The Birds of Christmas

During the holiday season it’s hard not to notice how our feathered friends show up in songs, on cards and in the form of some of the most gorgeous ornaments ever made.  I spent part of my childhood years in a country setting and have a wonderful and vivid memory or my grandmother pointing out to me a bright red cardinal perched atop a snow covered tree stump in the wintertime.  How idyllic.   To this day I love cardinals and am fascinated by doves, peacocks and many other birds.  Lets not forget about the birds of the Twelve Days of Christmas; seven swans a-swimming, six geese a- laying, five golden rings (were they really rings?),  four colly (calling) birds, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

This got me wondering, how of all birds did these fair feathered fowl become associated with the most celebrated holiday in the world?

The Cardinal

Photo: Cardinal in tree with snow

The male northern Cardinal or “redbird” is so well loved that it is the official bird of seven U.S. states.  Their bright red color makes this beautiful songbird easily identifiable.   Only males have the brilliant red plumage which stands out beautifully against winter scenery. 

The cardinal seems to show up almost as often as the dove as symbol of the Christmas season on greeting cards, as ornaments and on many other themed items.  It is said that the cardinals scarlet plumage represents the blood of Christ shed for the redemption of mankind. 

The Dove

The white dove has been a symbol of peace and hope for thousands of years.  Its association with the holiday that celebrates the birth of the Prince of Peace is only fitting.

Doves figure prominently in the Bible in the Old and New Testaments.  In the Old Testament, Noah sent forth a dove which returned with an olive branch indicating the end of the great biblical flood and the beginning of God’s covenant with man.  In the new testament, in the gospel of John, John testifies:  “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.” This refers to the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  

This bird is considered loyal, honorable and peaceful.  Dating back to ancient Egyptians, the dove was seen as a symbol of innocence.  To the early Greeks and Romans, doves represented love, devotion and care for family.  The dove also symbolized the peaceful soul for many cultures.

The color of the dove represents purity, hope for peace and the forgiveness we obtain from God and each other. 

The Birds of the Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas song enumerates a series of increasingly grandiose gifts given on each of the twelve days beginning on December 25th and ending on January 5th, Epiphany.   First published in 1780 in England, on seven of the twelve days the singers’ true love gave birds.  With the help of, let’s investigate these mostly gastronomic medieval gifts. 

On the first Day of Christmas my true love sent to me:  a Partridge in a Pear Tree

1.  The partridge is a member of the pheasant family and has been a traditional game bird in England for centuries.  It is a plump hen-like bird shown in most drawings atop a pear tree. 

On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me:  Two Turtle Doves

2.  Turtle Doves are common summer visitors to England.  It is a dainty dove and smaller and darker than most other pigeons.

On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me:  Three French Hens

3.  Per, exhaustive inquiry turned up nothing about the distinctive qualities of French hens.  This gift is thought to be one of fancy domesticated chickens from France, perhaps cooked in a Parisian style. 

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:  Four calling Birds

4.  Research shows it is widely accepted that the original gift was of four “colly birds,” not “calling birds.”  Colly means “black as coal.”  This bird is common in he UK but not considered appetizing. 

On the fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:  Five Golden Rings

5.  Is the writer referring to actual rings or birds?  One interpretation is that the golden rings are really ring-necked birds which are a common variety of pheasant.  They were introduced to England from China and other parts of Asia during medieval times.  Like many other birds, pheasants were another source of sustenance.

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:  Six Geese-a-Laying

6. The geese in the song are likely domesticated and the ancestor of most domesticated geese.  The song is likely referring to the bulky Greylag goose which is a native of the UK. 

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me:  Seven Swans-a-Swimming

7.  The graceful white swan is seemingly meant to thrill the recipient and is probably meant to be ornamental and not edible.  This is both a lovely bird and beautiful swimmer and would likely have delighted the recipient.   

There you have it, the most famous birds of Christmas!