We all know the Christmas song Twelve Days of Christmas. We hear it everywhere – in the malls, on elevators, in stores. But have you read the whodunit books inspired by the song?
Winnipeg writer Doug Whiteway was in Winnipeg's Whodunit Mystery Book store when he discovered that there weren't any obvious books inspired by the Twelve Days of Christmas. He now has six books under his belt, including three based on the Twelve Days of Christmas.
And the ink has just dried for his latest called Ten Lords a Leaping.
SCENE figured Benison must have a particular fondness for Christmas to commit to writing a three novels so far, set in England during the Christmas season, so we asked him to describe what Christmas was like for him when he was young:
When I was a lad – many years ago – in the days when Canada had but a single television channel (the CBC, of course!) two items were staples of Christmas morning programming: the Queen’s Christmas message and a short film, On the Twelfth Day, featuring a young Edwardian man on a penny-farthing bicycle visiting his lady love at her snow-covered London house and bringing her gifts, starting with a partridge in a pear tree.
It’s significant that he starts with the partridge in a pear tree – not with twelve drummers drumming – because each time he brings his true love another gift – six geese a’laying, say – he also (to conform to the repeating verses of the Christmas carol The Twelve Days of Christmas) brings another set of his earlier gifts.
Thus, by the end of the film, the woman’s home is stuffed with 22 pipers piping, 30 lords a’leaping, 36 ladies dancing, 40 maids a’milking, an appalling number of birds, and not a few cattle, such that the only escape from this mad house is from the roof, by hot-air balloon, conveniently supplied by the young man, whose plan it likely was all along to secure his true love to himself.
Unlike Her Majesty and her Christmas message, On the Twelfth Day – designed by cartoonist Ronald Searle – disappeared from Christmas morning viewing by the Sixties though it has since reappeared on YouTube. But I never quite forgot its madcap energy. Any time the song is sung, the images from the film slip into my head.
Meanwhile, the other staple of Christmas morning TV has not disappeared. Every December 25 since 1957, the Queen has popped up on television in the U.K. and in some of the other fifteen countries of which she is Head of State (including Canada) to do a ten-minute show-and-tell about the year’s significant events, particularly ones that touched her personally, often illustrated with footage of some royal tour or some event in her family’s life – royal wedding and such.
It’s one of the few times she speaks publicly without the advice of her government, to whom she is constitutionally beholden, but no one ever need worry that, unleashed, Elizabeth Windsor goes off on some wacky tangent.
Her Majesty, as Paul McCartney’s song says, is a pretty nice girl. Really. And she really doesn’t have a lot to say – certainly anything that’s seriously controversial.
As a very young child, seeing the Queen on television Christmas morning was, to use the hackneyed word of our present day, awesome. But in later youth, mockery trumped wonder.
Part of the Christmas dinner hilarity was to lampoon some aspect of her presentation – the cut-glass accent, the wobbly parting smile, the anodyne views – to vex our old aunties and prove our street-cred as the bright young revolutionaries we thought we were. Well, that got old, we got old, and eventually regard trumped mockery. (And eventually, I wrote of series of crime novels in which the Queen, respectfully portrayed, plays detective.)
Today, watching the Queen’s broadcast on Christmas Day is the last ritual link to the Christmases of my childhood. Everything else has moved or changed, come or gone – the people, the places, me. Dommage.
Hear C.C. Benison on Up to Speed with host Ismaila Alfa Tuesday December 10 at 4:30 p.m. You can find Ten Lords a Leaping at McNally Robinson, Whodunit, Chapters Indigo, Coles and online.