12 Days of Christmas — Meaning Behind the Birds
Exploring the 12 Days of Christmas History and Life in the 18th Century
Raising voices together in song is a joyful activity in holiday celebrations. Christmas carols are well known, even among non-Christians. They offer common cultural ground. Even Muppets sing Christmas carols.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a popular carol with children for its repetitions and round-robin verses. It features birds, including chickens and geese, in seven of the 12 days. It’s an old carol, dating back to the 18th century in England and France, but those birds are still familiar, even if milkmaids, leaping lords, pipers, and drummers have faded from daily life.
In addition to singing, you may want to create Christmas ornaments for each of the 12 days. Patterns are available from mmmcrafts.
The partridge in a pear tree gets repeated 12 times, so everyone knows it best. Although these birds may not be in our daily lives, their influence is still felt.
In the poultry world, partridge color pattern includes rich, brilliant red and lustrous greenish-black, with lacing, barring, and black edges on male feathers and penciling on female feathers. The pattern suggests the camouflage of partridges, birds that stay close to the ground.
Chanteclers, Cochins, Plymouth Rocks, and Wyandottes are all recognized by the American Poultry Association in Partridge color pattern. The American Bantam Association also recognizes Partridge for Silkies.
Partridge covers a wide variety of birds across the world, such as chukars. They generally stay close to the ground, reflected in the Greek legend about them. Daedalus, renowned as an inventor and innovator, helped his son, Icarus, construct the wax wings to escape imprisonment by King Minos in the labyrinth. Daedalus told Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, but Icarus ignored him in the way of young people. The wings melted, and he fell to earth.
Before all that happened, Daedalus’ sister’s son, Perdix, showed himself to be an inspired inventor of things such as the saw and drafting compasses. Daedalus was so envious of his protégé’s talent that he threw him down from the Acropolis in Athens. Goddess Athena, watching out for Perdix, turned him into a partridge before he landed. Today, the Latin name for the partridge genus is Perdix, and the birds of that genus avoid high places after that terrible experience.
Wahington Irving described Ichabod Crane’s love interest, bonny Katrina Van Tassel, as “plump as a partridge” in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Two Turtle Doves
Doves and pigeons are more or less interchangeable terms, with some distinction regarding size. Pigeons are often shown with other poultry species and also have their own shows.
Doves are symbolic of peace, a nice gift during the holiday season.
Starting in 1883, Madison Square Garden hosted a poultry show in the first of three locations and buildings. Over the years, it became one of the most important poultry shows in the nation, attracting thousands of exhibitors and their entries and visitors eager to see the birds. They included pigeons, and in 1915, on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War I, exhibitors released carrier pigeons with messages of peace for President Woodrow Wilson. They were to fly from New York to Washington.
Carrier pigeons were an important method of communication at that time. The U.S. Navy kept a flock of 2,500 pigeons in the U.S. and 900 in Europe. Pilots included pigeons in their equipment; if they crashed, pilots released pigeons to return to the base and signal a rescue crew.
Three French Hens
French breeds have their own class in the APA Standard, Continental (French). That includes Houdans, Faverolles, Crevecoeurs, La Fleche, and Marans. French breeders raise many others, but these are the ones recognized in America.
Jeannette Beranger, program manager for The Livestock conservancy, has made recovering the Crevecoeur breed her project for the past several years. Backyard Poultry covered her progress in 2020. She continues to champion this beautiful breed and often posts about them to her Facebook page.
In the 18th century, when this carol became popular, many other French breeds were popular. Every region has its favorites. Today, Marans are known for their dark brown eggs, and Faverolles for their salmon color, the only breed recognized in that pattern. LaFleche have an unusual horned comb. Crevecoeurs and Houdans have fluffy crests. French hens, indeed!
Four Calling Birds
“Calling” birds were originally “collie” or “colley” birds, meaning black as coal. That probably meant blackbirds, crows, and ravens, but many chickens, ducks, and turkeys are black.
The 12 Days didn’t specifically include ducks, but English carolers might have known of Indian Runner ducks imported from the southeast Asian islands by that time. But the black color variety is a modern innovation. They would have been more familiar with the white Aylesbury or the French Rouen, with its mallard or gray plumage.
Other black ducks, such East Indies and Cayuga ducks, which are recognized only in black, are later additions to the American Standard. Muscovy ducks, which are recognized in black and white, are native American birds.
Black Turkeys were popular in Europe as soon as they emerged from breeding programs in the 16th century. Turkeys are native to the American continent. European explorers brought them back to Europe, where they were a sensation, often considered a kind of peacock. They were domesticated about 2,000 years ago in Mexico and the American Southwest, but wild turkeys range across the continent.
Domestic turkeys are all the same species and breed, differing in color variety. All colors are genetically included in wild turkeys. The American Poultry Association for exhibition recognizes eight: Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, Slate, Bourbon Red, Beltsville Small White, and Royal Palm, as well as Black.
Five Gold Rings
To stay with the bird-obsessed, the Five Gold Rings could be Ring-Necked pheasants. They aren’t native to England or America but have adapted well in both countries. They were well established in England by the 10th century, so those early carolers would have recognized them.
The males’ colorful plumage makes seeing one exciting. Ring-Necked pheasants are now popular game birds, hunted annually across the Midwest and West. South Dakota returned the favor by making the Ring-Necked pheasant its state bird.
Avoid hunting them with lead shot. It’s toxic to all, including the family table. Leaving lead on the landscape sets out poison to scavenging wildlife. California now bans lead ammunition except at shooting ranges, where people can safely clean it up.
Six Geese a-Laying
Geese probably wouldn’t be laying at Christmas time. They retain the wild trait of seasonal laying, generally in spring, although they may lay from mid-February through as late as May.
Domestication for chickens brought the miracle of daily egg-laying, freeing them, and those who wanted a steady food supply from the limitations of wild birds, which typically lay only a few eggs during their nesting season.
Geese are excellent parents, though, and enjoy raising their families. They embody one of the strengths of poultry raising, replenishing their numbers.
Geese classify as Heavy, Medium, and Light. In the Light class, Chinese geese have been bred to increase egg-laying and may lay as many as 70 eggs a year.
A goose egg entered the language meaning zero or referring to a bump on the head from an injury.
Seven Swans A-Swimming
Swans are iconic birds, but not poultry. They retain their wildness, even among those kept as resident birds. Collectively, a group may be called a lamentation of swans.
Swans are powerful birds, with a wingspan as wide as nine feet, in Whooper swans. Mute swans, the classic swan with the black face markings, are slightly smaller.
Swans are honored in myth. The Greek god Zeus took the form of a swan to seduce Leda. To Celts, the swan was a link to the Otherworld, through mists to the land where gods and goddesses dwelt. In Norse mythology, the swan was white from drinking at the Well of Urd in the home of the gods, which turns all things white.
In England, all swans have been owned by the crown since the 12th century.
Eight Maids a-Milking
The remaining verses depart from poultry but bring joyous images of other farm activities. Milking the cows provided the dairy products important to the farm economy and diet.
In the late 18th century, Edward Jenner developed the first vaccination from observations that milkmaids were resistant to smallpox. He used cowpox, which is related to smallpox but less virulent, to immunize against smallpox, a terrifying killer.
The term vaccination comes from the Latin words for cow, vacca, and cowpox, vaccinia.
Ladies, Lords, Pipers, and Drummers
The nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping, and twelve drummers drumming are festive participants in the Christmas celebrations. Carolers today sing about them, joining together at the turning of the year, dressed up and enjoying holiday feasts. The Twelve Days of Christmas brings voices together in a shared experience – and reminds us all of our poultry heritage.
Originally published in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.