You know The Twelve Days of Christmas song by heart, don’t you? It’s a perennial Christmas favorite, especially to youngsters. Didn’t most of us learn the words in grade school?
Originally a chant or memory game,* The Twelve Days of Christmas was first published in 1780, in England, but it’s probably older than that and French in origin. Various versions have been recited and sung through the centuries.
The lyrics refer to the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany. Depending on how it’s being calculated, the days begin on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or the day after. It wasn’t put to music until the 1800s. The melody we sing today was written in 1909.
In addition to numerous energetic people in the song — pipers piping, lords-a-leaping, ladies dancing and maids-a-milking — there are seven birds. Have you ever wondered what species the songwriter(s) had in mind? Historians who’ve made a study of this agree on most or all of the following birds. Bet you’ll find yourself humming along as you read!
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
A partridge in a pear tree
Partridges are in the pheasant family and native to Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The bird of the first lyric is likely one of two strong possibilities.
The first is the Red-legged Partridge, Alectoris rufa, sometimes called the French Partridge. They’re native to France, Spain and Portugal, and have been introduced into England and Wales. They breed on rocky ground and farmlands. They’ll fly short distances, but prefer to run when alarmed.
The second most likely is the Gray Partridge, a traditional game bird of Europe and Asia. Introduced into flat agricultural areas along the United States/Canada border they’re especially noted for their huge clutches—up to twenty-two eggs!
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Two turtle doves
On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Three French hens
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Four calling birds
On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Five golden rings
On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Seven swans a-swimming
So, there you have it—a memorable song that acknowledges the importance of particular birds to people back in the 1700s and to this day is still sung at a certain time of the year!