THE 12 BIRDS OF CHRISTMAS
research and speculative detective work by
John R. Henderson
It has been nearly two decades since I first started investigating the avian secrets behind the 12 Days of Christmas. The lyrics sound merry and jolly, but may I suggest for your thinking that they just might obscure a mixture of numerology and astronomical mnemonics and pagan cosmology. Could it be that hidden in one of the most popular Christmas carols are pre-Christian pagan symbols linked to both numbers and birds? If true, then yes, birds are in all the verses.
After the 8th century in England and elsewhere in Europe the faith of Anglo-Celtic pagans died out, and by the time William the Conqueror held his coronation on December 25, 1066, the Christianization of England was complete. However, even by that early date, the war on Christmas was over, and the extinct pagans had won. Instead of being a day of prayer and fasting, Christmas had become a full season of great merriment and feasting. Leaving prayers to the priests, lords and ladies, merchants and peasants filled their time with singing and dancing, sports (jousting for the noble class, but ball games for the lower classes), and other activities that dour religious leaders might condemn as lewd. Until the Puritans emerged many centuries later, however, priests and other church leaders seemed quite content for Christians to adopt the pagan customs as their own. Could one remnant of a more boisterous and lascivious ancient faith be The Twelve Days of Christmas? Long before Christians came to the British Isles, ancient Celts observed twelve days of Yule. In additional to the Twelve Days of Christmas, there are several other holiday songs with counting to twelve that likely have pagan origins: Jolly Old Hawk and The Dilly Song (also known as Green Grow the Rushes-O).
The version of the Twelve Days of Christmas that we know today dates back only as far as 1909, when arranger Frederic Austin's transcription of the words and his own tune were published in London. The three earliest printed versions (with no music) date back to about 1780, and it is noteworthy that the order of the gifts was different than the Twentieth Century version. The song was old when it was first published. One scholar has found what she thinks are elements of the song in a damaged manuscript from the seventh century, the time of Beowulf, the great heroic pagan poem.
Most of what we know about the Anglo-Celtic pagan religion comes from Christian writers condeming it. What the Anglo-Celts actually believed will never be known for sure, but there are clues. We know numbers had special signifigance to them, and we know that birds were honored as holy symbols of fertility – what's bawdy to one may be righteous to another. That in itself might actually provide even more evidence of the song's true non-Christian origins. Here for your delight and critical appraisal is my proposed code to decipher the song. I admit to more speculative conjecture and deliberative excogitation than scholarly uncovering of verifiable evidence. In fact for the basis of my theories, I used something surprisingly similar to the Shroud of Turin.
|A Partridge in a Pear Tree: The symbolism of the partridge comes from the fact that in the winter months, partridges leave their large flocks and form monogamous pairs (i.e. in a "pear" tree). As a pair, the two become one, and this Oneness, formed from the "two" out of the "many," is the ultimate Good.|
|Two Turtle Doves: Turtle doves have long been emblems of devoted love. But with their mournful voices, turtle doves represent both love and loss. This is just one of many important Dualities: male and female, day and night, summer and winter, life and death.|
|Three French Hens: The three hens are, quite simply, an allusion to the goddess in her triple forms of virgin, mother, and hag. Hag was not a term of derision -- it meant wise woman. They represent the never ending cycle of birth, life, and rebirth.|
|Four Colly Birds: The birds are really Colly Birds, not Calling Birds. Colly birds may be any of several coal-black birds – crows, jackdaws, rooks, or ravens. These birds of the night carry the power and mystery of the dark season of the year. The raven was the bird of battle. Four is an important number to link with the darkness, since Four is the number of the Earth, which, though now asleep and filled in darkness, remains fertile and a potent elemental source of power.|
|Five Golden Rings: They may not sound bird-like to you, but these are ring-necked pheasants. Not native to Europe, pheasants had been introduced there during Roman times and were quite common throughout Europe before the rise of Christianity. Pheasants were symbols of the element of Fire and sensuous sexuality. The number Five also represents sensuality and magic. Ever wonder why there is so much emphasis, rhythmically, to this verse?|
|Six Geese A-Laying: The important element is the "a-laying" part. The Egg represents the creation cycle of birth, death, re-birth. And what about the number Six? Because of the shape of the number, which is a continuous, spiraling curve without angle, it too represents the cycle of life. Geese also represent Water, another of the four life-giving elements.|
|Seven Swans A-Swimming: A message to celebrate the beauty of the unknown. Swans are birds of elegance and mystery. Seven represents mystery and elegance, largely in part to the movement of the seven planets (only seven were known until 1846). Planets moved unlike all the other stars and had their own intricate patterns – nothing was more elegant and mysterious. Oddly, although the swans are swimming they represent Air, which as an element includes the sky and the heavens.|
Eight Maids A-Milking: Here be eight Magpies. Magpies are black birds with milky white patches. Magpies are birds full of power and are portents used in fortune-telling. Eight has many different meanings symbolically, but one very important one is a new beginning. Different numbers of magpies can mean different things, "five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never told," but eight magpies remind us to put the old behind us as we start afresh. It seems significant but must be only a coincidence that by some reckoning that New Year's Day is the Eighth Day of Christmas.
|Nine Drummers Drumming: With this verse, the order of the gifts we sing is changed from the original. Instead of ladies dancing, in the earliest known version, on this day drummers were drumming. In England and mainland Europe, the most common drumming bird was the Snipe. Where and when snipes do their drumming is important. Snipes drum in the spring soon after fields have been plowed and are most fertile. The number nine represents harmony and eternity. Fertility coupled with both harmony and eternity creates the most powerful force we can know.|
|Ten Pipers Piping: We sing the song with the ten lords a-leaping, but originally it was ten pipers piping, at least in England. In earliest known variant found in North America, on the Tenth Day of Christmas, the true love sent ten Cocks A-Crowing. It's all the same, however. The English green sandpiper has a reputation for being noisy, excitable, loud, and shrill. Cocks, and to a lesser extent sandpipers, were legendary for being vain and arrogant, feisty, and sexually agressive. It was shortly after the broadside was published that the word "rooster" replaced "cock" in polite company in North America. That may help explain why we don't hear that version today. One explanation I've heard for this day is that it represents the Ten Commandments. That is not just silly, it is hilariously ironic. Can you imagine how many of the Ten Commandments might be broken on a day ruled by troublesome, brawling, lecherous, and loud noise-makers?|
|Eleven Ladies Dancing: The dancing, of course, is a code word for passion and courtship. The dancing ladies are Lapwings that wildly wheel, roll, and tumble in the air during courtship displays. Eleven is a lucky number, but, of course, luck is a dual force that might bring good or ill. On this day of dancing, passion, and courtship, let's hope this day brings us good luck (knock on wood).|
|Twelve Lords A-Leaping: The lords a-leaping are cuckoos. And the cuckoo hen notoriously lays her eggs in another bird's nest. Because of this the cuckoo became a symbol for immorality and disorder. Not just this day, but the whole season of twelve days was a time of misrule and sexual license. The world was turned upside down. During these twelve days, right is wrong, the strong are weak, the first is last, and the lowliest laborers might become the highest lords. The twelve lords a-leaping bring the song to an end, since twelve is the number of completion. As we return to normal life again, we remember that spring will be coming, life will be renewed, order will form out of disorder, and the cycle will continue.|
There you have it -- the HIDDEN meaning of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Either that or this explanation is for the birds.
Research on this song began when I was received an email then going around that claimed the song was created by clandestine Catholics during the period they were oppressed after Elizabeth I became queen. Unfortunately, not only was there no documentation, the claim made little sense, since the explanations provided [for example: three French hens = the holy trinity; four calling birds = four gospels: ten lords =the Ten Commandments] simply matched standard religious and Biblical concepts shared equally by Catholics and Protestants. If there was a true hidden meaning to the lyrics, I knew it lay elsewhere.
I have used many secondary sources for background information. Authors such as Joseph Campbell, Robert Graves, John Fiske, Gerald Gardner, and Sir James George Fraser have all produced controversial theses about the thoughts and beliefs of people in pre-Christian Europe. For analysis of folksongs of the British Isles I have read articles and monographs by Sabine Baring-Gould, Cecil Sharp, W. W. Newell, Andrew Lang, George Kittredge, and R. J. Stewart. For questions related to the natural history of the birds of England, I have consulted Thomas Bewick and Francis Orpen Morris, among others. Additional assistance and encouragment has come from ornithologists Margaret Shepard and Alice Boyle, physician and geneticist Robin Wilson, and librarians Adele Barree and Diana McFarland.
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Images are my own photoshopped modifications of photographs that I believe are in the public domain.
LAST MODIFIED: Old Twelfth Night, 2017