Feathery feasting for Twelve Days?

The earliest published version of The Twelve Days of Christmas dating from the late 1700s

A confession. I have never particularly liked The Twelve Days of Christmas. I prefer my carols bleakly midwinterish. Angels, a star, a manger, the baby, shepherds and three wise men: or failing those a bit of brightly berried pagan greenery. It did not help that at our local church we used to have to get up and sing the fatuous Twelve Days of Nonsense accompanied by witty gestures: extrovert heaven and introvert hell.

These Twelve Days of the Christian calendar begin on Christmas Day, December 25th and end on Twelfth Night, January 5th: the time of year when darkness and light struggle for symbolic and often literal supremacy. January 29th is the fifth day after Christmas – which in the carol offers that most nonsensical gift of all, five gold rings. I suppose the recipient could always melt them down, but really? And why the dramatic pause in the carol on this line in particular? That has always puzzled me – but recently I have stumbled on a solution.

I read somewhere a year or so ago that the carol might really be a celebration of birdlife. The RSPB has since had a good stab at which the ‘other’ birds might be here 👇 https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/rspb-news/rspb-news-stories/the-12-birds-of-christmas/

While all very interesting to birdlovers, this still does not explain why an ancient carol first sung long before binoculars were invented should have been written purely out of ornithological enthusiasm. It just seems to be a bit unlikely.

The Twelve Days was first published in the late 1700s but must have been sung for far longer. It is an example of a mediaeval cumulative song or rhyme (another is The House that Jack Built, inspiring more recent versions such as A. A. Milne’s The Royal Slice of Bread and Angelo Branduardi’s A la Foire de l’Est). In this early period of human history, people did not so much admire birds as eat them. Artists painted dead birds as gory still life. And dead game birds were frequent gifts, especially when times were hard. I still enjoy an occasional brace of pheasant.

The Twelve Days was a time of conviviality and feasting, supposedly after fasting (fasting is still a serious part of many world religions but it plays little part in modern western Christianity, as our UK obesity levels demonstrate. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday were once strictly kept fast days, and Lent meant giving up rather more than chocolate or booze. In theory a 40-day Christmas fast should begin on 15th November).

Mediaeval winters were harsh and birds were eaten rather than meat or fish as ponds and rivers froze, seas were rough and as it was difficult to hunt larger animals in snow. Birds fly slower in the cold and are easier to catch.

Supposing The Twelve Days is not so much a carol as a menu?

In this light, let’s see if we can make more sense of the non-bird elements to the carol:

In a pear-tree sounds very like est un perdrix – you don’t pronounce the x in French. So the first line means ‘a partridge in English is un perdrix in French’. French chefs cooking for English tables are no modern phenomenon. Was the carol-writer lampooning a French chef with a feeble grasp of English and, perhaps, rather an ardent reputation for buying favours with food?

Two turtle doves (delicious, so hunted almost to extinction) and three French (sic) hens would have certainly enhanced any feast.

Four calling birds: well, all birds call, don’t they – but colley-birds are blackbirds (the Latin for the whole thrush family is Turdus, so let’s all just be thankful that we don’t now sing about ‘four bonny turds’ or suchlike). Colley-birds were popular pie ingredients.

Five gold rings too are birds – I have heard goldrings identified as yellowhammers and goldfinches and even ring-necked pheasants: I think though that the grand melody pause in the middle of the carol is a musical joke, and so a goldring may in fact be a goldcrest, the tiniest British bird of all, which nests in little fluffy balls woven from lichen, wool and moss, hanging from the topmost branches of conifers.

Six geese and seven swans – obviously enough to satisfy any hungry family. But eight maids a-milking? The RSPB suggests a tenuous link with the nightjar, a rare, shy bird said to steal milk from cattle while in fact catching of insects attracted by the bright light inside. I cannot find any records of eating a nightjar anywhere.

Far more likely for the ‘eight maids a-milking’ are squabs, young fat wood pigeons fed milk by their mothers, the only birds to lactate (the milky substance is then regurgitated). Squab pie was a hugely-rated mediaeval treat and pigeons – gentle, mild mothers – have an association with the Virgin ‘maid’ Mary.

Early versions of the song change the position of the final four verses. In the social order then the lords would have been at the top, then the ladies, then the pipers and the less-skilled drummers.

The nine drummers would surely be green woodpeckers (or the lovelier old name, yaffle), ten pipers could be sandpipers or curlew which both have piping calls – all birds eaten by the desperate. For eleven ladies dancing why not great-crested grebe, mirroring each others’ movements on the water in a love dance. Water-birds like grebe were reckoned to be the equivalent of fish so could be eaten on Fridays and other fast-days.

As for the twelve lords-a-leaping, this could be any member of the grouse family jumping about in the rowdy heat of the lek, driving off competition to attract the best mate. In my new version (below) I have chosen the king of them all, the huge, rare and shy capercaillie (nb rhymes with cap not cape). Yes, even the poor now-endangered caper could be eaten, although it required burying for several weeks and tasted strongly of pine needles even then. Bleurgh.

All this set me pondering the ghastly culinary process of ‘engastration’, an echo of which persists in our stuffing of turkeys with sausagemeat, chestnuts or herbs. Engastration means placing a boned bird one within the other, the outer layer being absolutely enormous (think a bustard, engastrated almost to extinction, or a mute swan) and each inner bird reducing in size like a Russian doll. The French (naturellement) refined this into le rôti sans pareil – the matchless roast – where no less than twenty birds were stuffed one inside the other, and the smallest bird – perhaps a poor goldcrest – being finished off with an olive stuffed with a single caper (everyone now vegetarian? Grand…). This monster could take a day to roast and how food poisoning was averted is a mystery: perhaps each layer was part-roasted before enveloping it with the next?

I am now convinced that The Twelve Days of Christmas is simply a send-up of a vast and varied flock of edible birds as a novelty showpiece at a noble banquet, or series of great midwinter feasts (so bon appétit to all… 🤢).

If this is the case, should we instead be singing The Twelve Days of Feathers – perhaps something that goes like this:

On the twelfth day of Christmas my twitcher sent to me:

Twelve capers-caillie (now lekking daily)

Eleven water-dancing grebe (posing, prancing)

Ten pipers sandy (little legs so bandy)

Nine yaffles drumming (set the forest thrumming)

Eight squabs all milky (fed by pigeons silky)

Seven swans a-swimming (nest by rivers brimming)

Six geese a-laying (pond to stop them straying)

In high moss-ball nests do swing; one-two-three, four, five goldring!

Four colley-birdus (in Latin – Turdus!)

Three French hens (laying eggs in pens)

Two turtle doves (cooing of their loves)

And a partridge (c’est un perdix – English from French translated, you see).

Have a very happy and healthy 2023 everyone, and if you have enjoyed this blog please comment, follow and share 😊.