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Author Topic: 12 Days of Christmas - Attach Your Own Meanings
Happy Xmas (Warranty Is Over)

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A few years back some colleagues took it upon themselves to invent their own hidden meanings for the 12 days of Christmas. This was their "revenge" on having it hijacked as a religious piece. Their version is below. Can other Snopesters invent both more convincing hidden meanings or simply wacky hidden meanings or humourous variants such as Alcoholic 12 Days?


It seems likely that the popular "Twelve Days of Christmas" song relates to the stocking and running of a country estate.

The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to a plot of wooded land suitable for breeding game birds such as partridges, pheasants and other game birds. It is also suggested that the gift of a pear tree would get a person started on their own orchard with a view to fermenting the fruit into perry! If the tree was itself a gift, the giver would probably have chosen a more exotic fruit tree e.g. orange tree as these were grown in large pots in the orangery (a bit like a greenhouse for over-wintering tender plants) of large houses. If this gift is indeed given on 12 consecutive days, it results in a moderate orchard and a foundation flock of partridges. Partridges are not indigenous to England (introduced during the 1770s from France), but they provide better alliteration in the song, so the actual reference was probably to another small game bird. The "pigeon" seems an obvious choice, but pigeons are covered by the reference to 2 turtle doves.

The two turtle doves, while a classic symbol of love, are a food item although wood pigeons are preferable for meat yield. Many big houses kept dovecotes, not for ornamental value as today, but to breed pigeons for their meat. A male and female turtle dove would certainly have started off someone's a dovecote. If the gift is given on 11 days it would more than adequately stock the dovecote. Today, dovecotes are ornamental and usually have white fantail doves rather than pigeons for the pot. Doves are varieties of pigeon.

The recipient's poultry flock is augmented by 3 French hens (a total of 30 if the gift is given on 10 days), although hopefully one of the birds is actually a cockerel! It is equally likely that the French hens would be put with an English barnyard fowl. Quite what breed the "French" hen alludes to is uncertain, but it seems likely that its eggs were somehow superior to those of English breeds, or that it is more productive, or even that it was a fancy fowl which also served as an affectation or status symbol. In the earlier part of British history, albeit well before this song, hens were unknown and ducks were kept for their eggs.

Although the 4 colley birds is frequently explained as 4 coaly (black) birds, it is just as likely to be calling birds in keeping with the food theme. A "calling" pheasant i.e. one trying to attract a mate, is tethered or caged and attracts other birds into the area. Gamekeepers put calling birds - not just pheasants - on land where they want to increase the grouse or pheasant population, e.g. moorland used for game shooting - hence "calling birds" could be a useful gift. This practice is still found today. Once more, if given on multiple days, it provides the foundation of an excellent stock of gamebirds. If the "coaly" interpretation is preferred - and colley was, at the time, an adjective meaning black- it still provides a little more than 4-and-20 blackbirds required for pie.

Five gold rings is a debatable one. If taken literally, it indicates a gift of wealth in the form of jewelry or gold coins. The rings might mean "round pieces" e.g. coins. This would eventually amount to a small treasure chest of gold, possibly indicating a dowry. It is also suggested that the gold rings refer to yellow rounds of cheeses - not as silly as you might think when you consider that a later gift includes dairy cattle and maids to milk them. The estate would produce milk, butter, cheese and eggs - or as a modern writer has suggested "at least some of the ingredients of a good quiche" (which harks back to the French connection begun with the Partridge and the French Hens)!

A much better explanation, though, is that the 5 gold rings means 5 ring-necked pheasants - another game bird essential for any country estate and still eaten at Christmas today. This also fits the pattern of gifts - partridge, pigeons, poultry, blackbirds, pheasants, geese and swans - all birds.

6 geese a-laying would provide not only eggs, but also meat. The 7 swans a swimming might sound picturesque today, but swans were eaten in the same as ducks or geese (and are very similar in flesh). Swans are also a symbol of the gentry (today most are possessions of the crown) and allude to the wealth of the estate - something already suggested if the gold rings are gold coins. The swans, geese and inevitable ducks could be expected to breed and populate a waterfowl lake on the estate. A well-appointed estate would have woodland for gamebirds and a lake for waterfowl, some of which might be ornamental, but most of which were farmed for their eggs, flesh and even for their feathers (used in quilts, pillows, arrow fletchings etc). Goose-grease was an excellent lubricant for mechanical items and also used as the basis for ointments (a goose-grease based ointment has been used in the treatment of mastitis, or inflamed udder, in dairy cattle).

The later gifts almost certainly allude in part to the staff needed for running the estate. Consider the 8 maids a-milking - the maids need something to milk i.e. cattle (unless you have a bawdy personality and interpret them as maids in milk i.e. wet nurses - though they would not then be described as "maids"). The cattle (if you multiply the number of cows by the number of days they are given you end up with a sizeable herd) require milkmaids. The women are not described as "milkmaids" but as "maids a-milking" which suggests the gift is one of "maids" in general i.e. ladies' maids, kitchen maids, chamber maids etc.

The 10 leaping lords, 9 dancing ladies, 11 pipers and 12 drummers are suggestive of a celebratory feast, possibly to Christmas dinner itself. This would be accompanied by music i.e. the pipers who accompanied the meal as well as providing music for dancing later on. Pipes and drums were popular instrumental combinations. Bear in mind that some of these turn up on consecutive days resulting in 36 ladies, 30 lords, 22 pipers and 12 drummers! Perhaps some of these were not "lords" or "ladies" in the sense of wealthy individuals, but are further references to the staff leaping or scurrying about their tasks or to tenant farmers on the estate.

If not references to staff, the leaping lords and dancing ladies would refer to the celebrants at the meal, especially to the dancing later on. There is a suggestion that this comes full circle to the perry (an alcoholic drink akin to cider) made from the pear tress mentioned at the beginning. This ties in with the saying "as drunk as a lord". Another suggestion is that "leaping" indicates the effects of hallucinogenic ergotamine poisoning due to bacteria in stored grain.

All in all, we have some of the basics for a largely self-sufficient country estate - a considerable staff for the household and grounds, a dairy, poultry, waterfowl, gamebirds, orchard and possibly a large amount of money in the form of gold coin. Possibly some of the other essentials, for example the stables, simply weren't poetic enough for inclusion.

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Posts: 2040 | From: Chelmsford, Essex, England | Registered: Dec 2001  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a moderator

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