Monday, December 23, 2019

The Dog Ate My Research

Someone I went to high school with posted this meme on Facebook in mid-October, getting War on Christmas season off to an early start.  I meant to write about it then, but of course I procrastinated.  Better late than never, though:

This salvo combines the usual self-pitying whining about embattled Christianity with a version of a legend about "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  Snopes discussed another version that has circulated since the 1990s, which claimed that the song encoded these details of Christian faith for persecuted Catholics in Anglican England.  The Snopes writer quotes a Roman Catholic priest who promulgated the story:
“I’ve got all kinds of people writing me demanding references for my work,” he said. “I wish I could give them what they want, but all of my notes were ruined when our church had a plumbing leak and the basement flooded.” Meanwhile, he said, his copy of the original article is on “a computer floppy disk that is so old that nobody has a machine that can read it, anymore.”
Snopes links to a Catholic Information Network web page on which Stockert explained where he got his information, but alas, the secularists seem to have gotten to it, because now all it says in support of the interpretation is:
P.S. It has come to our attention that this tale is made up of both fact and fiction. Hopefully it will be accepted in the spirit it was written. As an encouragement to people to keep their faith alive, when it is easy, and when any outward expressions of their faith could mean their life. Today there are still people living under similar conditions, may this tale give them courage, and determination to use any creative means at their disposal to keep their faith alive.
"The spirit in which it was written" was that it's okay to make stuff up in order to keep Christian faith alive, which is a traditional Christian spirit.  It's odd that a religion which touts itself as based in history should have such a cavalier attitude toward historical accuracy, but there you go.  Stockert's peevish attitude toward people "demanding references for my work" is common among people who get caught in fabrication, and not only about religion.

While looking for more information about this myth, I found an excerpt on Google Books that shed a little more light on it.  According to But Do You Recall? 25 Days of Christmas Carols and the Stories Behind Them, written and apparently self-published in 2018 by Brian Scott, the idea that "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was a catechism teaching tool "first appeared in 1979 in an article by Hugh D. McKellar entitled 'How to Decode the Twelve Days of Christmas.'"  Scott says that McKellar, "a Canadian music teacher and hymnologist," cited no documentary sources, claiming that "he had interviewed elderly Canadians with roots in northern England, and they provided him with the information" (pages 116-117).  Scott doesn't say where McKellar's 1979 article appeared, but a Wikipedia article on the carol cites a 1994 article by McKellar from a Texas-based journal called The Hymn.  In that article McKellar admits:
In any case, really evocative symbols do not allow of definitive explication, exhausting all possibilities. I can at most report what this song's symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades, hoping thereby to start you on your own quest [page 31].
In other words, McKellar invented the correspondences he says the song contains, and his article is merely a springboard for the reader to invent his or her own.  Whether Stockert saw McKellar's article, I don't know.  The timing of his own mythopoesis is about right.

But it doesn't matter, because as Snopes and other critics have pointed out, the pillars of Christian faith McKellar and Stockert read into "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are not specifically Catholic but generically Christian.  There's nothing here that would have needed to be secret in Protestant Catholic-persecuting England.  And if, as the Catholic Information Network claims, the aim is to remind believers that there are Christians suffering for their sect today, and encourage them to keep their faith alive, why not tell them true stories -- there can hardly be a shortage -- instead of false ones?

Here is what this evocative story suggests to me: many people love to find mysteries and secret messages in unlikely places, not necessarily because they are valid or mean anything but because it's exciting to think that one has uncovered secrets that one wasn't supposed to know.  Of course religious believers do this, and the practice turns up in Judaism and Christianity.  The book of Daniel, for example, includes numerous coded puzzles which the writer invented so that he could decode them for the believer.  In the New Testament both Jesus and Paul are depicted revealing secrets, hidden from eons past, to their followers.  And so on.

But what I'm talking about here isn't limited to religious texts.  As I've written before, fans of popular music also enjoy decoding songs they love, or inventing secrets, such as the supposed death of Paul McCartney and his replacement by a double. Having or creating secrets is power; decoding them is also power.  Finding hidden religious meanings in a secular counting song not only gives one the pleasure of knowing what was hidden, it also makes the world seem intelligible.  What are all these random gifts in this song? Gather round, children, and I'll let you in on a very old secret...

This brings me to questions about the meaning and function of mythology, which have been raised by a number of books I've read in the past year or so.  Now that I've finally written this post, I can move on to those questions.