What's with all the birds?

“On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three french hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.” It is what is known as a cumulative song - one in which each verse adds a new element before repeating the previous verses. Most of the time the origins of the song are assumed to be English, because it was first published in England, though some have found French roots for the song as well. There are similar songs that have appeared in Scotland and the Faroe Islands as well. In most of the versions it leaves us with the question, “What is with all of the birds, anyway?”

Modern versions of the song don’t have birds for all of the gifts. Unless you want to make obscure references to explain maids a-milking, ladies dancing, lords a-leaping, pipers piping and drummers drumming. The possibility that five golden rings might be a reference to ring-necked pheasants seems a bit less obscure. But how many people think of magpies when singing “maids a-milking” or the courting behaviors of lapwings when singing “ladies dancing?”

I’ve heard reports that the song is really a device for teaching basic Christian principles: three French hens represent the holy trinity; four calling birds are the four gospels; ten lords a-leaping are the ten commandments, etc. There is little real evidence to support this particular theory and it is likely that the extent to which the meanings are associated with the song has to do with interpretations that were later laid upon the song than with original intents of those who created the song.

There is also a theory that the song is evidence if the persistence of non-Christian traditions and ideas that persist after Christianity has become mainstream. There is a bit more evidence of this. After all the reason for 12 days in the Christmas season may come from the adaptation of a pre-existing holiday. Long before Christians came to the British Isles, ancient Celts observed twelve days of Yule. There are other holiday songs with counting to twelve that come from similar times and places: Jolly Old Hawk and The Dilly Song, which we sing as “Green Grow the Rishes-O.”

I’m certainly no music ethnologist and I am not even interested to do the work of researching the origins of a song that first appeared in printed form in the 19th century. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure of the “official” order of the gifts presented. I’ver heard the song with differing orders for the later gifts.

What interests me is that the song is one of the remnants of the celebration of Christmas stretched out throughout a season rather than being a single day. The digital calendar programmed into the datebook function of my computer shows December 25 as Christmas Day and December 26 as “Christmas observed” for 2016, suggesting that even Christmas is subject to the rather recent tradition of relegating all holidays to Monday. I prefer the practice of celebrating Christmas on December 25 regardless of which day of the week it lands, but there were some, even some in the church I serve, who asked me, “Are you going to have church on Christmas day?” the answer, of course is “Yes, we have worship on every Sunday.” The weather was a factor in church attendance, but the separation of Christmas from worship never occurred to me. And, for the record, next year when Christmas Day is a Monday, we will have morning worship and two evening Christmas Eve services on December 24. I’m old enough that I’ve been through this before.

I do, however, find it challenging to really observe 12 days of Christmas as a continuous holiday. This year I have a funeral to plan and conduct. That is not an infrequent occurrence in a congregation of our size. There is a newsletter to produce and mail. We have worship bulletins to prepare for January 1 worship. There are end of the years finances to be settled. The annual reports and annual meeting of the congregation loom as January events that require a lot of preparation. The list goes on and on.
In our home, we will be leaving our Christmas tree up at least until January 6 and we likely will not take it down until the 9th this year. In our tradition, we observe Epiphany on the Sunday between January 2 and 8, even though the actual day of Epiphany is January 6. That means that our observance is as late as it can get this year because January 1 falls on a Sunday. That will line up fine with our home holiday decorations because we were rather late in getting our tree up, so it will remain fresh. At the church, I’m not so sure. It is likely that a crew will be assembled to take down the tree on January 7. Waiting any longer might make it difficult to recruit workers for the rather large task of taking down the big sanctuary tree.

I know from experience, however, that in the secular marketing world, Christmas is already over. The only sings of Christmas in retail stores will be the bargain discount tables that were hastily filled as Christmas stock was removed from the shelves to make room for Valentines Day candies. You won’t be hearing Christmas Carols on the sound systems in the stores now that December 25 has passed. After all, they’ve been playing Christmas songs since Thanksgiving and the employees are getting tired of them. I know from experience that the same people who complain about singing Advent Carols and wonder why we don’t start singing Christmas Carols sooner are the ones who will wonder why we’re still singing Christmas carols after Christmas day. The idea of Christmas as a season that comes only at the end of four full weeks of Advent preparation is not particularly popular.

So have a happy third day of Christmas. There are still more Christmas days to come. As to the french hens, I’m probably not giving any birds as gifts this year.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!