“When Prudence Kitson asked her father what he would like for Christmas, he sighed and said, ‘A husband for your sister.’ So begins The Thirteen Days of Christmas, by Jenny Overton, which is one of the most delightful children’s books you could wish to read, and deserves to be more widely known.
The sister is Annaple, who was christened plain Anne, but has romantic ideas, so changed her name. She’s cared for the family since their mother died, but is a terrible cook and, surprisingly for someone who is so imaginative, very bossy about things like tidying the house, keeping clothes clean and making the beds. Wealthy merchant Francis Vere is hopelessly in love with Annaple, but she won’t marry him, so the family help him dream up some unconventional gifts in a bid to gain her heart.
Things start simply, with a partridge in a pear tree. On the second day of Christmas two turtle doves arrive, which isn’t too bad, even though they’re accompanied by another partridge in a pear tree, but as the Christmas season progresses the presents become more problematic, not just for Annaple and her family, but for the entire town. Soon the house is packed with drummers, pipers, leaping lords, milkmaids and their cows, dancing ladies, swans, geese (and the goose girls) and various other birds, all demanding to be fed, all needing somewhere to sleep – and all making the most terrible noise, and creating a terrible mess.
To add to the chaos, each morning crowds gather outside the Kitsons’ home, waiting to see what the day’s present will be...
As you can see, the story is an imaginative interpretation of a well-known song, and it also includes long forgotten carols, and fascinating details of the ancient customs and activities which took place on the various days of Christmas, right the way though to January 6. My battered Puffin edition (published in 1972) contains fabulous illustrations by Shirley Hughes, and from these it’s obvious that the tale takes place in Stuart times – pre-civil war, perhaps, judging from the style of clothes, but this is never specified.