(Photo Attribution: Xavier Romero-Frias [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons)
When it is a symbol, apparently. The Twelve Days of Christmas is an 18thc English Christmas Carol, counting down from 25 December Christmas the birth of Christ to the Feast of the Epiphany the visit of the three Magi on 6 January, with gifts received from a ‘true love’.
(attribution: Broadside: “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, Angus, Newcastle, 1774-1825)
However, some believe that this is not just a Christmas shopping list, but a type of catechism by which to memorize major aspects of Christian belief, specifically Catholic. The practice of Catholicism in England has had a troubled history, to put it lightly. At certain points, Catholics or suspected Catholics were actively persecuted. According to this theory of the carol, the ‘translation’ goes something like this:
Patridge in a pear tree: Jesus Christ
Two turtle doves: the Old and New Testaments
Three French hens: faith, hope, and love.
Four calling birds: the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Five golden rings: the first five books of the Old Testament
Six geese a-laying: six days of creation.
Seven swans a-swimming: the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit—–Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.
Eight maids a-milking: the eight beatitudes.
Nine ladies dancing: the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit—–Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience [Forbearance], Goodness [Kindness], Mildness, Fidelity, Modesty, Continency [Chastity].
Ten lords a-leaping: the Ten Commandments.
Eleven pipers piping: the eleven faithful Apostles.
Twelve drummers drumming: the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.
When calling birds are actually calling birds
There is another however, and that however is that this is just myth. According to Snopes (formerly the Urban Legends Reference page),
Two very large red flags indicate that the claim about the “secret” origins of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is nothing more than a fanciful tale, similar to the many apocryphal “hidden meanings” of various nursery rhymes:
- There is absolutely no documentation or supporting evidence for this claim whatsoever, other than mere repetition of the claim itself.
- The claim appears to date only to the 1990s, marking it as likely an invention of modern day speculation rather than historical fact.
The site goes on to say that most if not all the symbolic references were shared by Anglicans then and now, leaving little reason for this type of encoding. Also, there seems to be variations in the interpretation of the symbols. For instance,
The three French hens represent the three “theological virtues” (faith, hope, and charity), or the Holy Trinity, or the three gifts the Magi brought for the infant Jesus. The four calling birds are the Four Gospels, or the four major Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel), or the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The five golden rings are the five books of the Pentateuch, or the five decades of the rosary, or the five obligatory sacraments of the Church.
So while there is no real proof that the song was a Catholic aide-memoire, Snopes claims it was more in the tradition of a ‘memory and forfeits’ game, and was presented as such in its earliest known English publications for children. Its English originas can also be contested as there are three French versions, and partridges, not native to England, had been introduced from France in the 18thc.
My question: what’s with all the birds?
Ok, while I do like it as a whimsical seasonal song, I am also attracted to the possible Christian symbolism that ties in with the counting down between Christian holy days.
But my major point of curiosity: what’s up with all the birds? The British Bird Lovers site
goes through each bird mentioned, pointing out its relevance to Christmas, holidays and feasting. All the usual stuff, except:
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me Five Gold Rings
The gold rings are not in fact pieces of jewellery as the literal meaning would have you believe but are actually ring-necked birds. These are most likely to be Common (Ring-necked) Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) which were introduced to England from China in medieval times. Pheasant is still a popular game bird eaten today.
That’s a new one on me.
One more version
If you are looking for what those bird songs sound like, check them out at Mother Earth Matters.
Of course, there is the American version, which gets air time frequently in the period leading up to Christmas (not really known here in the UK). I will leave you to your own interpretations of this:
(And if you listen until the end, youtube will lead you to another favorite American ‘Christmas’ song, the Hanukkah song)
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays etcetcetc
*What is a calling bird anyway? “Calling birds” are thought originally to have been colly, or collie, birds—colly meant as black as coal (like collier, a coal miner, or colliery, a mine), so colly birdswould have been blackbirds. ( 216)21 Dec 2016 https://blogs.loc.gov/catbird/…/is-it-four-calling-birds-or-four-colly-birds-a-twelve-days-…