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Monday, December 6, 2010

A Closer Look at the Birds of the Song "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

Christmas in the post-War United StatesImage via Wikipedia
The twelve days of Christmas actually refer to the days occurring between Christmas and Epiphany. Traditionally, this period was often observed with parties or other celebrations.

While the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is often listed as a traditional medieval English carol, it may have its roots in France. Over the centuries the song has undergone many changes and some of the words Americans now sing may be anglicizations of the original text. Our interpretation of the meaning of this song is that it represents preparations for a party being held on the evening of Twelfth Night.

What does this have to do with birds? Well, the first seven 'gifts' are all birds. We thought it would be fun to discuss which birds might actually be represented in the song - as well as provide some wild North American species that could be substituted in the song instead.

On the first day of Christmas . . .

The partridge in the song most likely refers to the Gray Partridge (Perdix perdix), a species native to Britain. If the song actually originated in France it might also refer to the Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa), a species introduced to England in 1790 (after the song was written). While the Gray Partridge has been successfully introduced into parts of North America, a better choice might be any of the members of the grouse family - perhaps Sharp-tailed or Ruffed Grouse.

The two turtle doves given the second day could refer to European Turtle-Doves (Streptopelia turtur), a species found in England and France during the summer months. North America's most widespread equivalent would be the Eurasian Collared-Dove. This species was introduced into the Bahamas in 1974 and has now spread throughout much of the Southeast. Prefer a native species? Mourning Doves could be substituted instead.

We were unable to find any clues as to which type of chickens the three French hens refer to. It has been thousands of years since the Red Jungle Fowl of India and Southeast Asia was first domesticated and became the ancestor of all domestic chicken breeds. In this country a wild equivalent would be the Greater or Lesser Prairie-Chicken.

Four colly birds. Typically, the song lyrics are four calling birds, possibly an anglicization of four colly birds. Colly refers to soot or coal black and a colly bird probably refers to the Blackbird (Turdus merula). The Blackbird is actually a thrush, not a blackbird. As for their edibility, remember the nursery rhyme with the words "four and twenty Blackbirds baked in a pie." In North America the closest relative would be the American Robin - a member of the genus Turdus, but not very black.

Five gulderers. Huh? Some experts think the phrase five golden rings may be an anglicization of the term five gulderers. A gulderer typically referring to a turkey or possibly a guinea fowl and thus going better with the spirit of the song. Turkeys were first carried to Europe from Mexico early in the 16th century; first appearing in England in 1524. The Wild Turkey is widespread throughout much of North America.

Six geese a-laying. Many domestic geese are descendants of the Greylag Goose (Anser anser). While Greylag Geese can sometimes be found in parks in North America, the wild alternative would be Greater White-fronted Goose. The geese 'a-laying' suggest that these birds weren't eaten but were given in order to provide eggs for the party guests, possibly for the morning after the party.

Seven swans a-swimming. Mute Swans are widely used for ornamentation on estates, such as where a Twelfth Night party may have been held. Mute Swans have been introduced and established in many parts of North America. For a North American native swan choose the Trumpeter (only found in North America) or Tundra (which is also found in England).

What about the rest of the song? Well the maids a-milking are providing drinks for the party, the drummers drumming and pipers piping are the musical entertainment, and the ladies dancing and lords a-leaping are the party guests.

The above material is copyrighted. It may not be published without permission from the authors (ask, the answer is probably yes).

Environmental Scientist and Nobel Prize winner, Jeff Price, Ph.D. JTPrice@exchange.csuchico.edu
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