Welcome to our all birdy discussion of The 12 Days of Christmas! This popular carol is a perennial favorite through the holiday season, and we’re going to discuss each line of its counting rhymes and how they relate to birds. There are more birds and more bird-related fun in this song than you may realize! And so…
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
…a partridge in a pear tree.
You don’t have to look far for the bird reference in the first lines of the carol, but there are actually a lot of questions and angles to consider about this first iconic gift of the holiday season.
Why Gifts of Food?
Many of the gifts throughout the song refer not to wild, free-flying birds, but to game birds, domesticated fowl, and other items intended as food, while others focus on entertainment. This emphasizes the festiveness of the season and the sharing of plenty between friends, family members, and loved ones. To have such bounty to give and share plentiful gifts, luxurious foods, and lavish entertainment was a true sign of wealth and status, as well as caring and fellowship. In reference to the “my true love” aspect of the carol’s lyrics, it is likely the gifts could also be referring to showing one’s ability to provide for a spouse or family, or even paying a dowry.
While today we may not give live birds or hire trained performers as holiday gifts, the intent is the same when we share a box of chocolates, a tray of homemade cookies, concert tickets, the latest movies, or other fun gifts – enjoying the bounty of the season with those we care most about.
There are 45 different game bird species with the word “partridge” as part of their most recognized common name – 46 if you consider the partridge pigeon (Geophaps smithii) of Australia, and even more if you add in the wood-partridges, forest-partridges, and bamboo-partridges. This isn’t even counting other game birds, such as ptarmigan and pheasants, that might be called “partridges” in less widespread common names.
Given the probable origins of the song, the popularity of certain game birds at the time it was written and originally performed, and the ranges of different partridges, it is likely the intended gift would have been a red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa). This game bird is native to western Europe from the Iberian peninsula to central France, and is imported and well-established throughout the United Kingdom. Yet any other game birds – partridges or not – could have been equally prized gifts for the holiday season, and would have made fine additions to a lavish feast.
Why a Pear Tree?
Any type of fruiting tree would have made for an impressive holiday gift centuries ago, and even today gifts of fruit – baskets, miniature trees, scented candles, etc. – are popular tokens of affection and appreciation. Pear trees, specifically, are native to Europe and Asia, and thus would have been available as gifts at the time of the song’s introduction. Pears have been cultivated as food for millennia, and today there are roughly 3,000 recognized pear cultivars of different tastes, sizes, colors, and textures.
Harvested in the fall, pears keep well if stored properly in a cool, dark place, making them readily available even in winter. Not only can they be eaten raw or cooked, but pears can be poached, jellied, and made into jams and sauces. Pears can be made into cakes, pies, crisps, and breads, may be roasted with meats, tossed with salads, and used to flavor honey. There is even pear cider, and hints of pear may be used in other types of alcohol. With so many delicious uses for pears, it’s no wonder that a pear tree would make a lovely – and fruitful – holiday gift.
Why a Bird in a Tree?
It is when the partridge and the pear tree are combined that the song gets a bit – weird. Partridges and other game birds are not generally frugivorous (eating mainly fruit). While they will nibble at fruits in the autumn and winter, particularly when other food sources may be exhausted, most of these birds would be more likely to pluck at berries, grapes, olives, or other small fruits on bushes or vines rather than larger fruits on taller trees. To that end, perhaps a more accurate bird-in-tree gift would be…
- …A waxwing in a hawthorn tree.
- …A robin in a cherry tree.
- …An oriole in an orange tree.
- …A catbird in a plum tree.
Doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?
Ultimately, some gifts can’t be explained, though we’ll certainly have fun for the next 12 days as we try – sometimes more creatively than others – to connect each of the song’s lyrics to birds and birding. Happy Holidays!