The birds of the 12 Days of Christmas

It’s a Christmas staple. You’ve probably garbled the words at a Christmas party and hit the five gold rings line hard. But where does it come from, and why is someone gifting all these birds in the first place?

Where does the song come from?

The earliest known version of ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ first appeared in a book from 1780 called ‘Mirth without Mischief’.

The version we know and sing today is down to English composer Frederic Austin. Frederic set the melody and lyrics and gave us that most exciting ‘go-old rings’ moment.

Memory game

One theory as to the origins of the song is that it was a memory and forfeits game. The lyrics would build and build and singers would have to remember each gift. If they forgot they’d have to give a kiss or a sweet as a forfeit.

French carol

Another theory is that it originated in France – this would explain the fact that partridges don’t live in pear trees. The thinking is that the French for partridge – ‘perdrix’ – was mistranslated.

Christian symbolism

Another popular belief is that the different gifts relate to aspects of Christianity.

  • Partridge – Jesus
  • Two turtle doves – old and new testament
  • Three French hens – faith, hope and charity (the theological values)
  • Four calling birds – four gospels
  • Five gold rings – the first five books of the Old Testament (also known as the Pentateuch)
  • Six geese – six days of creation
  • Seven swans – seven gifts of the Holy Spirit

A recipe hidden in a carol

Another theory is that it’s a recipe – Tudor feasts might have featured a turkey, stuffed with a goose, stuffed with a chicken, etc.

When are the 12 days of Christmas?

Some of you may like Christmas to begin on 1 Nov, some may barely want it entering the chat on 24 Dec, but when exactly are the eponymous 12 days?

The 12 days of Christmas actually start on Christmas day and end on Epiphany – 6 January. So although you might sing it in the build up to Christmas, it’s actually about the time after the big day.

In Christianity it marks the time between the birth of Christ and the arrival of the three wise men.

The birds

Putting hidden messages and dates to one side, what do we know about the birds themselves?


Grey partridge

Perdix perdix, Grey partridge by Frans Vandewalle is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

A partridge is a medium-sized galliform bird (ground feeding birds including turkey and chickens). It is a game bird native to Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Perdix means partridge in Ancient Greek. According to Greek legend the first partridge appeared when Daedalus threw his brother Perdix from the sacred hill of Athena. Perdix is turned into a bird – a partridge – by the Goddess Athena.

Turtle dove

Turtle-Dove by Lip Kee is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The European turtle dove belongs to the Columbidae famile, the same as doves and pigeons. It is smaller than other doves, and is browner in colour too, with a black and white stripe patch on the side of its neck.

A turtle dove is a symbol of devoted love – so quite a good present for your true love to give you at Christmas.

French hens

A french cock and hen

Faverolles cock and hen by Stephen Jones is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

‘French hen’ is not technically a type of bird, but it’s widely thought that the song is referring to faverolles, a French breed of chicken. Originally these were for eggs and meat, but these days they are raised for exhibition, or kept as pets because they’re so docile. They have a beard, muffs, and feathered feet.

Calling birds

Prior to Frederic Austin laying down the lyrics, the original version of the 12 days of Christmas listed this as four colly birds – an old English colloquial name for a blackbird. The ‘colly’ comes from a regional English expression for ‘coal black’.

It’s not a widely known term however and as it fell out of use it was most likely changed to something more understandable. Calling birds are simply birds that make noise or song!


Swan and cygnet

Swan with cygent on her back by L.C. Nøttaasen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Swans are birds of the Anatidae family, closely related to geese and ducks. Swans mate for life, (although have been known to divorce) and appear in lots of mythology throughout Europe. They often represent wisdom and elegance.

One of the most famous facts about swans is that in the UK they are owned by the monarch. This law has been in place since medieval times, and states that the king owns any unclaimed mute swan in open water. However the ownership is actually shared with the worshipful company of Dyers, one of the Livery Companies of the City of London.


Grey goose

Greylag Goose in St James’s Park, London by Diliff licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Geese are also part of the Anatidae family, and the term ‘goose’ refers to both male and female geese.

There are lots of well-known sayings about geese, including ‘to have a gander’ and saying someone’s ‘goose is cooked’. The oldest collection of Medieval Icelandic laws are known as ‘Gragas’ or ‘gray goose laws’.

Much like swans mating for life, geese express mourning behaviours after the loss of a mating partner of eggs.

Gold rings


Short-tailed pheasant by scyrene is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Whilst you might be picturing the inside of a jewellery box the five gold rings may also refer to the yellowish rings around a pheasant’s neck!