief. She’d found a list of other versions—sixteen in all—the last one written in 1966. That information was something else she’d deny knowing if she was ever confronted. She wouldn’t be telling Freddie about it, that’s for sure.
She used the lines in the song to help build an itinerary, and the next morning she’d put in for three weeks’ vacation time. Greece was her first stop. She was looking for a partridge in a pear tree, and she was fairly certain she knew where to find it.
The flight was a little over three hours long and Elise was ready to leave the plane the second it landed at Athens International Airport. It had been awhile since she’d been in Greece, and, although it wasn’t the warmest time of the year, mid-to late December was known for balmier temperatures than London could boast. The sun was only out for a few hours a day, but Elise still felt a great excitement about feeling the sand between her toes.
Athens is one of the world’s oldest cities. Elise had never traveled there during the holidays and was surprised to discover how lively it was. The sidewalk cafés were loaded with people, and there was an army of live musicians playing at nearly every dining establishment in the city.
She ate bread dipped in sadziki, a mixture of yogurt, cucumber, garlic and salt, then ordered some fried kalamari with fresh lemon juice to enjoy before the main portion of her meal, the psito, was brought to the table. She ate the leg of lamb slowly, savoring the flavor of the meat before enjoying the roasted potatoes that garnished her plate. And then there was the wine. Elise was so full after her huge meal that she walked very slowly back to her hotel room while music continued to spill out of restaurant doors and revelers on holiday toasted one another at outdoor tables.
As Elise approached her room, she looked up and saw the vague shape of the Acropolis rising nearly five hundred feet above the sea. She shook her head and bid a quiet farewell to the ancient citadel that looked down over the city.
“See you tomorrow,” she said as she slipped inside and drifted off into a deep and easy sleep.
The Acropolis was a stunning sight in the light of day. As Elise walked past the Aglaureion, she sipped from a cup of very strong coffee. She studied the shrine of Aglaurus, who had been the daughter of Actaeus, king of Athens. She knew the story and was fascinated by it. Aglaurus had been the product of an incestuous relationship, and was driven to suicide for ignoring a warning from the goddess Athena. Elise perked up at the piece of remembered history, and she nearly dropped her coffee when she tried to reach into her bag for a notebook and pen. She stopped herself and took a deep breath as her eyes moved over the shrine. It was only one of many ancient buildings of enormous architectural and historical significance up here on the hill … and it was not the one that had brought her to Athens in the first place. Elise knew she could get caught up in it all if she wasn’t careful. Unfortunately, this next three weeks had been carefully planned, and the time she had in this historic city was limited.
She took a deep breath and another fortifying sip of coffee before moving on.
Elise spotted the Erechtheion, a temple that was dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena, and the Pandroseion next to that. This is where Athena had planted a sacred olive tree.
She continued to walk. There was the Arrephorion, a small building that had provided the lodgings for the Arrephoros, or four noble Athenian girls who worked to prepare the body-length garment that women in ancient Greece wore. Elise racked her brain as she studied the building. The Greek word for the garment suddenly popped into her head. Peplos. The sacred gown was used in the Panathenaic Games.
Elise moved through the courtyard and found the staircase. She exited the Arrephorion and found herself at the temple of Aphrodite. As entertaining as tales of the goddess of love were, she was not who Elise had been looking for.
“Now we’re getting closer,” Elise said quietly as she approached the Athena Promachos, or rather where she had been decades before. For a thousand years, the thirty-foot-tall, bronze Athena stood and kept watch over her city, but the statue had been destroyed in 1203 after being carted off to Constantinople.
Elise shook her head. She was getting sidetracked again.
Athena was part of her “Twelve Days of Christmas” crusade, but the biggest player in the tale she’d found and studied was the hill upon which the Acropolis stood. That and an old Greek myth.
She walked around the old temple of Athena and took in the sight of the Parthenon which rose tall behind it. There was so much history here, so much mythical intrigue. She thought about a link she’d found to this ancient place and the first day of Christmas as it was described in the song. The link was tenuous at best, but still held enough to validity to warrant the trip.
Daedalus was an artist and a skilled craftsman. It is said that he created the Labyrinth on Crete, the one in which the Minotaur was kept. Another story about Daedalus—probably the most well-known story—was of his wings. Because he’d created the Labyrinth, and was the only one who knew how to find his way through it, Daedalus was locked up in a tower to prevent anyone from learning about the secrets of his Labyrinth. Minos, the king, kept a careful eye on all vessels, only allowing them to sail once they’d gone through a thorough search. This disallowed Daedalus to leave Crete by sea. Because Minos made sure it wasn’t safe for Daedalus to travel by land, the artist decided he and his young son, Icarus, would fly to their freedom.
Elise never learned exactly where the two of them had found feathers while up in the tower, but it was written that he tied a bunch of them together, starting with the smallest and moving toward the largest, and secured them with wax. When he was finished, he’d crafted a set of wings for both he and his son.
The craftsman then stood in the window of his tower and waved his wings. He lifted from the sill and hung suspended in the air. He warned Icarus not to fly too high. He was afraid that the heat of the sun would melt the wax in his wings. He also told his son not to fly too low because the foam from the sea would make the feathers wet.
Things were going well, and they’d flown quite far when Icarus forgot what his father had told him. He began soaring toward the sun and, as Daedalus had predicted, the wax began to soften. The feathers began to fall off, sending Icarus plummeting into the sea where the boy drowned.
This is where Athena came in.
After the death of Icarus, the goddess visited Daedalus and gave him wings. She told him to fly like a god and he was able to escape Crete and the king.
As expected, Minos was unhappy about this. He suspected that Daedalus had arrived safely in Sicily and went looking for him there. He finally found him, using a spiral seashell, a string, some honey and an ant. Elise shook her head as she remembered this part of the tale. It was far-fetched, but it was mythology. That was part of the beauty of it.
Minos confronted Cocalus, the king of Sicily, and demanded that he hand Daedalus over. Cocalus agreed, but urged Minos to take a soothing bath before he confronted the wayward artist. He’d been traveling for a long time and was tired and dirty. Minos agreed—and paid dearly for it. In some versions of the story it is written that Cocalus’ daughters killed the king of Crete. In others, it was Daedalus himself, who poured boiling hot water over the man.
Elise turned and began walking back toward the edge of the Acropolis. Greek myths were seldom short, and strands of each story often reached out and wove themselves into other tales. What had happened in Daedalus’ past became important to her task at hand when his sister gave birth to a son named Perdix.
Daedalus had become so proud of himself. He’d begun to think that he was so clever that he would never have a rival. When Perdix showed a bit of ingenuity, his mother asked Daedalus if he might teach the young boy a bit about the mechanical arts. He agreed, and was eager to show the boy just how brilliant he was.
One day, while the two of them were walking on the seashore, Perdix found the spine of a fish washed up on the sand. He took a piece of iron and notched it on the edge and crafted a saw. Later, he connected two pieces of iron and connected them at one end with a rivet. After sharpening the other ends, he’d made a compass. His ingenuity angered his uncle.
In a fit of jealous rage, Daedalus pushed the young man over the edge of the Acropolis. Athena saw this and saved Perdix by turning him into a partridge. She then gave Daedalus a scar on his shoulder in shape of the bird and banished him from her city.
Elise looked down at the heart of Athens sitting several hundreds of feet below her and gave a quiet whistle. Now that had been a tremendous fall for that poor boy. Athena was the goddess of wisdom. It made Elise wonder why she hadn’t thought to change Perdix into an eagle instead of a fat little bird who was unable to fly very well. Perhaps the decision had been unwise, but partridges had taken the opportunity to learn a lesson from the experience. The bird, mindful of falling from high places, decided all those years ago not build its nest in the trees. Even today the partridge doesn’t fly much and avoids high places. One fall from the Acropolis was enough for that small, plump bird, thank you very much.
Turning from the edge, Elise began to move toward the covered walkway or Stoa of Eumenes. She knew a little about partridges. Whoever thought up the words to the Christmas carol obviously had less knowledge. Thinking of the lyrics made her wonder about pear trees, and that made her stomach rumble in hunger. Partridges in pear trees made little sense, but dessert, even this early in the day, certainly did. She dropped her empty coffee cup into a waste bin and headed back into the bustling city and the talented chefs who could indulge her recently discovered craving.
A Greek Pear Dessert
750 ml red wine
100 g sugar
1 cinnamon stick
Carefully peel the pears taking care not to remove the stalk.
Place the pears upright in a pan; add the wine and the sugar.
Gently simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.
Add the cinnamon stick and the cloves and continue to simmer for a further 20 minutes.
Remove from heat and let cool.
Serve the pears cold drizzled with the wine sauce from the pan.
This recipe is from ThatSouthernBelle and can be found here.