Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Watch The Birdie!

The Twelve Days Of Christmas are the 12 days between Christmas Day [birth of Jesus] and January 6th, Epiphany [visit of the Magi] and the song has been around in print in England since 1780 -  before a similar French version, and a Scottish one involving baboons [!]

There are two popular theories- one is that it is a 'secret code' explaining the beliefs of Roman Catholic Christians at a time when they could not worship openly. The other is that it is a sort of Memory Game- each person had to remember all the lines sung in the previous round, and add one more day.

The Catholic explanation goes like this - The Partridge in the Pear Tree is Jesus Christ, The 2 Turtle Doves are The Old and New Testaments. The 3 French hens are Faith, Hope, and Charity, the theological virtues. The 4 Calling Birds are the four gospels and/or the four evangelists. The 5 Golden Rings are the first five books of the Old Testament. The 6 Geese A-laying are the six days of creation. The 7 Swans A-swimming are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments. The 8 Maids A-milking are the eight beatitudes. The 9 Ladies Dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. The 10 Lords A-leaping are the ten commandments. The 11 Pipers Piping are the eleven faithful apostles. The 12 Drummers Drumming are the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.That seems too contrived.

If it is a secret code, why have the word Christmas sung openly in every line? Let's go along with the Memory Game Idea. But here's a crazy thing, Stephen Moss, of Somerset, well known natural historian, birder and TV producer [he did a lot of bird programmes with Bill Oddie] has a theory about all those birds. More than that, he thinks every line represents a different English bird. Here's his take

Partridge in A Pear Tree - the grey partridge, a game bird. Stephen thinks Pear Tree is a mistranslation of the french word for partridge perdrix. Hard to find, except in East Anglia

Turtle Doves- traditionally a symbol of love - also less common now

French Hens  domestic chickens - abundant!

Colly Birds [not 'calling'] this is coalie i.e. blackbirds - with almost 5M breeding pairs in the UK

Gold Rings -a mishearing of yoldring the old dialect name for a yellowhammer [their song is "A littler bit of bread and no cheese"]

Geese-a-laying -the wild greylag goose, today's farmyard geese are their descendants

Swans-a-swimming -mute swans, and wild swans [Bewicks and Whoopers] It is a myth that all swans belong to the Queen 

Maids-a-milking  - the nightjar. Because their old name was the goatsucker, as people genuinely believed they sucked milk from farmyard goats after dark. [if fact they were swooping round the livestock to seize the insects, moths and beetles, attracted by the animals]

Ladies dancing -the common crane- they dance during courtship rituals. Almost extinct 50 years ago, they are now breeding in East Anglia, and the Somerset levels.

Lords-a-leaping  - the black grouse - these also prance around and leap to attract the females, Mostly found in Scotland now

Pipers Piping - the common sandpiper. Migrating to Africa each autumn, these return to Wales, Northern England and Scotland each summer. But it lives alongside rivers and muddy marshes, not sandy beaches

Drummers drumming -the woodpecker, so distinctive as they drum loudly on treetrunks to signal to their mates. Three species in the UK - green, and great spotted both thriving - but the tiny lesser spotted is in danger of disappearing.

I think this is a really interesting take on the old song. And Moss isn't alone in this idea. I found another birder site which was mostly in agreement - although they thought the gold rings referred to the ring necked pheasant, the milkmaids were cattle egrets [like nightjars also found near livestock] their dancers were cormorants not cranes, and finally, the leaping lords were herons.

What do you think ? 

I quite like this ornithological twist. A good reminder we need to do our best to preserve these different species. On the other hand, it is great fun to sing the trad version with appropriate actions than do an interminable Birdie Dance.. I have followed Larissa's blog for years, and keep wondering about making a set of her beautiful embroidered felt ornaments. Perhaps this should be a retirement project? 


  1. As a life long Catholic I have never come across the 'Catholic explanation'. But the 12 days of Christmas (joy) are considered important leading up to the Feast of the Epiphany on 6th January which is a Holy Day of obligation. Only then would Christmas decorations normally be taken down.

    1. Enjoy your feasting Philip! I do. Hope you weren't affected by the recent floods in East Anglia.

  2. I was half listening to something which said the 5 Gold rings was once 5 gold ?( the word I didn't hear) which was a corruption of 5 Goldfinches. Yet another explanation!

    1. I think number 5 ought to be some sort of bird, to keep the pattern. And the last 4 I can cope with as people celebrating the feast... Which just leaves the milkmaids - how do they fit in?

  3. I like the bird explanation. :)

  4. I had a look at Larissa's pages. What a talented lady. I loved the ornaments but would never have the patience.

    1. She's doing a series based on Christmas Carol now. Scrooge is just about OK, but I'm not sure I'd want Marley's Ghost hanging on my tree!

  5. Such an interesting post! I had not heard of either explanation - although I had heard of a few of the bird references.
    Those felt decorations are gorgeous - I am going to check out her site!


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