"On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree"
So the first line of the traditional Christmas carol goes.
I don't know quite what anyone would do with the gift of a pear tree containing a roosting partridge, but there you have it! For that matter, I am not sure what anyone would do with quite a number of the gifts in the song! Seven swans a-swimming? Eight maids a-milking?! I suppose the nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping and twelve drummers drumming might make quite a lively and effective entertainment troupe but some of the others might be more trouble than they were worth!
There's a school of thought that holds that the gifts are not quite as random an array as they seem but each has a hidden significance, indicating an aspect of the Christian faith. The idea is that the song may have developed in England, some centuries ago, when Roman Catholicism was persecuted and when to voice overt mnemonics of Roman Catholic belief was frowned on, at best, and personally risky, at worst, although in fact the symbolism is not exclusively Roman Catholic. Anyway the idea that the gifts are not random, but symbolic, appeals to me and gives the song a rather nice, additional dimension even though it may be a spurious theory and the random gifts may well be, despite the charming idea of the symbolism, just that - random.
Whether or not that's the case, the song is charming and it's captured my imagination and fuelled a happy, little, Christmas-hooky project because I got it into my head that it would be rather fun to hook up a little Christmas wall-hanging, a kind of hooky sampler illustrating the first line of the carol. Unlike traditional vintage samplers, worked on linen with fine thread, in cross-stitch or other embroidery stitches, this was never going to have any kind of improving text worked on it; it would just be the image. If the symbolism theory is correct, it would carry its own iconic message of Christmas because the first gift of the partridge in the pear tree is meant to represent Jesus himself. (The unusual pairing of a ground-nesting bird in the branches of a fruit tree, representing the unprecedented combination of the divine and the human, in the Christ-child.)
Unusually for me, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted it to look like in my head, before I started thinking about any kind of pattern I could use or adapt. The only question was whether crochet would lend itself to realising the image I had decided on.
I did some preliminary pencil sketches to see if I could come up with a simple partridge shape that might translate into crochet without too much difficulty and had a little play around with some circles and spirals.
A spiral shape in a soft taupe colour made a satisfactorily plump partridge body and a smaller rust-coloured circle, edged on one side, in the same taupe body colour, made a reasonable head. I added a small mother-of-pearl button as an eye and a small dark brown beak to the head and stitched on a leaf shape worked in grey to the body, for a wing. I now had a birdy that looked quite partridge-esque!
So far, so good! Next up was the tree, the top of which I simply made as a crocheted circle of different greens, adding a scalloped edge to indicate a leafy outline.
A trunk was added from the bottom upwards by chaining a length for the base in dark brown and working decreasing rows of treble (UK) / double (US) crochet stitches for the root-ball,
continuing in narrow straight rows for the trunk itself and then increasing for a few rows to make the branches reaching up into the leaf canopy.
My partridge now had a roost of sorts! No pears as yet, though!
The pears were a little tricky to design at first and I made several initial attempts that ended up looking more like grapefruits!
In the end, a simple circle with a few extra rows worked on top and a woody stalk added to the top of each one, seemed to fit the bill.
Some of the pears are yellow and ripe - probably juicy Williams pears! And some are green and hard - probably Conference ones! I know, I know, how can they be growing on the same tree?! Artistic licence, that's what!
I wanted the background to suggest the colours of a setting or a rising sun in a winter landscape to set off the restrained palette of the bird and tree so I did a rough pencil sketch
and then simply worked it in graduating colourful sunset/ sunrise-coloured stripes of treble (UK) / double (US) crochet with turquoises and blues to indicate a frosty field at the base and the edge of a winter sky at the top.
It's turned out rather effectively, I think. Assembly was nice and straightforward - I just pinned the components onto the background
and used ordinary sewing thread, in colours to match the crochet, to oversew each piece in place.
I then turned over the top of the background to make a channel for a piece of wooden dowelling to be threaded through the top to provide a means to hang it. D was persuaded to drill a hole in each end of the dowelling with a fine drill-bit and all it needed was some string (purple of course!) to hang it up by.
I have actually had this hanging up for several weeks even though it's not yet even Advent because having hung it up, (just to see what it looked like!) I couldn't bear to take it down, but the intention is to keep it as a Christmas hanging that comes out at the beginning of December each year with the Advent candles and calendars and goes away again with the rest of the Christmas decorations at Epiphany.
I thought a photograph of it might make a nice Christmas card too, although I discover I should have thought through the proportions slightly more cannily, if I was intending to do this, as a standard size photograph chops off the top and bottom of the background, unless I have a bit of wall showing which isn't the card I envisaged! Tant pis!
What I particularly like about this little project is that it's stretched my abilities to crochet "off-piste" and experiment in a kind of free-form way, using what I've learnt over the last few years more spontaneously. And when all is said and done, each component is actually pretty simple. It's given me confidence to travel without a pattern sometimes.
I also find the result is very pleasing - it has a warm feel to it - both literally and visually - and a slightly three-dimensional aspect, which makes a cosy addition to the room on a winter's evening. Possibly I should add something to weight the bottom edge down a bit to make it hang a little better but there isn't enough crochet at the base to fold over and make another dowelling channel so I must think how I might best achieve that. Any ideas? All suggestions gratefully received.
If you fancy trying your hand at something similar, I'd encourage you to have a go - it was such a fun and satisfying project. You don't need to worry too much about what yarn or hook you use - just use bits and bobs of yarn left over from other projects, together with the appropriate hook for whatever weight of yarn you happen to have. It doesn't have to be all the same type or weight throughout, although obviously you'll want to make sure each component has a consistency about it and you may want to work the background in a uniform weight of yarn. You can adjust the sizing to suit your design and tension is irrelevant.
For ease and satisfaction of realisation, I'd recommend thinking of an image that can be made up of fairly simple shapes - circles, triangles, strips, squares or rectangles so that it's not too difficult to achieve the design you are after. But actually, even shapes that look initially complicated, like birds, can be broken down to simpler constituent parts so you may find your imagination is the only limit!
If you're intrigued to know what the other gifts are meant to stand for, here's the low-down:
- two turtle doves - the two parts of the Bible
- three French hens - the three gifts brought by the wise men to the baby Jesus
- four colley birds - the four Gospels (colley birds is an old-fashioned name for blackbirds)
- five gold rings - the five books of the Torah (ie the first five books in the Bible)
- six geese a-laying - the six productive days of Creation, as described in Genesis
- seven swans a-swimming - the seven acts of mercy deemed to be part of Christian duty
- eight maids a-milking - the eight Beatitudes, as listed in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount
- nine ladies dancing - the nine fruits of the Spirit, as listed by St Paul
- ten lords a-leaping - the Ten Commandments
- eleven pipers piping - the eleven disciples remaining after Judas had betrayed Jesus
- twelve drummers drumming - the twelve points of Christian belief, as listed in the Apostles' Creed
Several of the gifts seem to have more than one possible symbolism but I've listed the ones that most consistently come up. And as I say, the theory, although charming, may, or may not, have much foundation in historical fact.
But my hooky partridge makes me smile anyway
and I hope he brings you a happy smile too!