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
may I suggest for your thinking that they obscure a mixture of numerology and astronomical mnemonics and
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 which could be sung in public without risk
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.
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 traditional order)
- 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
- 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 Colly Birds:
The birds are really Colly
Birds, not Calling Birds, which didn't appear until the Frederic Austin
version. 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 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.
- 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
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
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
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.
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
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LAST MODIFIED: Old Twelfth Night, 2014