The Birds of The Twelve Days of Christmas

Just so you know that I know, the first day of Christmas is Christmas Day. The Twelfth Day of Christmas, also called Twelfth Night, is traditionally the day the Three Wise Kings from the Orient showed up and lavished expensive gifts on a child so poor his birth took place in an animal food trough. There were also shepherds sleeping with their flocks in the dead of winter, and snow in the Holy Land. Here’s your salt grains.

But the delightful (for the first three rounds) song about the lavish gifts from a true love involve many birds, so here are some links and information about those birds. To start, here are the lyrics.

Swans. When shopping for wedding decorations, you will no doubt find lots of swan themes involved. These beautiful birds are symbols for lasting love. According to this page, “When the swan glides upon the waters of our awareness, it might be a symbol of love, and a reminder of the blessings found in our relationships.” So this is a perfect choice of gifts to be traded between lovers who want a lasting relationship. There are 6 or 7 species of swans, and not all are as devoted to each other as the mute swans. Black swans come from Australia, black neck swans from South America. Otherwise, these water fowl are white and fluffy. They can be found in ancient poems from many places in the world. Leda and the Swan by William Butler Yeats is based on the legend of Zeus appearing as a swan so that he could approach the beautiful woman, Leda, and have sex with her. Leda bore a child who supposedly grew up to be Helen of Troy. In Celtic mythology, children of a king were turned into swans by their jealous stepmother. I read a wonderful novel based on this legend, and have just now found it again! Romance, Magic, and Medieval Ireland! And it is only the first in a series, so these will be on my Christmas list! Ahem. Back to birds, sort of, I did mention that swans usually stay together for their lifetimes, unless they fail to produce a viable clutch in a nesting season. If a female swan wanted to stay single, she would just have to destroy her eggs. And that’s about as likely as me winning the title of Miss America.

Geese. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Yes, we call the entire type of bird by the female’s designation. Geese are found just about everywhere that people live. Domestic geese and wild geese need to have a pond or other water body to rest on, nest around, and find food in. What few people know, because we don’t share our lives with live poultry so much these days, is that geese are intelligent and will guard your property. Geese are loyal, and live by the No Bird Left Behind motto. White geese are sacred to Aphrodite, and she is pictured at times riding one side-saddled. And who doesn’t know Mother Goose? The city where I grew up has a Mother Goose Parade every year on the Sunday following Thanksgiving to kick off the Holidays. Here’s great information on the many myths and stories about women and geese. Native American tribes connect with various birds in many ways, so it’s no surprise they have many tales regarding geese, too.

Calling Birds. Being a living thing, language changes. This is a reason it takes years of study to be able to read manuscripts written in Old or Middle English. And why some words we use had very different meanings just a few decades ago. Calling birds might refer to singing birds, like canaries. Or it might be colly birds, birds as black as coal. According to this authority, colly bird wins, and just means blackbird. A very common English bird related to our robin. So don’t even go down the Four Gospels’ path, okay? This was a very secular, happy song. I have no idea why anyone would want four of these birds. Unless, you know, you had a craving for pie. “The common blackbird was seen as a sacred though destructive bird in Classical Greek folklore, and was said to die if it consumed pomegranate.” No jelly for you!

French hens. The French have a great deal of cachet in areas such as fancy cooking, wine, cheese, and romance. They are also better than expected at ale and beer. And a plump, fancy hen could be almost guaranteed from a breed of French chickens. Wiki has the list of breeds I picked the Favorolles breed, and like what I see. The hens are expected to weigh six pounds or more. They were used for both eggs and meat, but now are more of a specialty exhibition bird. Just be sure none of the eggs laid by your chickens are hatched out under toads, or else you will end up with a cockatrice. Of course, we all know the chicken’s egg is a symbol of fertility, so maybe the true love was letting the gift receiver know to expect a large family. In Asian countries, the rooster was held to be a valiant protector of the land from evil and darkness. This link has a lot of myths and superstitions about poultry in general.

Turtle Doves. No, this is not a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong, or a flock of mutant creatures. It’s a type of dove with a soft call that sounds like Turr! Turr! The scientific name turtur comes from that call. This bird might have been able to grip a coconut as it migrated from Africa to Europe. The Bible represents doves as messengers from God, so the many species of dove are all blessed by this reference. In Europe, the turtle dove is a symbol of devoted love, because the pairs mate for their entire lives. It’s also seen as a symbol of growth and prosperity. And while still of least concern for conservation aspects, the seed plants it feeds on are being eliminated in much of Europe, so it is getting scarce.

Partridges. An old-world non-migratory game bird, rarely seen with coconuts, the partridge has been introduced to the United States and Canada. I find lots of references to the television show, The Partridge Family, and various semi-famous people with that last name. If you see anything about a partridge in Native American legends, you should know that the actual subject is a grouse or a quail. And the little birds with the cure curled feather on top of their heads? Like the animated ones in the opening of the aforementioned TV show? Those are quail. So here’s a legend of how the partridge built good canoes for all the other birds. Here’s the story of how a young man died of love, at the hands of the partridge witch. See, it’s all about love.

Those are the birds of the song. And here’s some financial input on the song. Not one hookbill in the list. Maybe I’ll do a Twelve Hookbills of Christmas sometime in the next few weeks. I’ll be back on Thursday.


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