There are many birds and birdy connections in The 12 Days of Christmas, and a certain trio of foreign poultry can be interpreted in many ways for the spirit of the song and season.
On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
…Three French hens.
To truly puzzle out this seasonal reference, we have to take each of the words one at a time.
The relatively generic term “hen” can refer to nearly any female poultry, from chickens and turkeys to quail, pheasants, and even more partridges, such as the widespread grey partridge (Perdix perdix) that would have made an excellent gift when The 12 Days of Christmas first debuted. These small game birds are popular fowl for hunting, and are often raised in captivity in order to be released for hunts.
Considering the word hen a bit more closely, however, tells us that the term refers primarily to domesticated poultry. This would certainly apply to birds being given as seasonal gifts, though not necessarily if the birds are wild game. Because of the wide range of poultry that could be called hens, however, we need to look further for clues about which birds might make up this famous trio.
There may be no particular reason why French hens were chosen for this lyric or this gift, or there might be every reason. On one hand, the lyric simply fits the song, and could just as easily have been different nationalities of hens, such as Swiss or Greek. Because the carol is in English, however, the idea of French hens is more suitable, as they’d be closer and easier to import for festive giving without risking “three dead hens” which isn’t nearly as musical or as appreciated as a gift.
It is the idea of importing the hens that adds more value and meaning to the song, as it implies a greater worth to the birds and more difficulty in obtaining them. Think of gifts such as wine, chocolate, silk, or cigars – domestic varieties are available and can certainly be suitable, but to choose an imported variety implies better quality and greater luxury, and thus a more expensive gift.
But which French hens are given in the song are even more challenging – even impossible – to discover. If we take the assumption that the word hen does indeed refer to domestic poultry, and that the adjective French is more than just a handy lyric, we’re faced with more than 40 domestic breeds of chicken believed to have originally been bred in France, and therefore would truly be “French hens” without any exaggeration or misnomer.
A Trio of Poultry
Finally, why three hens? Why not two or four? Of course, The 12 Days of Christmas is a progressive counting song, so we need something for the third day. Three chickens is a good start to one’s flock, as these are social birds that will thrive best in a balanced group. Since they were delivered as hens rather than chicks, three is a good number (you’d need more than just a trio of chicks for the birds to be comfortable, but wrapping and shipping more than three full-grown hens at a time can be problematic).
What to Do With All Those Hens
As with the two turtle-doves and the partridge in a pear tree, this gift is still a gift of food – and quite a productive one. Considering this trio of poultry is all hens, they will likely be layers. One hen, depending on breed, condition, health, and environment, can lay up to 300 eggs per year. Thus, the three hens of this famous holiday gift may very well lay 900 eggs by next Christmas – a bountiful gift indeed!
Of course, the gift recipient doesn’t necessarily need to keep all three hens as layers. Chicken is a versatile meat, and can be delicious in a variety of dishes – from roasted, grilled, or baked chicken to chicken noodle soup, chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, chicken pot pie, chicken chili, or chicken tacos. Chicken can be braised, glazed, sauteed, and mixed with a wide range of spices, sauces, and seasonings. With so many options, there are certainly festive ways to incorporate this holiday gift into delicious holiday meals. And of course the eggs are equally versatile from breakfast to dinner to dessert!
Will the next day’s gifts be as bountiful and useful as these three famous French hens?