THE 12 BIRDS OF CHRISTMAS

research and speculative detective work by

John R. Henderson

Introduction

It was more than a decade ago when I first uncovered the secret behind the 12 Days of Christmas. The lyrics sound merry and jolly, but may I suggest for your thinking that they obscure a mixture of numerology and astronomical mnemonics and pagan cosmology.

When you sing The Twelve Days of Christmas, you probably had no idea you were reciting an ancient secret catechism many centuries older than Christianity. After the 8th century in England and elsewhere in Europe, only Christians were allowed to practice their faith openly. To avoid being charged with witchcraft, they had to disguise what they were doing. Could one remnant of the ancient faith be The Twelve Days of Christmas, a song that could be sung in public without risk of persecution?

The version of the song 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. There were many different versions published before then, mostly without music. The song was old when it was first published, however; many centuries older. Scholars believe it dates as far back as the end of the eleventh century and likely as far back as the seventh century in some form.

The two earliest versions in print date back to 1780. One was found in a song book for children published in London that year, and the other was a broadside printed in Boston, Massachusetts, about the same time. The two were identical except for one gift substitution, and both differed from the version we know in the order of the gifts on days nine through twelve.

Hidden in the song are pre-Christian pagan symbols linked to both numbers and birds. Yes, birds are in all the verses.

The code (with the gifts presented in the pre-Twentieth Century order)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Four Colly Birds: The birds are really Colly Birds, not Calling Birds. We have Frederic Austin to thank for the switch. 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. 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, is still an elemental source of power.
  5. Five Golden Rings: They may not sound bird-like to you, but these are ring-necked pheasants. Not native to Europe, pheasants, having been introduced there during Roman times, 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? Now you know.
  6. 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 Middle Ages' four elements.
  7. 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 seven then-known planets that moved unlike all the other stars in their own intricate patterns -- nothing was more elegant and mysterious. Oddly, though the swans are swimming they represent Air, which as an element includes the sky and the heavens.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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. Bagpipers to some ears may play the most wondrous piping trills, but more often, even back then, they were known for being noisy and squawky. Bagpipers and cocks were both 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?
  11. 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).
  12. 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.

Notes and Documentation

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. In the case of the partridge in a pear tree, the author simply skipped over it, since sense couldn't be made of it. If there was a true hidden meaning, 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. For the actual exegesis of the lyrics, I have had to use a certain degree of speculation to supplement my detective work. As a primary source that is very specific to the song, I was fortunate to have been able to use something surprisingly similar to the Shroud of Turin.

Page created and maintained by John R. Henderson
LAST MODIFIED: Old Twelfth Night, 2014