Yesterday saw some Faverolles bundled up and sent through from my true love. Faverolles for those not initiated in the ways of hens – are an excellent dual economy bird, being both slightly weightier than the lightweight hybrids from which the majority of us receive our eggs – free range or caged – and thus much favoured in earlier times as a good hedged bet between reliable egg production – about 4 a week – and if needs must a hen which will happily furnish a table of 5 with a healthy portion of meat protein.
Which brings me to the unexpected guests who rocked up to see me some time ago, announced by our nightwatchman at 3.00am – with a hearty ‘kuwakaribisha Askofu’ accompanied by vigorous rattling of the ‘anti vol’ ironwork which was placed as a protective measure against ‘bandits’ on all our windows, and hammering on the door with his trusty ‘fimbo’.
Already I can hear some cultural curtains being ripped open – with google searches on swahili tapped into the pop up pane, and concern about the class warfare about to be announced with ‘nightwatchmen’ as part of the writer’s entourage. We are suddenly not in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago but a mere twenty years away from a chilly midnight hour in the north eastern reaches of D.R Congo – then Zaire under the infamous scoundrel and widely alleged American political henchman President Mobutu.
Outside in the compound a LandRover somewhat worse for wear, had spluttered to a halt, having survived the pot holed road from Boga to Bunia, exhaust pipe secured by string, gaffa tape and banana leaves. From out of its darkened and poorly sprung interior emerged, a weary load of deacons, evangelists, a couple of wives, a sunday school teacher and an Archdeacon. Their driver with the unlikely but widely baptised name ‘God given’ (Dieu Donne) was talking animatedly with our nightwatchman Rafeli, and the august Askofu heaved his frame out of the passenger seat, replete with huge sacks of peanuts, cassava and sweet potato, amechoka sana! (one very tired and indeed hungry Bishop).
I stumbled into my kikwembe, remembered that I was in Zaire and not Leeds, that the nearest Sainsburies was over a thousand miles away, fetched a couple of hens from the coop down by our matete fenced allotment in the garden, lit the charcoal cooker made out of a couple of upturned oil drums, and broke open a fresh plastic container replete with sticky dark orange palm oil. Breakfast came early, 5.00 am when all was cooked and brought to table at some personal cost and effort from all the woken household, that post-Christmas morning.
So three favourelles on the third day of Christmas – either cockerells ready for table, or hens with their egg production well in flow – would have been very welcome gifts in at the stable at Bethlehem – without a doubt with the impromptu visitors rocking up over the days following Jesus’ birth. And in the spirit of the catechism referenced in the introduction to this charming Ephiphanytide riddle the 3 favourelles – a quintessential French hen – represent the key virtues referenced by St Paul in 1 Corinthians of Faith Hope and Love (or Charity) which any young child learning her catechism would be required to know in preparation for her first communion.
And just before we move onto what appeared today in my post box – the fact that the rhyme references explicitly FRENCH hens means that this nursery rhyme, catechetical mnemonic and now wonderfully embedded popular carol in our national consciousness is most definitely of French origin – yet another timely reminder of how deeply intertwined French and British cultural history is, and what close neighbours all of us in the European Union are.
Now to the 4 calling birds. The 1780 version had Colly birds – colly literally meaning black – which immediately brings to mind a culinary based nursery rhyme with four and twenty black – or ‘colly’ birds baked in a pie. We are not told whether these four Colly birds were alive and kicking or as in sing a song of sixpence – temporarily silenced before the pie in which they were place ‘ was opened’ !
By the nineteenth century, yellow became the new black, for the fourth day’s gift from the true love. ‘Canary’, ‘coloured’ and even ‘curly’ feathered birds were introduced to liven up the quality and colour of the understated fourth day – and by the time that the current tune to which we sing the twelve days of Christmas, had been introduced by Frederic Austin in 1909 – ‘calling birds’ became the new acceptable, and apparently more enticing gift than some ruffled ravens or out of sorts blackbirds.
And the catechetical allusion? Of course whether singing or clothed in priestly black attire – these four colly birds represent in the canon of the catechetical trope the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – simples. Tomorrow – five golden rings may not be all that they seem!
If you are enjoying this saunter through the twelve days – do share with friends on FB or tweet – and do let me know what thoughts and memories are triggered as you walk through these wonderful verses which have accompanied so many of our Christmases over the years.