“The Twelve Days of Christmas” has been a popular Christmas carol for at least a century. As an elaborate and expensive courtship gesture, the gifts described in the song are sure to impress a love interest. Who, after all, wouldn’t appreciate five golden rings?
But recent discussions online have raised interesting questions about the meaning of the song’s lyrics. Putting aside the pear tree, are all the objects in the song just birds, birds, and more birds?
Here at Red Mallard we have an affinity for bird puns and zany thought experiments, so we take an interest in such niche topics. Is there some merit to this claim?
Why are the lyrics ambiguous? And what’s with the birds?
The tradition of singing and orally passing down “The Twelve Days of Christmas” began as a memory challenge.This is evident in the structure of the carol, where each verse builds on the previous ones. Although the carol was initially written and published in 1780, the melody we cherish today wasn’t documented until 1909 by Frederic Austin.
There is much room for exploration, as the song’s lyrics vary across different publications. Lyrics may also change depending on the region where the carol is sung.
Today, the song is commonly interpreted literally. “Five golden rings” are presumed to be rings made of precious metal. Given that many lyrics in the carol already reference various birds, and considering our inclination to interpret the carol literally, let’s further explore the notion that each lyric might actually refer to different types of birds.
Going to the birds
First, let’s get the obvious birds out of the way.
The partridge enjoys the privilege of being repeated with every verse. Serious birders know that the red-legged partridge is the more accurate choice compared to other partridge species, as they are known to perch in trees, unlike strictly ground-level partridges.
Turtle doves are prevalent in most of Europe. French hen is a breed of domestic chicken.
“Four colly birds” is believed to be the original lyric delivered orally, which later evolved into “Four calling birds”, Frederic Austin’s interpretation. The term “colly” was most popular in the mid-1700s, meaning “to blacken with coal dust”. The likely type of bird to associate with this lyric would be the common blackbird.
Geese-a-laying and swans-a-swimming are straightforward enough.
All these birds should make your love interest’s heart flutter. Perhaps some jewelry and entertainment would be a good follow up? Don’t be so sure.
The golden rings are speculated to represent ring-necked pheasants or goldspinks, not rings for your dearest’s fingers.
Approach the remaining interpretations with a healthy dose of skepticism because this is where things become dicey. Some propose that the maids of milking could be the cattle egret bird, often found near cattle. The movement of cattle’s hooves tends to bring invertebrates out of the soil, providing an easier feast for the cattle egret. This may be a stretch, as birds cannot feasibly milk anything. Nor would they naturally be inclined to do so.
The ladies dancing are thought to refer to cranes, which perform graceful dances as part of their mating rituals.
The bird most renowned for leaping is the gray heron. It is known to leap into the air when taking flight, and when standing, the gray heron hunches, resembling an old man.
The sandpiper could potentially be associated with the “piper piping” if we accept “piping” as the bird’s call. “Piper” could conceivably be a nickname for a sandpiper.
The bird theory posits that the drummers referred to here are the forest’s percussionists: woodpeckers.
For the birds?
The long tradition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” leaves room to doubt the specific meaning of the song’s lyrics. The original creator of the song is unknown, and the first written version was penned over a century later. However, there are reasonably good arguments supporting the theory that the carol is actually about birds.
At the very least, it’s a fun idea to think about and to share with family and friends this holiday season.
Merry Christmas from all the birds in our flock.