12 Days of Christmas — Meaning Behind the Birds

Exploring the 12 Days of Christmas History and Life in the 18th Century

12 Days of Christmas — Meaning Behind the Birds

Reading Time: 12 minutes

By Christine Henrichs – Understanding the 12 Days of Christmas meaning adds something special to this favorite traditional carol. Its repeating verses make it fun to learn the list of traditional gifts: A partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, five gold rings, six geese a-laying, seven swans a-swimming, eight maids a-milking, nine ladies dancing, 10 lords a-leaping, 11 pipers piping and 12 drummers drumming, all reflect things that were familiar to life in 18th century England and France.

In a nutshell, here’s the 12 Days of Christmas meaning: In the Christian religion, the 12 Days following Christmas are the time it took for the three wise men to make their journey to the stable where the Jesus was born. January 6 is celebrated as Epiphany. Religious meanings have been imputed to each day’s gift, but there isn’t any historical documentation for that. To me, it’s interesting because it tells us about what life was like back then.

The 12 Days of Christmas meaning is interesting to explore through a historic lens. The song lists many wild and domestic birds that brightened life in those days of political upheaval and revolution. It was first printed in the 1780 children’s book, Mirth Without Mischief, but it was already old then. It may have originated in France, as three French variations exist. The First Day’s signature partridge was introduced into England from France in the late 1770s, shortly before the carol was formalized in print and published.

12 Days of Christmas

The Partridge in a Pear Tree

The partridge is a colorful choice for the first gift. Partridges include lots of different species with bright plumage on their rotund bodies. The gray or English partridge, a Eurasian native, was known in England then. It came to North America around the turn of the 20th century, directly from Eurasia. It has adapted well and is now fairly common in North America. They are hardy birds, able to survive cold winter conditions in the Midwest and Canada. They aren’t much for flying, with a stocky body and short, round wings. Most flights are low, at eye level and shorter than 100 yards. They are 12 to 13 inches long with a wingspan of 21 to 22 inches and weigh about one pound.

The hens may lay as many as 22 eggs in a clutch and hatches of 16 to 18 are common. They are not usually raised as domestic birds.

Among modern chickens, the name Partridge survives today as a recognized color variety in both large fowl and bantam Cochin, Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte, Chantecler, and Silkie breeds. It is similar to the Black Red pattern, the name more appropriately applied to game birds, according to Dr. J. Batty in his Poultry Colour Guide of 1977. Males and females differ, with males have rich red plumage on their heads, backs and wings, glinting with lustrous greenish black. Females are more subdued, mostly reddish bay with distinct penciling. The Standard of Perfection details the requirements of the Partridge color pattern description.

Two Turtle Doves

Turtle Doves are a wild breed of European doves, similar to North American Mourning Doves. They would have been common in England and France during the spring, summer and fall as they migrated through to enjoy a warm winter in southern Africa. They have a long history of domestication by humans.

Doves carry a message of peace and hope, appropriate for the holiday season. Their symbolism transcends religious divisions: In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the dove was the messenger of revival to Noah on the ark in the Old Testament and the embodiment of the Holy Spirit descending on Christ at his baptism in the New Testament. In India, gods take the shape of doves. In Islam, Mohammed was attended by a spirit in the form of a dove.

In the U.S., doves and pigeons — the terms are used interchangeably, although sometimes there’s a suggestion of size, smaller birds being doves and larger ones pigeons — are very popular. Their small size puts them within reach of those who live in small homes or even apartments. Literally hundreds of colors and types of pigeons have been developed by fanciers. Stephen Green-Armytage has documented many of them in his photographs, Extraordinary Pigeons, www.abramsbooks.com. The gift of two Turtle Doves confers both the spiritual and the earthly virtues, their beauty reflecting their spiritual power.

In creating the American edition of Harrison Weir’s The Poultry Book in 1912, editors Willis Grant Johnson and George O. Brown decided to include a chapter on pigeons even though the English Weir had overlooked the species in the original. “There is an awakening of interest among fanciers for the fancy breeds, while squab-raising has become an important business in many sections,” they explain. They invited J.C. Long of New York to write the chapter, describing him as, “one of the oldest and best-known pigeon experts in the country.”

Three French Hens

Three French hens could be selected from the three old French breeds recognized by the APA for exhibition. Houdan, LaFleche and Crevecoeur were all in the original APA Standard published in 1874. They have long histories, as far as the 15th century in the case of the La Fleche, the 17th century for the others. All are large birds, topping out at 8 pounds for roosters and 7 pounds for hens. All are white egg layers.

Houdans have been known as Normandy fowl. They are a crested breed, recognized in mottled-black and solid-white varieties. Solid black, blue mottled and red mottled varieties have existed in the past and may be raised by fanciers yet.

In the U.S., Houdans were a popular dual-purpose production breed in the 19th and early 20th century. They have five toes like the Dorkings.

The La Fleche, which may be the oldest of the three, was selected and managed for egg production in Britain and North America. They take their name from the town of La Fleche, around which production was centered in the early 19th century. They probably resulted from crossing Polish, Crevecoeur and Spanish birds, which gave them their white earlobes.

Their unusual horned V-shaped comb is remarkable, in the past causing these birds to be called the Horned Fowl. Although now clean-headed, some breeders report occasional offspring with small crests or tassels. The French standard requires a crest.

Although recognized now only in black, they were bred in other colors in the past. In 1580, Prudens Choiselat wrote that blacks, reds, and fawns were the best. Blue and white strains have existed in the more recent past.

The Crevecoeur is sometimes compared to the Dorking, which has history on both English and French sides of the Channel. They also have V combs, although earlier in history they also had leaf combs. Currently recognized only in black plumage, white and blue ones were raised in the past.

The Crevecoeur was also used as a production fowl in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Wyandottes & Houdan Chickens
Left, the illustration of Partridge Wyandottes is from Dr. J. Batty’s book. Right, two of the three Houdan hens in a reproduction of Lewis Wright’s Poultry, published in 1983 by Dr. J. Batty.

Four Calling Birds

On Day Four, the “calling” birds were originally “collie” or “colley” birds, meaning black-as-coal blackbirds. My poultry mind wants to stretch and consider that they could have been black domestic fowls, such as the old French breeds, all of which were often black, or black Spanish chickens. Black turkeys also were popular in the 18th century in Europe.

Black fowl lost favor because the dark feathers show up in the skin of the bird prepared for the table, unlike white feathers. In the 19th century, white birds lost popularity because they were thought to be constitutionally weak. Fashions in food are as variable as fashions in dress.

Many breeds have modern black color varieties. American breeds such as Javas, Jersey Giants, sometimes called Black Giants, and the English Orpington have black heritage. Asian breeds such as Cochins and Langshans have a strong history of black plumage. Sumatras are always black. Black varieties of Orientals are relatively recent, such as Malays and Cubalayas. Among Mediterranean breeds, the White-Faced Black Spanish is an old breed. Minorcas were originally an entirely black breed called Red-Faced Black Spanish.

Black East Indies ducks are an old breed, although whether they date back to the 17th century is a matter of discussion. Some authorities trace their history back only as far as the 19th century. Cayuga ducks are always black. The recognition of the breed dates back to the 19th century, but it originated from wild American Black ducks crossing with domestic ducks. A black variety of Runner ducks is recent, 20th century. Black ducks could fit the description of “colley” birds.

Black turkeys were popular in Europe, and after Columbus introduced the wild turkey, American colonists crossing the Atlantic brought domesticated black varieties with them. Turkeys were often known by their origin as well, such as the Norfolk Black and the Black Spanish.

In domestic poultry, black plumage has an iridescent quality that gives it a greenish sheen, sometimes complemented with violet. The feathers are truly beautiful and eye-catching, suitable for a gift that would honor the season.

Five Gold Rings

The 12 Days of Christmas meaning behind the Day Five — Five Gold Rings — may have referred to Ring-Necked Pheasants, or perhaps to Golden Pheasants. Those original meanings unify the verses around a bird motif.

Both of them are natives of Asia but have long had successful populations in Europe and the British Isles. The Romans probably introduced them to Europe during their Empire. Pheasant were accepted residents of Britain by the 10th century.

Ring-necked pheasants were introduced to North America in the late 19th century in Oregon, where they succeeded on the second attempt, and after, were introduced in other states. They are now the state bird of South Dakota. They flourish in the wild and are one of the most hunted birds today.

Golden pheasants are successful feral residents in England, but they probably were not introduced there until later than the carol, perhaps as late as the mid-19th century. Their astonishingly beautiful plumage could certainly have inspired songs about golden birds!

They can be raised for meat or for stocking hunting ranges. A white variety eliminates the issue of dark pinfeathers on meat birds. Pheasant tail feathers are in demand for costumes and other decorations.

Six Geese A-Laying

Geese certainly were part of English and French life in the 16th century and long before. Geese have been hunted and tamed and domesticated since the early days of settled agricultural life. West of England Geese, also known as Old English geese, may well be the breed that came over with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. They were an important American regional breed, particularly in New England.

Goose is the traditional festive bird for the holiday feast. When raising geese for meat, it’s important to note that geese do not thrive in the intense husbandry conditions of modern agriculture, so they are not as plentiful as they were in the 18th century when every farm had some. Most American cooks have never roasted one, so recipes have disappeared. Prominent chef Nigella Lawson is a champion of goose. Because they are waterfowl, they have a layer of fat under the skin. When you roast goose, it naturally bastes itself. The fat is flavorful and can be used to toast vegetables and other meats. Food critic Bonny Wolf calls goose fat “the creme de la creme of fat.”

The two main types of domestic geese are those descended from the European Grey Lag Goose and those from the Asian Swan Goose. The European line gives us the domestic Embdens, Toulouse and all their American descendants, such as Pilgrim Geese. The Asian line gives us the African and China breeds, with their distinctive knobs.

Wild geese have lived closely with humans for centuries. Even as little as a century ago, they were maintained as semi-wild livestock in England. Villagers let their geese forage and live on the River Cam. The geese spent the spring and summer on the village green, then migrated to the river for the winter.

In February, the owners would call their geese, which responded to their voices and returned home to nest and rear their young. Those offspring were a significant contribution to the villagers’ income. Those Geese A-Laying were valued not only for the eggs themselves, but for the additional birds into which the eggs would hatch.

Despite centuries of domestication, geese remain seasonal egg layers. Some modern breeds such as the China goose have been selected for laying, bringing their production of eggs up to 70 or more annually. Some breeds of ducks have become more productive egg layers with selective breeding over time.

The eggs are reputed to be superior for baking. The albumen is thicker than that of chicken eggs, making it unsuitable for whipping into meringue. The higher fat content of the yolk makes them desirable for baking. The good news about having Geese A-Laying would be that the goslings would soon follow. Geese are excellent parents and protectively raise their young.

This graphic from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources shows the differences in the heads and bills of three types of swans.

Seven Swans A-Swimming

Swans are one of the most charismatic birds. Their graceful flight and peaceful beauty as they glide across the water have inspired humans to find spiritual meaning in them. Iron Age Britons, eighth century BC and later, considered them supernatural. Mute swans are the traditional birds of folklore. Although migratory, they became semi-domesticated in Britain by the 10th century.

Richard the Lionhearted is often credited with bringing swans to England on his return from the Crusades in the 12th century, but some documentation shows swans being kept as far back as 966, during the reign of King Edgar.

It was in the 12th century that the Crown claimed ownership of all swans. In the 15th century, swan ownership was shared with the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies. That continues today, with an annual ceremony called Swan Upping, in which cygnets, baby swans, are captured, weighed, checked for health problems, banded and released.

So, the 12 Days of Christmas meaning behind Seven Swans-A-Swimming would have had royal as well as spiritual connotations.

In the 17th century, Mute Swans were semi-domesticated in England. In the Netherlands, they were farmed, for their down, their meat and as ornamental birds, according to Sylvia Bruce Wilmore, in her book, Swans of the World. In the Netherlands, those practices continued until after World War II. Because all swans in England belong officially to the Royal Family, swans given as gifts would have been marked on the upper part of their bills. Their markings identified the person who had responsibility for them and thus could benefit from them. Marks date back to 1370.

Today in the U.S., migratory waterfowl are protected by state and federal laws. Permits are required to keep wild birds legally. If you are in any doubt about birds you are considering acquiring, check with the state department of fish and game, parks and wildlife or natural resources.

Mute swans are controversial residents along the East Coast, where they have displaced local Trumpeter swans. Mute swans have been acquired as decorative waterfowl for parks and estates, but easily escape and become feral. They are now regarded as unwanted invaders, trashing the fragile wetland habitat in which they live and chasing out native birds. To avoid those problems, the state of New Hampshire requires by law that Mute swans be pinioned, an operation done on young cygnets to remove the distal joint of the wing, making flight impossible. They retain their mythic grip on people, touching the hearts of those who glimpse them gliding across a misty lake. This dichotomy confounds wetlands managers who want at least to control Mute Swans, if not eliminate them entirely.

“They are a beautiful form of biological pollution,” said Jonathan McKnight, associate director for habitat conservation at Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. Others disagree, citing Mute Swans’ circumpolar migratory route, and claim that they have a historic presence in North America.

Current wildlife control professionals hunt them to reduce the population, which has been successful. Tundra and Trumpeter Swans are unquestionably native birds to North America. They remain protected.

I haven’t found any evidence that swans were ever raised commercially in North America. They are wild birds, the largest flying bird, and formidable aggressors willing to protect their nests. Swans-A-Swimming remain a lovely image, but one not practical for domestic production.

Eight Maids a-Milking

In the 16th and 17th centuries, cattle breeds were as different from modern cattle as poultry breeds are. Devon cattle were among the breeds that the maids may well have been milking.

The American Milking Devon was developed from the breed named for the county Devon in England. It retains good production in milk as well as meat. This Devon heifer, “Fashion 5th,” is an illustration from Livestock and Complete Stock Doctor: A Cyclopedia, by Jonathan Periam and A. H. Baker, published in 1910. The breed is known for fast walking, which allows it to cover fields efficiently. It is a desirable breed for oxen as well as food production.

The Milking Shorthorn, which traces its history back at least to the estates of the nobility of Northumberland in England of those days, would also be a candidate for the hands of those maids.

Significant points for good dairy cows, according to the Stock Doctor, are: “… a small neck, sharp shoulders, small brisket and small bone. Moreover, small bone usually accompanies thrift, and is universally found in improved breeds.”

Milkmaids were associated with good skin at this period of time because they were likely to avoid the smallpox that scarred so many. Because of their close association with cows, they were exposed to cowpox, a much less serious disease that made them immune to smallpox. Edward Jenner relied on this observation to develop the first “vaccine,” a word that comes from the Latin word for “cow.”

12 Days of Christmas Meaning Behind Ladies, Lords, Pipers, and Drummers 

The nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping and twelve drummers drumming also reflect aspects of life in the 18th century. The social system placed Lords and Ladies above the common people living on the farms, the Pipers Piping and Drummers Drumming who entertained them. Their performance would have been an expression of military strength as well as general festivities, dancing and making merry. They all would have appreciated the birds that came to the feast.

Now you know the 12 Days of Christmas meaning and history. Isn’t it fascinating? While we’re on the subject of Christmas carols, what’s your favorite?

Christine Heinrichs is the author of How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry, Voyageur Press. Both books focus on raising traditional breeds in small flocks. 

Originally published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Backyard Poultry.

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