Having what you might call “an editorial mind” can be a blessing or a curse. Musing about the hidden meanings of well-known phrases can lead to surprises, or at least insomnia.
Consider, for example, the ubiquitous Christmas Carol, “The Holly and the Ivy”. The chorus begins.. “O, the rising of the sun, And the running of the deer. The playing of the merry organ, Sweet singing in the choir”.
All very pleasant, right? Perhaps especially the prancing and trotting of the little deer, some of which might even be agreeably red-nosed.
Except that the editorial mind recalls that in the Middle Ages — when “The Holly and the Ivy” was written — maintaining a reliable supply of food was difficult. Getting deer-meat on the table involved great dangers for ordinary, starving peasants, who would be killed if they dared to poach a deer from someone’s forest. As for the lordly forest-owners, to get their supply of venison they would occasionally organise a ” deer drive”. They would noisily “run” the startled deer, flushed out from their hiding places, towards a line of armed bowmen, who would then shoot them down and butcher them.
That was what “the running of the deer” involved. An interesting way to re-interpret a lovely, apparently innocent, old carol.
There was a Canadian equivalent, for many generations, in the buffalo hunt on the Prairies. Buffalo (or Bison, if you prefer) are huge, and fast. Until the local humans were able to use horses to keep up with them, or to invent fine bows and arrows to shoot them down, they had to rely on cunning to catch them and use them for food. So they invented what we cheerfully call “buffalo jumps”.
I’m happy that we’ve dropped the euphemisms by adopting the name Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump for the Provincial Historic site near Fort Macleod in Alberta. I went there once with my friend Andy Russell, the historian and mountain man. Because I was with Andy, they let me go behind the scenes. We walked up the slight slope to the flat prairie, then turned, and got a buffalo’s eye view as we sauntered unsuspectingly towards the hidden cliff-top.
It was easy to imagine how successful the hidden “drivers” leaping out , yelling and waving blankets, must have been at keeping the snorting, stampeding herd going straight towards the hidden cliff edge, where the slight downward slope turned into a roaring plunge to death, and smashed in heads.
And of course, the butchering and skinning took the hard-working women many days, and with collected saskatoon berries produced the pemmican that opened up the West to the Fur Trade. But that, of course is another story… which takes us a long way from the Running of the Deer.
We are just waiting for our vegetarian grandchildren to arrive for Dinner. Merry Christmas