THE 12 BIRDS OF CHRISTMAS
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The lyrics of the Twelve Days of Christmas sound merry and jolly, but I would like to suggest for your thinking that the light-heartedness obscures a mixture of numerology, 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.
|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. The three together represent the never ending cycle of birth, life, death, 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. 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. If you have ever wondered why there is so much rhythmic emphasis to this verse, this might explain it.|
|Six Geese A-Laying: The important element is the "a-laying" part. The Egg represents the birth, creation and new life. 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, when they aren't a-laying, are birds of the Air, an element that includes the sky and the heavens.|
|Seven Swans A-Swimming: A message to celebrate the beauty of the unknown. Swans are birds of elegance and mystery. Seven also 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. The "a-swimming" represents Water, another of the four life-giving elements.|
Eight Maids A-Milking: Here be eight magpies.* Magpies are black birds with milky white patches. Magpies are birds full of power and are used as portents 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. Appropriately, the Eighth Day of Christmas is also New Year's Day.
|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, and until the mid-18th Century the first day of spring was when the new year began. 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. Cocks and sandpipers were both legendary for being noisy, excitable, 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 narcissists?|
|Eleven Ladies Dancing: The dancing 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 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 (or as the pagan in you might say, "Knock on wood").|
|Twelve Lords A-Leaping: The lords a-leaping are cuckoos. 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, 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.
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 since I followed the older lyrics, some of you likely have noticed that the order of the gifts are different than the 20th 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 eleventh century, the time of Beowulf, the great heroic pagan poem. Long before Christians came to the British Isles, ancient Celts observed twelve days of Yule. In addition 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).
I first started investigating the avian secrets behind the Twelve Days of Christmas in 1998 in response to a viral email that claimed the song was created by clandestine English Catholics during their oppression under Elizabeth I. Unfortunately, not only was there no documentation, the claim made little sense. What it explained as hidden messages were actually standard Biblical concepts that are shared equally by Catholics and Protestants. As examples: three French hens = the holy trinity; four calling birds = four gospels: ten lords = the Ten Commandments. If there was a true hidden meaning to the lyrics, I knew it lay elsewhere.
If the origins of the song date back to pre-Christian paganism, unfortunately, most of what we know about the Anglo-Celtic pagan religion comes from Christian writers condemning it. What the Anglo-Celts actually believed will never be known for sure, but there are clues. We know numbers had special significance to them, and we know that birds were honored as holy symbols of fertility – what's bawdy to one may be holy to another. That in itself might actually provide even more evidence of the song's true non-Christian origins, since the pagans did not shy away from sexuality.
By the end of the 7th century, England and much of the rest of the British Isles had been officially Christianized. The organized state religion, however, was for the elite. Common folk were not instructed in the tenets of the Christian faith. Their lives were primarily dictated by the agricultural seasons, and to them, church going and religious festivals were mostly welcomed for the leisure time they provided. As far as the church was concerned, all that was required of commoners was that they confess allegiance to the church, perhaps by making their mark in a book. Boisterous, even lascivious behavior was expected of the peasants, especially during the festivals held on quarter and cross-quarter days. They still exist. The most important were Beltane or May Day, Midsummer's Day, Samhain or Halloween, and Yule. Scholars agree that many practices and ideas of the pagan religion became a central part of Christianity. There is modern talk about a war on Christmas, but what is not acknowledged is that Early Christians didn't celebrate their savior's birth. The modern celebration of Christmas is built on pagan winter solstice rituals. Where early Christians would have observed a day of prayer and fasting on December 25, heathens celebrated with reveling, singing, and dancing. For Yule, they didn't contain the merriment to just one day. Puritans did declare a War on Christmas by outlawing it, but the Puritans' theocracy in England and New England was relatively brief, and the pagan traditions of Christmas returned.
Outside of these rollicking festive days, there is no solid evidence of a clandestine pagan religion after the Norman Conquest of 1066, but old customs and rituals, only slightly revised and reinvented, were woven into the fabric of their everyday lives. There was no need for followers of the old ways to hide what they were doing until the Great European Witch-Hunt, and that atrocity only dates back as far as the 15th century. Witch-hunts came to England only a couple of centuries later. The persecution was responsible for the deaths of between 25,000 and 80,000 (some even claim a number above 200,000), mostly women. In the British Isles, the numbers have been estimated to be around 500. These women were midwives, herbalists, and healers, who, by their practices, now called witchcraft and magic, challenged both the patriarchal church and the enlightened men of science. As Europe faced plagues, religious wars, and turbulent societal change, they became easy targets for blame. The empowered women were charged with consorting with the Devil, even though the pre-Christian pagans had no concept of devils.
When Henry VIII's Church of England started persecuting Catholics, the crown tried to eradicate other heresies, as well. Certain witchcraft practices were made a capital offense in Britain during Elizabeth I's reign, and penalties for all types of witchcraft were increased under James I. Followers of the old ways had a much stronger reason than Catholics to disguise their beliefs.
One theory about the Twelve Days of Christmas is that it was sung as a game of forfeits. If singers could not recall a lyric or messed up the order of gifts, they had to suffer a penalty. During the regency and reign of George IV, this might be a kiss, but who knows what a mistake might have cost before that. The Anglo-Celts were known to have played sports and games on their festive days, so this theory of the song originally being an amusement does not dispute an ancient pagan origin.
The adoption of Christmas carols from pagan sources was an easy task. Holly and ivy and other pagan symbols appear in many holiday songs, so we know it was done. Singing grew naturally out of chant and incantation. The practice of magic in the Anglo-Celtic world included poetic, alliterative language sung or spoken in a repetitive rhythm. Old manuscripts of charms and magical poetry include many instances of numbers and flora and fauna. These, of course, are all elements found in the Twelve Days of Christmas.
*Judy Mellichamp wrote me to make a strong argument for doves or pigeons as alternative maids a-milking, because of their crop milk – a secretion that parent birds regurgitate into the gaping gullets of baby birds. Doves are symbolic of peace and purity, but when the same birds are called pigeons, they are not.
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.
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 the history of magic and witchcraft I have consulted works by Bryan F. Lew Beau and L.M.C. Weston. 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.
If you are still in the holiday mood, take a look at the ICYouSee Guide to Holiday Films, Traditional and Non-Traditional.
Page created and maintained by John R. Henderson (jhenderson @
Images are my own photo-modifications of photographs that I believe are in the public domain.
LAST MODIFIED: Old Twelfth Night, 2023