The Fourth Day of Christmas

I learned the song about the twelve gifts of Christmas from a true love to include four calling birds for this day. Later, I found that the oldest known published version of the words, in 1780, likely after years of oral circulation, referred to the birds as “colly birds.” Later editions spelled the word as collie and also as colley. I persisted in singing calling, as it made more sense to me. I didn’t exactly know what a calling bird was, but assumed it must be a bird with a distinctive song. It turns out that however you sing it, it is likely that the referent is to the birds we call blackbirds. Think if the Beatles singing “Blackbird singing in the dead of night.” Black birds are not a specific species of birds, but rather a description of what may be several different types of common songbirds.

Colly, or collie or colley birds are probably named for the color black as well. Col is the Old English word for coal. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word’s use as an adjective to describe something covered in coal dust or the color of coal. Probably it doesn’t matter which words you choose to sing - you may be referring to the same bird.

Of course black bird can refer to quite a few different birds. I grew up on the ancestral lands of the Crow people. In their language the word is Apsáalooke, also spelled Absaroka. Even though early settlers translated that word into Crow and the name stuck and now is used by members of the tribe, it turns out that the original designation was likely to smaller black birds. The common blackbird is a species of true thrush and is also known as the Eurasian blackbird. Crows are bigger and have a hoarse, cawing voice. They are also known as common ravens.

It could all be quite confusing.

In our house we didn’t associate the day with gifts of birds of any type. We knew December 28 as our father’s birthday. The week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day was generally filled with family activities in our home. We were free from school obligations and our parents’ business was generally slow. The National Forest Service and National Park Service didn’t schedule many flights in that week. Service jobs at the farm machinery store were light. Aside from an occasional rancher seeking a last minute investment for a tax write-off, there weren’t many people making major purchase decisions. The shop was in full inventory mode, which didn’t require full staff. There might be a few end of year paperwork details that needed attention, but our father seemed free to take more time off from work that week. Family adventures included sleeping, skiing, trips to Yellowstone National Park to view wildlife and have winter picnics, and my favorite, swimming at hot springs pools. When we got older, we often would spend one or two nights at Chico Hot Springs in the paradise valley of the Yellowstone between Gardner and Livingston. Chico has a large outdoor pool where you can swim in the warm water. We loved getting warm in the water, climbing out of the pool and rolling in the snow then returning to the water, which made our bodies tingle.

As an adult, I now understand that gifts weren’t the focus of our father’s birthday wishes. I think what he wanted most is what I most enjoy - getting the family together. We often gathered together our immediate family, included whatever friends might be available, and frequently had a liberal dose of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Many extended family members were farmers and even if they also had a few animals to feed, their winter work days were also shorter than summer hours.

I wonder how many years I purchase my standard gift for my father. He loved orange slice jelly candies, which could be purchased by the bag at the local dime store and were generally within my rather limited post-Christmas budget. Some years he received two or three bags from his children as my younger brothers seemed quite prone to imitation in my assessment. At any rate, he always did the same thing with the candies. After opening the gift, he would eat a singe one and pass the bag around and we would each get one. Then the bag would disappear until dinner the following evening when it once again would be passed around with each person getting a single piece of candy. The bag would be empty by New Year’s Eve. It seemed to me like a gift that kept on giving, as I always received a benefit from having offered the gift. It probably wasn’t the best way of learning about true giving, but, as I said, our father didn’t seem to focus his attention on gifts, but rather on having the family all together.

The younger brother who is nearest to me in age and who now lives the closest to me of my siblings has a season of holidays this time of the year. His birthday is December 24, his wife’s birthday is December 25, and their wedding anniversary is December 28. He also isn’t big on celebration events and has been accused by his wife of forgetting the occasions, which seems very strange to me given their proximity to Christmas, though his observance of Christmas is not quite like ours. He isn’t much on church attendance, something that is a stark contrast from my life and very different from our growing up years.

At any rate, he and his wife are coming up from their home which is a little over an hour’s drive from ours, and will be staying at a resort near us this weekend to celebrate their various occasions. So tomorrow, we’re likely to celebrate the 5th day of Christmas with a big family dinner that includes four of our grandchildren, our son, and my brother and his wife. Having everyone gathered around the dinner table in our house is one of my most favorite experiences. We’ve been a little heavy on big meals, with a large Christmas dinner, and we’ll likely have another big meal on New Year’s Day as our son’s wife will be working and won’t be able to join us tomorrow. Last night involved cleaning up leftovers and putting a few choice items into the freezer to make room for a new round of leftovers.

We have plenty of crows in our neighborhood, but they are more frequent visitors to the neighbor’s garbage can than to the bird feeders in our yard. So we’ll celebrate with the gift of family, which to me is one of the greatest gifts of all. Merry, Merry!

Made in RapidWeaver