Tis the season for Christmas carols. Listening to and singing these songs is one of the best ways to get in the holiday spirit. Everyone has their favorite, but I wonder how many people would say it is “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but I was thinking about this recently after listening to the lyrics. I suddenly realized this one song pays more attention to birds than any of the others combined. This aroused my curiosity over its origins and other historical facts that led to the lyrics.
Thought to have originated in France, it was published in 1780 in England, in a children’s book called Mirth With-out Mischief . It was not originally played or sung with music, but was spoken as a chant or rhyme or memory game. Have you ever played a game with a group of people where one person starts a story and the next one adds to it, but must repeat the first person’s words, and it goes around the circle like that for as long as people can remember to repeat all the previous contributions. It’s not an easy task, but probably very good for the brain and a popular one in the 1800s with British schoolchildren.
It is believed that it began at Twelfth Night Parties. In Christianity, the 12 days of Christmas refers to the time between December 25 (Christ’s birth) and January 6 (the Epiphany when the Magi were said to visit the Christ child).
There has been much speculation about the meaning or symbolism in the words, some saying it refers to different aspects of Christianity, while other interpretations say some of the words refer to emblems of fertility (partridges and pears) or intermediaries between the earth and sky (geese and swans). Not surprisingly throughout history some of the words have changed or been replaced altogether. There was once ‘bears a-baiting,’ ‘badgers baiting,’ ‘ships a-sailing,’ and a “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree’. Originally “four calling birds’ was ‘four colly birds’, colly being the Old English slang for birds ‘as dark as coal.’ There was even a Scottish version that includes as a gift, “an Arabian baboon”. The version we are familiar with today was written by a British composer in 1909.
I had never thought to consider how much all these gifts would cost if you really wanted to give them to your true love, but someone from Forbes decided to figure it out based on the PNC (?) Christmas price index in 2018 and came up with a figure of $39,094.93. And if you count all the gifts when the song is sung through all its many repetitions you have a grand total of 364 – from a very generous true love.
As I said at the beginning I was drawn to this song because of all of its references to birds, so let’s look closer.
On the First Day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a Partridge in a Pear Tree
The Gray or Hungarian Partridge are found in Europe and the British Isles. It is a seed eating, grassland species, so I’m not sure why it would be in a pear tree. Maybe because it rhymed.
On the Second Day of Christmas my ……. Two Turtle Doves.
Turtle Doves are a European species known for the apparent affection shown between a pair, thus representing enduring love. Currently their population is decreasing, most likely due to loss of habitat.
On the Third Day of Christmas, my……………….Three French Hens
There is no clear indication of just what constitutes a French hen, but there is one breed called Favorelles, which originated in this particular region of France in the late 1800s. They are colorful birds known for their feathery ear muffs and beards.
On the Fourth Day of Christmas, my ………………Four Calling Birds
We’ve already established that the original lyrics were ‘colly’ referring to blackbirds of some sort.
On the Fifth Day of Christmas, my …………….. Five Gold Rings
This would seem to be moving away from the bird theme, except for one reference that said it may have been referring to the gold rings on a Ring-necked Pheasants, though I have never seen such a thing.
On the Sixth Day of Christmas, my …………..6 Geese a Laying
This could refer to Pink-footed Geese, or Barnacle Geese, which are found in England, or possibly and more likely, domestic geese. Easier and cheaper to come by.
On the Seventh Day of Christmas, my…………………….. 7 Swans a Swimming
Mute Swans are identified by their pinkish orange beaks. An Old World species, they have been introduced in the United States
The most common type of swan found in England is the Mute Swan and pairs are often found swimming together on ponds in parks or out in the countryside. They are known for fidelity to one mate.
We’ve come to the end of the bird verses and I decided to add five of my own . I challenge you to come up with your own versions.
On the Eighth Day of Christmas, my ………………….. 8 Turkeys Trotting
On the Ninth Day of Christmas, my……………………. 9 Downies Drumming
On the Tenth Day of Christmas, my……………………10 Bags of Bird Seed
On the Eleventh Day of Christmas, my ……………….. 11 Penguins Prancing
On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, my …………………. 12 Gulls a Laughing
With that I wish all a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays
By Kate Crowley