Continuing our discussion of The 12 Days of Christmas in all its birdiness…
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
…two turtle doves.
There are so many birds in such an iconic holiday carol, and so many layers behind each one. When multiple birds are introduced in a single lyric line, the symbolism gets even deeper and more connected to both birds and the holidays.
What’s a Turtle Dove?
While the lyric for this song is often written as “turtle doves” there actually are no bird species with the name presented as two words. There are, however, eight species of turtle-doves, all of which are true doves and members of the Columbidae bird family, along with more than 350 other species of doves, pigeons, and bronzewings.
Which exact turtle-dove species is intended in the song is unclear, though the most likely option when the song was first written is the European turtle-dove (Streptopelia turtur). At the time, these turtle-doves were common and widespread, though today their numbers have dramatically declined and their overall status is listed as vulnerable (hopefully not due to being given as gifts each holiday season).
That said, different types of doves could also have been the carol’s intended gifts, as many doves and pigeons have been domesticated and raised for meat for centuries. This makes the turtle-doves another valuable gift of food for the intended holiday recipient.
Why a Pair of Doves?
Giving these birds in a pair is more than just a means to match up to catchy lyrics and sequential numbers. By giving doves as a pair, it’s a gift that can easily keep on giving all year, and better represents the bounty of the song. Doves are prolific breeders and can raise a new brood at any time of year if conditions are suitable, potentially giving the recipient many broods of young, tender squabs to enjoy long past the holiday season. Interestingly, the most common number of eggs in each dove brood is two, connecting even more closely to the numerical order of the carol.
The Romance of Doves
Beyond the gift of food, offering a pair of turtle-doves to one’s true love can also be a romantic gesture. The gentle countenance and peaceful nature of many doves makes them popular for romantic symbolism, and doves are often associated with love, weddings, and even Valentine’s Day. Doves are often featured as toppers or decorations on wedding cakes, romantic cards, and anniversary trinkets, and releasing doves at a wedding can be considered a romantic moment as one’s marriage takes flight.
It should be noted, however, that for all the romance associated with these birds, doves do not actually mate for life and can actually be quite polygamous and unfaithful to their individual mates. Not quite the sentiment the carol’s gift-giver may have intended, but there are still 10 days of gifts to come!