Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Third Day of Christmas ― Partridges, Plovers, and Popingo-ayes – The Birds of the Twelve Days of Christmas

On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

For today, the Third Day of Christmas, I can think of no better place to start than with the traditional song that marks the Twelve Days. Here’s a longer version of my program note for CONCORA’s recent concert series, “Christmas Through the Ages.” (Read about that marvelous concert series here.)

At the end of the essay, I’ve appended a few notes about the birds mentioned in this old song.


Though we think of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a playful recitation of a lover’s generosity, the song probably originated as a children’s game of forfeits, wherein each player had to recite the growing list of gifts in turn, paying a “forfeit,” or penalty, if a mistake were made. The verse may be as old as the thirteenth century, and the first printed version appeared in London around 1780. In recent years (1979), some have claimed that the twelve gifts represent “secrets of Christian belief,” with the partridge in the pear tree representing Christ, and the other gifts symbolizing various numbered ideas (three = Trinity) or people (eleven=faithful disciples) in Christian doctrine, but this interpretation has been shown to be of very recent origin and without evidence as to its authenticity. (http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/12days.asp)

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me…
A partridge in a pear tree,
Two turtle-doves,
Three French hens,
Four calling birds,
Five golden rings,
Six geese a-laying,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Eight maids a-milking,
Nine ladies dancing,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Eleven pipers piping,
Twelve drummers drumming.

The birders of the world, of which I am one, love this song for its many avian references. Most of the birds named ― the partridge, two turtledoves, six geese, and seven swans ― are familiar and easily imagined. But what of the others? French hens? Calling birds?

The three “French hens” may be nothing more than ordinary farmyard birds, perhaps prepared for the table in a French style.

The four “calling birds” is a bit more complicated. “Calling birds” is probably a corruption of “colley-birds,” or birds that are as black as coal; e.g., blackbirds. The European blackbird is a common thrush, closely related to our American Robin, and like our Robin, a marvelous songster. (I loved hearing this thrush from the woods outside the Moulin des Ruats in Avallon this past July.)

The five “golden rings” have been interpreted to mean five “ring-necked pheasants” or perhaps “goldspinks” (goldfinches), either of which would preserve the use of birds for the first seven gifts. Natives of Georgia, Ring-necked Pheasants were introduced into Eurasia by ancient Greeks and Romans, and later (19th century) into North America.

A different version of the song was enjoyed in Scotland in the early part of the 19th century: “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day, a popingo-aye [parrot]. The later gifts included two partridges, three plovers, a grey goose, three starlings, three goldspinks [goldfinches], three ducks a-merry laying, and three swans a-merry swimming, among other things.

The bird-lovers’ blog, 10,000 Birds, has a nice post on the subject, with some beautiful photos: http://10000birds.com/birds-of-the-twelve-days-of-christmas.htm

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