Numbah 1 DayIt was written in 15 minutes as three friends ate Chinese food in the living room of a Diamond Head home.
The local song classicThe song in photographs
helped to legitimize the
use of pidgin English
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
But despite its humble beginning, "Numbah One Day of Christmas" became a classic in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Today, visions of flower lei, poi, dried squid, "big fat pig," ukulele and "shrimp a-swimming'" continue to dance through the heads of Hawaii keiki at Christmas time.
The song was copyrighted in 1959 by Eaton "Bob" Magoon Jr.'s Hawaiian Recording and Publishing Co. Listed as its authors were composer/real estate developer Magoon, actor/singer Ed Kenney and Gordon Phelps, then Magoon's assistant.
Magoon, speaking from his part-time home in South Kona last week, said he recalls that the three were sharing food from Hee Hing Chop Suey that day. They had not gathered for the purpose of composing music, he said.
Nonetheless, "it was around Christmastime, and Ed Kenney needed a new Christmas song," Magoon said. "He always needed new songs, and I always had to write them for him."
Magoon was joking but not kidding.
He had written the musical "13 Daughters," which featured Kenney during a run on Broadway. There were other collaborations, among them Magoon's pidgin English classic "Mr. Sun Cho Lee," first popularized by Kenney.
"I think I just said, 'Numbah one day of Christmas, my tutu give to me, one mynah bird in one papaya tree,'" Magoon said. "And (Kenney) said, 'Yeah, that's it!' And it went on from there."
The three took turns throwing in lines, and before they knew it, they had found 12 things cherished distinctly in Hawaii to substitute for the "golden rings," "geese-a-laying," "pipers piping" and "French hens" of the original which each symbolized teachings of the Catholic faith.
In the Hawaii version, the "11 missionary" line was thrown in "just for fun," noted Magoon.
And as relevant as most of the song remains today, the "12 television" line certainly harkens back to a time when receiving a TV was tantamount to getting a Playstation 2 this season. "At the time, everyone wanted one," Magoon said.
The song was recorded by Kenney for Columbia Records and was popular in Hawaii and elsewhere. "It was played over the radio every Christmas in all kinds of strange places like Puerto Rico," Magoon said.
"Numbah One Day of Christmas" has since been recorded by others, including an early pioneer of pidgin English, Lucky Luck.
Hawaiian historian DeSoto Brown said "Numbah One Day" has historical significance because it in large part legitimized the use of pidgin English as a form of mass communication.
Up until then, Brown said, "People spoke it, but it was not something used on radio or TV very much."
The song's popularity can also be traced to its use of items that Hawaii residents could readily identify as local, Brown said.
"There are a lot of people who know 'The 12 Days of Christmas,' but much of it didn't have a lot of relevance."
Magoon, 78, recently retired as chief executive of the Magoon Estate and is devoting most of his time to writing his latest musical, "Leopard's Leap," about a young white man in Rhodesia who is saved by his black nanny.
He suffered a mild stroke earlier this month and is now recuperating in Kona. He spends most of his time, however, in the Northern California town of Middletown.
Kenney, who could not be reached for this story, is living in his native Anahola on Kauai.
Last he heard of Phelps, he was living in San Francisco, Magoon said.
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Numbah 12 day
of Christmas, my
tutu give to me . . .
For a bit of holiday cheer, the Star-Bulletin counted down the local version of "The 12 Days of Christmas" over the last two weeks. Numbah 1 Day
Numbah 2 Day
Numbah 3 Day
Numbah 4 Day
Numbah 5 Day
Numbah 6 Day
Numbah 7 Day
Numbah 8 Day
Numbah 9 Day
Numbah 10 Day
Numbah 11 Day
Numbah 12 Day