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An Ornitheologist Looks at the 12 Days of Christmas

What to get for the bird lover on your Christmas shopping list? You could take inspiration from the bird-heavy roll call of the holiday favorite “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” But be prepared for things to get out of hand pretty quickly.

Perhaps you’ve come across some e-mail-forwarded-description of the famous “Twelve Days” song that suggests a deeply coded theological interpretation, where persecuted Catholics in England somehow remembered the eight Beatitudes from maids a-milking, or the Apostles (minus Judas) from eleven pipers piping. While the allegory would be fun for an ornitheologist to dissect, there’s no valid basis to this interpretation. After all, if the persecution was coming from Protestants, none of the alleged metaphors in the song differentiate themselves from Protestant belief. The average Anglican would have said, “Maids milking? Oh, you mean the eight Beatitudes” and bid them a happy Christmas. It’s not hard to decode someone’s hidden message when you both use the same cipher.

So if “Twelve Days of Christmas” isn’t a catechism-cryptogram, what is the purpose of the song? I’d like to propose this moral as a partial answer: Birds make great gifts, but you have to know when to quit.

This song is wonderfully bird-heavy; fully half of the items—and possibly more—are avian-inspired. In fact, the first seven days would be a birder’s seven-card straight-flush if it wasn’t for those enigmatic five gold rings in the middle, trying to hog the spotlight. Many have suggested that some of the other allusions are also avian; perhaps the gold rings are pheasants, the pipers are sandpipers, and the drummers are woodpeckers. I’ll stick to the six obvious references in this menagerie, and then we’ll take a step back and look at the surreal ecosystem this song has created.

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

The song is already flawed and we’re only one day into it. Here’s the problem. The earliest version of the “The Twelve Days of Christmas” we can find is from a 1780 children’s book called Mirth Without Mischief. The Red-Legged Partridge was only just being introduced into England from Southwest Europe at that time, making it unlikely (though possible) as the partridge in question. It’s far more likely that the song had the Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix) in mind, a bird much more pervasive in England at that time. But the Grey Partridge is a ground bird. According to Greek mythology, the first partridge appeared when Daedalus threw his nephew Perdix off the sacred hill of Athena. The partridge was formed from this temper-tantrum—a bird who remembers that falling off a mountain wasn’t fun, and now avoids high places such as hills named after goddesses or trees named after fruit. A partridge in any tree, pear or otherwise, would be either very confused or very derring-do. But singing “a partridge foraging in the dirt” doesn’t feel quite as festive.

Two Turtle Doves

This one’s easier. We can safely assume we’re referring to the European Turtle-Dove here (Streptopelia turtur), named for its purring “turr-turr” call and not for any resemblance to a turtle, thankfully. These two doves would probably love that vacant pear tree, preferring to hide covertly and purr away. If they build a nest in that tree, they’ll produce up to three broods of a couple eggs each in one season, so two turtle-doves at Christmas can quickly become eight by summer. It’s a gift that earns interest. But even then, it’s not a very flashy gift. Don’t forget that the cheapest possible sacrifice an Israelite could give at the temple was two doves (Leviticus 12:8). So cost-wise, these guys are a stocking-stuffer.

Three French Hens

They're French.

I was surprised to discover, actually, that a French hen is just a fancy word for a chicken. It sounds so much more exotic in the song, and perhaps in 1780 it was. Since then, chickens have become possibly the most abundant bird in the world; we consume between 50 and 60 billion chickens a year, French or otherwise. So adjusting for 2020 depreciation, day 3’s gift is really the equivalent of a KFC gift card.

Four Calling Birds

Most birds have calls, so this description feels unhelpful, until we look at the evolution of the song. Amidst the many early variants of the song—which included gifts like ships a-sailing (Pricey!) or bears a-baiting (Calamity!)—we discover that the four calling birds were originally “four collie birds.” Collie meant “black as coal or soot” and referred to a blackbird, specifically the Eurasian Blackbird, Turdus merula. I’m not sure how four blackbirds would fare as a gift, but they are wonderfully melodic songsters in the thrush family, and if that doesn’t interest you, apparently four-and-twenty of them, with sixpence and a pocketful of rye, make a nice dinner?

Six Geese a-Laying and Seven Swans a-Swimming

Let me take these last two species together, as a sober warning on the importance of long-range planning when gift-giving. Both the Graylag Goose and the Mute Swan—the species most likely represented in the song—have a reputation for being rather aggressive when defending territory, especially in breeding season. But have you seen what happens when you put them together? It’s not pretty. The birds might call a fragile truce in the off-season, but eventually there will be fireworks. And in this scenario, the thoughtless gift-giver has given a one-bird advantage to Team Swan, who was already the heavy favorite. This will not end well.

All things considered, probably not the smartest gift idea...

An Overcomplicated Christmas

Now imagine this. Over the squeaky-rusty-gate krukkkk of the partridge and the turr-turr of the doves, over the clucking of chickens and the harmonies of blackbirds, over the rugby-scrum cacophony of dueling geese and swans, imagine adding eight working-class cow-milking women (presumably with their cows), with nine ladies and ten gentlemen dancing and leaping (respectively) around the goose-splattered lawn, and also accompanied by a 23-piece fife-and drum corps. And now you have some well-meaning 18th-century person’s picture of Christmas.

The Twelve Days of Christmas song is an exhausting overcomplication. What psycho would send that as a gift? It’s chaotic, raucous, stress-inducing, the various gifts even working at odds with each other—pipers pipe as swans squabble, maids milk over the drumming drummers, and leaping lords try to avoid landing on goose eggs, with a traumatized partridge in the center of it all.

It’s over-the-top, sure. But then again, how might we have overcomplicated our own celebration? Shopping for gifts and groceries, decorating inside and out, and keeping pace with our own (and others’) expectations for the perfect December—Christmas produces such an anxiety in us that this year a survey discovered that 45% of Americans would rather simply skip out on the holidays, just to avoid dealing with the stress of it all. Although the recent pandemic may have offered a reassessment of some of those obligations, and the option of a simpler Christmas, we will always find ways to keep piling onto the partridge with more and more and more.

Keep it simple. God did. He told the angels to pronounce peace on earth (Luke 2:14), a peace of a final truce brokered between a holy God and a wayward humanity through the simplicity of a child. Despite the miraculous moments in the Christmas story, the setting is remarkably simple and ordinary, the plot advanced by the faithful obedience of a poor unwed pregnant Middle-Eastern refugee teenager. Despite the fanfare, Mary and Joseph’s offering at the temple eight days later was the poor contribution of two turtle-doves (Luke 2:22-24). Those doves bore all their gratitude for the realities of the first Christmas, and showed their commitment to follow God where he led.

Clear the stage of everything from the drum line to the pear tree, and you will find not a partridge, but a child, in the middle of it all, the hope of the world. Don’t allow all the other bells and whistles of December to take your eyes off that profoundly simple gift.

1 Comment

I get chuckle every time I read these, but God's truth is there, too - memorably!

I will never think of the song "12 Days of Christmas" in quite the same way again!

When will you plan to weave some ornitheology into a sermon (or two)? The congregation would appreciate these insights.

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