The Birds from “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

The Birds from “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

This blog has been posted for the 12 Days of Christmas. The 12 days of Christmas, according to Western traditions, run from Christmas Day through January 5, which is the day before Epiphany. Epiphany, if you need a reminder, or if you never knew, is when Western Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi who presented valuable gifts to the infant, Jesus.

However, I’m not here to explain Christian traditions, but to talk about the birds in the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The song has many birds: one partridge, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, six geese a-laying, and seven swimming swans. The rest of the gifts are either five golden rings – perhaps the recipient only had one hand? – or a bunch of people. What would true love do with leaping lords? Are the birds more practical gifts? Perhaps the birds were meant to be eaten?

The gift on day one is a partridge in a pear tree. Partridges have certainly been eaten a lot, but you don’t actually find them in pear trees, as they stay on the ground. Nor would a pear tree have any leaves in winter. One suggestion is that the inexplicable pear tree comes from the French word, perdrix, which means partridge. Perdrix sounds very much like “pear tree.”

The two turtledoves make a gift that needs little explanation. A pair of turtledoves used to be a common symbol of a new couple, as they made such a strong pair bond. However, in northern Europe, they wouldn’t normally be around during the Christmas season, as they migrate south for the winter. On the other hand, perhaps the true love kept turtle doves as a hobby – or for food. Certainly humans consumed plenty of squabs in the past.

Three French hens are given on the third day of Christmas. Certainly these would have been consumed, unless they produced eggs – a possibility as hens and not roosters are specified.

Four calling birds comprise the gift for the fourth day. Most people these days assume these are songbirds, which would certainly make a nice gift. Who wouldn’t like singing birds? However, there’s another interpretation, in which the “four calling birds” is a corruption of “four colly birds.” Colly used to mean coal colored. Perhaps these were my dear crows?

We skip over the fifth day, golden rings, to the six geese a-laying. Everyone knows geese were eaten, and there’s no reason their eggs wouldn’t be eaten either. In fact, goose eggs are larger, fattier and more nutrient-rich than chicken eggs. The eggs have a more intense flavor, however, so may not appeal to everyone.

The last species of bird mentioned in the song is on day seven, the seven swans a-swimming. Swans have always been perceived as elegant, and for a long time they were rare, so eating them was only permitted for royals and a privileged few. Seven swans a-swimming would have been a very precious gift. Nowadays, they are rarely consumed, although given how they are proliferating – they are not endangered at all – perhaps that will change.

May you enjoy the rest of the Christmas season!

Saffira reported on other local species that were suffering, species the azure jay knew had experienced great losses to their flocks. “The ochre-marked parakeets, the golden parakeets, the seven-colored tanagers, the three-toed jacamars – all lost many members to starvation since just the last solstice, and parents have trouble feeding their chicks. No one has seen a Spix’s macaw for years, although I’ve heard a few are held captive by the humans,” finished Saffira. Hunters of the Feather

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