An enlightening rendition of the holiday song, enhanced by generous historical notes and elaborate, festive illustrations. Grant (Clyde Robert Bulla's The Shoeshine Girl, 1989, etc.) traces the lyrics, first published in England in 1780, to a much-older memory-and-forfeits game played for centuries in several countries. Here she gives them an 18th-century setting: The six avian gifts (the five gold rings, she suggests, are ring-necked pheasants) are arrayed against carved furniture and large tapestries; the people, in period dress, celebrate in a palatial country house or around a solstice bonfire. Grant follows the song with often-startling explorations of each verse's meaning and historical background--the birds as fertility symbols, customs and food, the pagan origins of wassailing--that will have readers looking at both the song and the holiday with new eyes. There's no musical arrangement (then again, who will need one?). Other versions of the song abound, but this may well supersede them all.