Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Seven Bird Gifts of Christmas


On Christmas Eve, I can’t help but notice that most of the gifts given in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are birds:

Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five golden rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

Wait, you say! Golden rings aren’t birds. Well, not a lot is known about the origins of the song, but many speculate that, in keeping with the other kinds of gifts mentioned, the five rings may refer to rings on a bird, such as the ring-necked pheasant, or perhaps to the “goldspinks," which shows up in an old Scottish version, a reference to the goldfinch. Another clarification: “calling” birds is a more recent term. Older versions refer to “collie birds,” which are blackbirds (think black like coal), or “canary birds.” French hens are basically chickens.

Xavier Romero-Frias, "Twelve Days of
Christmas Song Poster," CC BY-SA 3.0
This very old song probably originated as a children’s memory and forfeit game, where one child keeps advancing until making a mistake in trying to remember all the words, and then the next child gets a turn. Since the song is about Advent gift giving (probably from a lover to his love), this implies that at the time of its origin birds were considered among the very best gifts possible. One can imagine that birds represented all kinds of ideas that a lover would wish to convey to his beloved: beauty (swans), fertility (geese laying eggs), nourishment (pheasants and hens), cuddling (turtle doves), and romantic love (partridge, with its heart-shaped breast). It also shows the agricultural base of the context, calling up an image of maids a-milking (perhaps another nod to fertility), surrounded by farm animals such as geese and chickens.

In short, this silly song provides another example of how we invoke animals as symbols in our relationships to one another.

So Merry Christmas to you all. Thank you for the gift you give me of reading my blog! In return, I give you this old video of a wonderful parody of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” by the a cappella group Straight No Chaser.

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