THE 12 BIRDS OF CHRISTMAS
research and speculative detective work by
John R. Henderson
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 they obscure a mixture of numerology and astronomical mnemonics and pagan cosmology.
When you sing The Twelve Days of Christmas, you are actually 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. One remnant of the ancient faith is The Twelve Days of Christmas which could be sung in public without risk of persecution. It was first written down sometime in the eleventh century, but the song itself is many centuries older. Hidden in the song are pre-Christian pagan symbols linked to both numbers and birds. Yes, birds are in all the verses.
- 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 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.
- Four Calling Birds: The birds are really Colly Birds. Colly birds are coal-black crows, jackdaws, rooks, and 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 here it represents 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 to old behind us as we start afresh.
- Nine Ladies Dancing: The dancing, of course, is a code word for passion and courtship. The ladies are Lapwings that wildly wheel, roll, and tumble in the air during courtship displays. Quite in contrast, the number nine represents harmony and eternity. So unlike the sensual symbolism of the five golden rings, the message of nine ladies dancing is that we must live this life passionately to gain an everlasting peace.
- Ten Lords A-Leaping: I've even heard it said that the ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments. Can you imagine anything sillier? The lords a-leaping are cuckoos. And the cuckoo notoriously lays her eggs in another bird's nest. The cuckoo was a bird of immorality and misrule. This season was a time of misrule, so you will just have to imagine how many of the Ten Commandments might be broken. NOTE: In a variant found in Salem, Massachusetts, on a broadside published in the late 1700s, on the Tenth Day of Christmas, the true love gave/sent ten Cocks A-Crowing. Either choice of birds works just as well for the interpretation of this verse, given that the cock is legendary for his being 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.
- Eleven Pipers Piping: The pipers are nightingales -- the birds of the most wondrous piping trills and songs. They sing at night as well as during the day. They can pipe a cheery song of love anew or sing a sad lament. The importance of Duality is being repeated and emphasized, with one difference. Eleven is a lucky number, but, of course, luck is a dual force that might bring good or ill. Let's hope this day brings us good luck (knock on wood).
- Twelve Drummers Drumming: In England and mainland Europe, the most common drumming bird was the Snipe. The twelve drumming birds bring the song to completion, since twelve is the number of completion. Where and when snipes do their drumming is important. Snipes drum in the spring soon after fields have been plowed and are most fertile. So as the song comes to an end, we remember the spring will be coming, life will be renewed, and the cycle continues.
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 birds and other gifts were ignored and the number of the day simply matched standard religious and Biblical concepts shared equally by Catholics and Protestants (only Catholics honored the Four Gospels and the Ten Commandments?). Plus 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.
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LAST MODIFIED: 12 days before Christmas 2011