Be Your Own Birder

The 12 Days of Christmas – Birds!

One of the most iconic holiday carols of all time, The 12 Days of Christmas is an annual favorite (or a crazy irritant, depending on how loudly, frequently, and off-key it may be sung). For birders, there are so many interesting birds and bird connections in the song, it’s well worth examining. But before we start examining different bird references within the song, it’s helpful to know a bit about the song itself.

Outdoor Christmas Tree - Photo by Dineshraj Goomany
Outdoor Christmas Tree – Photo by Dineshraj Goomany

The 12 Days of Christmas Lyrics

There are many variations in the song’s lyrics, from simple word swaps to detailed parodies. The classic lyrics, however, are typically close to:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
…A partridge in a pear tree.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
…Two turtle doves…
…And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
…Three French hens…
…Two turtle doves…
…And a partridge in a pear tree.

The song continues, with each verse adding a new cumulative line of gift-giving. The remaining days are generally as follows:

Four calling birds…
Five golden rings…
Six geese a-laying…
Seven swans a-swimming…
Eight maids a-milking…
Nine ladies dancing…
Ten lords a-leaping…
Eleven pipers piping…
Twelve drummers drumming.

Depending on the language of the song, where it is sung, and what variation is chosen, there are many different lyric options. For example, in some renditions, “ships a-sailing” or “cocks-a-crowing” may be used instead of “pipers piping” or another of the action verses. Some songs change the gift giver from “my true love” to “my mother” and others have slight variations within the gifts themselves, such as “colly” or “canary” birds rather than “calling” birds, “gold” rings rather than “golden” rings, or “ducks” instead of “geese” for laying all those eggs.

Even stronger, wilder variations of the song have been made into parodies. From redneck gifts to holiday hassles to career themes for nurses, teachers, flight attendants, and even funeral directors, there’s a song for every style. Nerd and geek lyrics cover the 12 Days of Christmas for Harry Potter, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, My Little Ponies, Minecraft, and more, while there are regional parodies for Australia, South Africa, Canada, Hawaii, and many other destinations. There are 12 Days of Christmas lyrics for drinking, hunting, marketing, parenting, and there are even fun variations just for birders!

Origins of the Song

With so many variations even of the classic or traditional lyrics, it can be difficult to trace the origins of this popular carol. Originally a poem or chant, the verses were first published on paper in England in 1780, though likely the carol was enjoyed orally for some time before that. It may have come from France, though there is also a similar Scottish poem or song that could have inspired the carol. It is possible the original poem was intended as a memory game for children or a way to recount religious symbolism, but those origins are long since lost to lyrical history.

It wasn’t until 1909 when the musical score, composed by Frederic Austin, was added to the lyrics. Today, just as there are many variations in the words, there are also variations in the instrumentation, tempo, and other aspects of the musical score to suit the mood and intention of the artist performing the piece or the lyrics used.

Violin and Sheet Music - Photo by Ky0n Cheng
Violin and Sheet Music – Photo by Ky0n Cheng

The Dates of the 12 Days

While there may be many variations to the song’s lyrics and even disputes about its origins and evolution, what is generally understood is the actual dates of the 12 days of Christmas. In religious symbolism, the days begin on December 25 and cover the period until Epiphany (January 5). Yet even those dates aren’t universal, and some traditions in different faiths start on December 26 (the first “full” day of Christmas) and continue until January 6.

In more secular variations, the 12 days are before the actual Christmas holiday, beginning on December 14 and continuing through December 25. This is a more modern focus, when many celebrations are before the Christmas date and life returns to normal soon after December 25.

For Be Your Own Birder, with respect to all faiths and traditions (and owing to the craziness of my own life and family in the days after December 25), we are going to celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas Birds beginning on December 14. Stay tuned each day for a discussion of the song’s classic lyrics and how they connect to birds of all sorts.

Whatever you may celebrate, and however you may choose to do it, I wish you a very joyous and memorable holiday season!

Winter Northern Cardinal - Photo by Virginia State Parks
Winter Northern Cardinal – Photo by Virginia State Parks

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