A couple of my friends grew up as Coast Guard brats and have often told the story of the time their dad improvised a Christmas tree. I got the full story from their father today:
I was stationed up in Kodiak, and one morning a bit before Christmas I came into the office and this guy had on his desk this little bare alder branch mounted on a stand, and hanging from the branch was a drilled-out cartridge, so there was no powder or anything. And we asked him what it was, and he said, “Don’t you know your Christmas songs? That’s a cartridge in a bare tree!”
I thought it was funny, so I made one for my desk when we were stationed back at New York. And one of the other guys there was Jewish, and when he walked in he started laughing really hard and said, “Oh! That’s great! It’s a bullet in a bush!” I figured that’s pretty good, the joke works in multiple religions.
I am rotten at puns. I don’t think they’re nearly as funny as the person telling it usually does, but I don’t despise them as much as some people do, either. Sometimes one does tickle me, and the “cartridge in a bare tree” is one that always makes me chuckle. Perhaps because in this case, the person telling the joke had actually made a physical bare tree with a cartridge in it.
I wish I could say that I enjoyed this pun because the original song’s line is also believed to be a pun. This has been suggested since at least the mid-1800s that because the French for “a partridge” is “une perdrix”, which when pronounced correctly sounds very much in “on pear tree” to English ears.
The song itself is much older, it was first published in England in 1780 and even then described as a traditional Twelfth Night game. In a memory-and-forfeits game, players gather in a circle and the leader of the game recites a verse, and each player must repeat it in turn, then the leader recites an additional verse, and each player must repeat the new verse and the previous verses. This continues until someone makes a mistake, at which point he or she has to forfeit something, usually a kiss or a piece of candy or the like.
One can imagine someone in such a game in 18th Century England mixing French and English terms, and someone could easily misunderstand some of them. On the other hand, part of what made such memory-and-forfeits games fun is that the items were either funny or somewhat nonsensical.
There were many variants over the years, some of them regional. In Sussex, England, for instance, the fourth day’s gift was “four canary birds.” While several variants give the twelfth day’s gift as “twelve bells a’ringing.” Though I think my favorite twelfth gift is “twelve crowing cockerels”—it being just a bit of a tongue-twister.
And while the first day’s gift is almost always a partridge in that tree, I quite like the variant that posits “a very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.” Even though it would spoil the cartridge joke.
Although it might explain about the guy who was found, kicked into unconsciousness at a stable, with a bottle of glue in one hand and a bunch of peacock feathers in the other. Apparently he’d been told to prep some horses to be ridden in a Christmas parade, so he was trying to put some plumage on the mare’s knee.