If there is one Christmas carol we can all sing, it is ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. Originally written down in the late eighteenth century, it was almost certainly sung for many years, perhaps even centuries, before then. It is based on a Christian tradition that may have its roots in the pagan midwinter festival of Yule, which we still refer to when we talk about the Yule log. This twelve-day period, also known as Christmastide, runs from December 25(th) (Christmas Day itself) to January 5(th), after which the festivities are over for another year.

The song recounts, in repeated, constantly building verses, the presents given each day to the singer’s ‘true love’. And that’s where the link between birds and Christmas comes in.

Most commentators suggest that the dozen verses contain six different birds: seven swans-a-swimming, six geese-a-laying, four ‘calling birds’ (I’ll look at that more deeply in a moment), three French Hens, two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a pear tree (again, more on that curious line later on).

The other verses, at first sight at least, don’t appear to involve avian gifts – to remind you, they are: twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords-a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids-a-milking, and five gold rings. Aside from the clear impracticalities – how do you ‘give’ someone lords, ladies, pipers and milkmaids – it has always struck me as odd that only half the gifts are birds. After all, if you start with birds (and the first four verses all do), then why not continue, especially as they return in verses six and seven?

Now, let’s walk through these 12 birds and find out the deep meanings.

12 days of christmas all birds

Day 1: A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Lyrics Meaning

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave me a partridge in a pear tree. The partridge often represents self-sacrifice and protection, expressing love and care for Christmas Day.

This bird is said to represent Jesus Christ, emphasizing themes of peace and holy love.

A Closer Look at Patridge

The partridge has unique feathers and charming behaviors. Let’s find out more fun facts about partridge's life, including its feeding habits, migration patterns, preferred habitats.

Partridges has multiple food sources, primarily consisting of seeds, grains, and insects found on the ground. Their feeding activities are typically during the early morning and late afternoon. Unlike some bird species, partridges are known for their minimal seasonal movements. Most of partridges are non-migratory, well-adapted to their local environments, and tend to remain within a fixed territory all the year.

Habitat-wise, partridges inhabit a diverse array of landscapes, including agricultural fields, grasslands, scrublands, and woodland edges. They will build simple ground nests covered within vegetation, which serve as a safe environment for hatching eggs and raising babies.

Socially, partridges form social groups known as coveys. Such social pattern can provide safety in numbers, and ensure cooperative foraging vigilance. During the breeding season, pairs establish territories and engage in courtship displays to attract mates.

Day 2: Two Turtle Doves

2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments

Lyrics Meaning

Two turtle doves, given on the second day, symbolize love and faithfulness. Turtle doves coos gently and flies romantically. It also represents the romance and peace.Turtle doves mate for life, making them a perfect token for permanent love and partnership. These birds remind us of the importance of loyalty and commitment, echoing the sentiments of togetherness that the holiday season inspires.

A Closer Look at Turtle Doves

Turtle doves primarily feed on seeds and grains, preferring those found in agricultural fields, hedgerows, and grasslands. During the breeding season, they may supplement their diet with insects and other protein-rich food sources to support their reproductive efforts.

In terms of migration, turtle doves are long-distance migrants, undertaking remarkable journeys between their breeding and wintering grounds. They breed across much of Europe and western Asia, then embark on a challenging migration to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter months. This migratory lifestyle exposes them to numerous threats, including habitat loss, hunting, and climate change.

Habitat-wise, turtle doves occupy a variety of landscapes, including farmland, woodland edges, and scrublands. They prefer open habitats with ample food and nesting sites, often nesting in trees or dense shrubbery.

Day 3: Three French Hens

3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues

Lyrics Meaning

Three French hens are gifted on the third day, representing faith, hope, and love—the theological virtues celebrated in Christianity. These birds also signify abundance and prosperity, drawing from the rich and tasty food of France, which often has hens as main meat source.

A Closer Look at French Hens

French hens are known for their colorful feathers and robust outlook. And they have also shown distinctive behaviors related to feeding, migration, and habitat preferences.

Feeding primarily on a varied diet of seeds, grains, and insects, French hens move around extensively in agricultural fields, meadows, and grasslands. Their preferred to forage on open areas where food source is abundant.

Unlike migratory species, French hens are generally not migratory, staying within their established territories all around the year. This kind of lifestyle allows them to feed on local food resources and nest without the need for long-distance travel.

In terms of habitats, French hens are resilient birds, moving around within a range of environments including farmland, pastures, and woodland edges. They nest in hidden places such as thickets or tall grasses, providing protection for their eggs and chicks.

Day 4: Four Calling Birds

4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists

Lyrics Meaning

On the fourth day, four calling birds arrive. Historically, these birds were referred to as "colly birds," which means blackbirds. They symbolize the spread of good news and joy. In the context of the song, they could represent the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—spreading the message of Christ’s birth.

A Closer Look at Calling Birds

Calling birds, elf in the sky, are often mentioned in folklore and poetry.
Known for their touching songs, calling birds are good at producing a variety of intricate calls and songs. In fact, their singing serves several purposes, including territory defense, mating, and communication within social groups.

In addition to their singing talent, calling birds play important roles in ecosystems as seed dispersers and insect predators. Their foraging behaviors help keep a diverse habitat, making them contributors to a better nature.

The term "calling birds" in the traditional Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas" may refer to blackbirds, this term may still include a wide range of songbirds famous for their beautiful songs. From thrushes, warblers to robins and mockingbirds, each calling bird brings its own unique charm and song to the chorus of nature.

Day 5: Five Gold Rings

5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch,” which gives the history of man’s fall from grace

Lyrics Meaning

The five gold rings given on the fifth day are often thought to represent ring-necked pheasants. These elegant birds add a touch of opulence and grandeur, fitting for the midpoint of the carol, and serve as a reminder of the wealth of blessings the season brings.

I then looked more closely at the fifth verse, in which the singer gives his true love ‘five gold rings’. Again, I wondered why they would do so, given that it is traditional to give a single ring in a marriage proposal. Then I recalled that when I was researching my earlier book, Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got their Names, I had discovered that the Yellowhammer (a colourful member of the bunting and new world sparrows family), was once called the ’yoldring’. That name has long fallen into disuse, but during the period when the carol was first sung, and for some time afterwards, it would have been well-known.

So if ‘gold rings’ is actually a corruption of ‘yoldrings’, this means that the first seven gifts are all birds. At that point I looked more closely at the other five gifts (days eight through to twelve), and realised that these might also have an avian origin.

And you can listen to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on https://genius.com/Christmas-songs-the-twelve-days-of-christmas-lyrics

Day 6: Six Geese a-Laying

6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation

Lyrics Meaning

Six geese a-laying, gifted on the sixth day, symbolize fertility and new life. Each egg laid by these geese can be seen as a promise of future abundance and growth. This gift resonates with the creation story, where God created the world in six days, highlighting themes of life and renewal.

A Closer Look at Geese

Geese are fascinating birds known for their unique honking and impressive migrations. Their feeding habits, migration patterns, and habitat preferences has shown their adaptability in nature.

Geese primarily feed on plants. They graze on grasses, grains, and aquatic vegetation, often foraging in fields and wetlands. Their strong bills allow them to clip vegetation efficiently, and they have a particular fondness for grains such as corn and wheat, especially during the fall and winter months. Moreover, they may feed on some small insects to provide necessary protein for Moreover, they may feed on some small insects to provide the necessary protein for growing goslings during the breeding season.

Geese are famous for their long-distance migrations, traveling thousands of miles to get through harsh winter. Species like the Canada goose migrate in large flocks, often flying in a characteristic V-formation that reduces air resistance and conserves energy. These migrations are typically seasonal, driven by changes in temperature and food availability. In the fall, geese fly south to warmer regions, returning north in the spring to breed.

Geese live in various environments, like arctic tundras, warm wetlands, urban parks and agricultural fields. During the breeding season, they prefer wetlands, lakes, and rivers with abundant vegetation for nesting and covers. In winter, they visit coastal marshes, farmland where food is readily available.

 

Day 7: Seven Swans a-Swimming

7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments

So the twelve drummers drumming could br woodpeckers, the eleven pipers piping sandpipers, the ten lords-a-leaping are surely a bird that performs its courtship display at a lek, such as the Black Grouse, the nine ladies dancing Cranes. 

Lyrics Meaning

Seven swans a-swimming grace the seventh day with their elegance and beauty. Swans are symbols of grace, transformation, and purity. In many cultures, swans represent love and fidelity, making them a fitting tribute to the ongoing celebration of Christmas and the renewal it brings.

A Closer Look at Swans

Swans are primarily herbivorous, feeding on a variety of water plants. They use their long necks to reach underwater plants, including algae, pondweed, and other submerged vegetation. Swans also graze on grasses and grains found in wetlands and agricultural fields. During the breeding season, they may supplement their diet with small insects and aquatic invertebrates to meet the increased nutritional demands.

Many swan species need to travel a long-distance for seasonal migrations. For example, the tundra swan breeds in the Arctic and migrates to coastal regions of the United States for the winter. These migrations are typically in large flocks and occur in a V-formation, which helps conserve energy. Migration happens based on seasonal changes, temperature and food availability.

Swans live in a range of wetland environments, including lakes, rivers, ponds, and marshes. They prefer areas with abundant aquatic vegetation for feeding and ample open water for swimming. During the breeding season, swans build large nests near the water's edge, often using reeds and other plant materials. In winter, they may be found in more temperate coastal and inland waters, where food is more accessible.

Day 8: Eight Maids a-Milking

8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes

Lyrics Meaning

Although not birds, the eight maids a-milking on the eighth day bring a touch of pastoral charm to the song. They symbolize nourishment and nurturing, essential aspects of the Christmas spirit, reflecting the provision and care associated with the season.

I decided that it could refer to a strange folk-tale about the European Nightjar, a close relative of the Common Nighthawk, and also Chuck-will’s-widow and the Whip-poor-will. These birds are all in the order Caprimulgiformes, which comes from the Latin word capra, meaning nanny-goat. An old folk myth suggested that when Nightjars flew around livestock at dusk, they were sucking the milk from goats – hence the folk-name ‘goatsucker’ (in fact they were catching insects attracted by the animals).

Day 9: Nine Ladies Dancing

9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit

Lyrics Meaning

On the ninth day, nine ladies dancing add an element of joy and celebration. Their graceful movement symbolizes the delight and festivity of the holiday season, encouraging us to embrace the joy that comes with Christmas.

Day 10: Ten Lords a-Leaping

10 Lords A-leaping = the Ten Commandments

Lyrics Meaning

Ten lords a-leaping, presented on the tenth day, signify nobility and honor. Their exuberant leaping represents the excitement and energy of the season, reminding us of the noble spirit and generosity that Christmas embodies.

Day 11: Eleven Pipers Piping

11 Pipers Piping = the 11 faithful apostles

Lyrics Meaning

Eleven pipers piping bring the gift of music and merriment on the eleventh day. They symbolize the joy of song and the communal celebration that is so integral to Christmas festivities.

Day 12: Twelve Drummers Drumming

12 Drummers Drumming = the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed

Lyrics Meaning

Finally, on the twelfth day, twelve drummers drumming complete the celebration with a rousing beat. They represent the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles' Creed, underscoring the spiritual foundation of the holiday.

 

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" is more than just a festive song; it's a tapestry of symbolic gifts that remind us of the rich traditions and deep meanings embedded in the holiday season. The birds featured in this carol, from the humble partridge to the graceful swan, each bring their own unique charm and significance, enhancing our appreciation for the wonders of Christmas. As we sing along to this timeless tune, let's celebrate the beauty and symbolism of these avian gifts and the joy they bring to our holiday celebrations.

May 31, 2024 — Joy Li
Tags: bird lovers

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