There seems to be some confusion about “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I don’t know why. Clearly the traditional carol is all about birds. Why else would birds appear on half of the 12 days?
I’ll clear up the bird confusion in a moment, but let’s straighten out a few other things promptly. The song refers to the 12 days after Christmas, inclusive. The period ends on 12th Night, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany — the day when the Three Wise Men arrived with their gifts. Of course, traditions and calendars have changed over the centuries, so these dates don’t always line up around the world, but it’s close enough.
Variations of the carol have been so popular for so long that we actually have a pretty good history of it. There is an English version published in 1780, though it likely dates back to the French in an earlier century. It probably developed from a children’s game in which the leader would sing a new verse, and all verses must then be repeated from memory or a forfeit paid. Such a game was popular among kids before Xbox.
The first verse is actually a clue that the origin was French. Red-legged partridges on the European continent were apt to sit in trees. The gray partridges on the British Isles seldom did. A partridge in a pear tree would have been foreign to the English. Partridges appeared quite regularly in old French holiday tales.
Today’s modern version dates to 1909 when an English composer, Frederic Austin, attached the words to a traditional tune. He adjusted some of the words to fit the melody, and in a couple of cases, adjusted the melody to fit the words. He also standardized the lyrics, which heretofore had jumbled up the last four verses of the song in various printed accounts.
It’s no surprise that turtle doves showed up in a song that is about both Christmas and true love. Turtle doves were mentioned in the Old Testament’s Song of Songs, aka Song of Solomon. It was a dove that first told Noah of dry land. Turtle doves, like our mourning doves, have a reputation for pair fidelity, and they often showed up in classical paintings of young lovers.
Many of the lyrics in the song have varied over the centuries, but not the one about three French hens. Every historical account contains exactly that verse. Why? They’re hens. They provide additional nourishment to one’s true love, especially if all those geese a-laying aren’t keeping up with the job.
On the other hand, not even the 18th century English could figure out what was meant by four calling birds. Singing and calling are two different bird vocalizations, and the latter is not very exciting. Early printed versions sometimes depicted four canary birds, colour’d birds, curley birds and corley birds (whatever those might have been). But the most common expression of the time was “four colley birds.” Colley was slang for black. If you’ve ever been to London, you’re familiar with all of the black birds around town. Jackdaws and carrion crows are abundant. What true love wouldn’t want four carrion crows?
With the exception of the five golden rings, all of the early gifts in the song were birds. There is some speculation, supported by scant evidence, that ring-necked pheasants occupied the number five slot in the original versions. There is a version that is still sung today in Sussex that celebrates five goldspinks, which was a slang name for goldfinches.
I suggest that the melody itself supports the view that the song is all about birds. Note that the meter keeps changing. Much of the song is in 4/4 time, but it switches awkwardly to 3/4 time when singing about French hens and calling birds. It’s like two birders arguing over which field guide is better, Peterson’s or Sibley’s.
Like you, I’ve often wondered why anyone would give his true love 12 lords a-leaping. And, really, of what practical use are any of the gifts that follow the maids a-milking? Even the seven swans are problematic. Have you seen swans? They are elegant a-swimming, enough to be folkloric heroes of operas and ballets. But they put the foul in fowl. Swans are large and aggressive, attacking everything around them, even people who encroach upon their territories. They are vicious and voracious. Here’s a tip for the holidays: if you give a gift of swans, the romance is over.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.