Why Are There So Many Birds in the Twelve Days of Christmas?
Last weekend when the Maddox Fam was decking the halls for the Holidays, of course, I had to turn on some Christmas music to get into the spirit. My husband Michael's job is always lugging the boxes of decorations from the garage and my son Rollins helps me unwrap ornaments to put on the tree.
We LOVE The Muppets, and their version of the Twelve Days of Christmas played from the record player. After several verses, Rollins asked me "Mom, why are there so many birds in this song?" The question made me laugh because when you think about it, whoever wrote the popular festive tune has received an abnormally large amount of winged critters as gifts from their true love by the end of the twelve days.
How Many Birds Are in The Twelve Days of Christmas?
If you follow the theory that each day, the gift for that day is given plus whatever was given the day (s) before, when you do the math, it adds up to 184 birds total in the song. Here is the breakdown per day:
Day 1 – a partridge in a pear tree = 1 bird
Day 2 – 2 turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree = 3 birds
Day 3 – 3 French hens, 2 turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree = 6 birds
Day 4 – 4 calling birds, 3 French hens, 2 turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree = 10 birds
Day 5 – 5 golden rings, 4 calling birds, 3 French hens, 2 turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree = 10 birds
Day 6 – 6 geese-a-laying, 5 golden rings, 4 calling birds, 3 French hens, 2 turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree = 16 birds
Day 7 – 7 swans-a-swimming, 6 geese-a-laying, 5 golden rings, 4 calling birds, 3 French hens, 2 turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree = 23 birds
The following days don't include any additional birds, so each day the total would be the 23 already calculated.
Day 8 – 23 birds
Day 9 – 23 birds
Day 10 – 23 birds
Day 11 – 23 birds
Day 12 – 23 birds
This brings us to the aforementioned total of 184 squawkin' peckin' birdies.
Can you imagine your true love thinking this is what you wanted for Christmas? Maybe they hadn't been together very long and he didn't know what she liked yet? Or maybe we need to consider the time in history the classic Christmas carol originates from.
When Was The Twelve Days of Christmas Written?
According to Smithsonian Magazine, The Twelve Days of Christmas was first published as a poem in a book called Mirth Without Mischief. Before it was set to the tune we know now, Smithsonian explains, "This Christmas classic would be well-suited to being a chant or poem–it’s written in a poetic form called “cumulative verse,” where each patterned verse contributes to a longer narrative. If you want another example, think “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” Or The House That Jack Built.
Christmas as a holiday at the time was celebrated starting December 25th until January 5th or The Epiphany, a total of 12 days long. Some folks still recognize this as the official Christmastide.
Historians believe the poem most likely existed way before 1780 as there are similarities with writings found in France and Scotland. It was used as a kind of memory game. “The players gathered in a circle and the leader would recite a verse and each would repeat it, the leader would add another verse, and speak faster, and so on until a mistake was made by one of the players, who would then drop out of the game.” The last player standing was the winner."
Here's a video I found that has some great information about the song and time of celebration long ago.
Did People Just Really Like Birds Back Then or Something?
Short answer: Well, actually, yeah! They were very useful.
Long answer: Roasted poultry was one of the main dishes of the time. Along with any eggs the French Hens or Geese were a-laying, the True Love was thinking about how his recipient would be set for the season and beyond if he gave them that many birds. Then you factor in the pear tree and maids-a-milking to add to the feast.
The Geese would have served another useful purpose as their feathers could have been used to stuff pillows or down blankets for the winter to keep warm.
The calling birds are actually a misnomer for "Colly" birds. Black birds that sing beautiful songs.
The Swans would have been a romantic gift at the time to symbolize luxury.
The pipers, dancers, and drummers would have made for one heck of a Christmas party!
LOOK: Holiday gift crazes and fads of the past century
Gallery Credit: Jennnifer Billock