I am writing this on Boxing day – which is in the calendar set up by the Twelve days of Christmas the second day – when ‘My True Love sends to me’ two turtle doves – and it got me thinking what on earth is the meaning behind all this gifting of small fowl – with tomorrow – the third day of Christmas all set for a gift of three french hens – why not a replacement turkey for instance?
The Twelve days of Christmas start on Christmas day and move forward to the feast of Epiphany when the three wise men from the East rock up to the Stable in Bethlehem. It has been recorded as early as the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church – with St Ephrem referencing it in the fourth century (306AD – 373AD). However the song itself might not have begun life as a carol but some form of forfeit game suggested by its inclusion in the English book for children ‘Mirth without mischief’ circa 1780. The general idea would have been if this was the case, of a form of said roundel where a forfeit would be paid if there was a mistake made in the cascading verses which built in complexity.
However the range of its origins, it emerged as a clear favouriteas a game to be enjoyed on the twelfth night before epiphany. The partridge if it was perching in a pear tree suggests a french origin (as do the three french hens) as the red legged french partridge is regularly found perching in pear trees in a way that the ‘common’ british partridge would have had difficulty undertaking! Otherwise the meaning of the pear tree, might be a mispronunciation of partridge in french – une Perdrix – which was corrupted by vernacularisation and poor understanding of the french origins into Pear Tree. Whichever route one decides to venture down, there is clearly a french origin to the poem, which became transformed as it moved across the channel, entered into British parlour games and morphed, somewhere mid nineteenth century, into a popular carol, offering a fabulous pastiche of wild game, farm yard flocks, eccentric behaviour amongst musicians and the landed gentry, for artists young and old across the last one hundred and fifty years to try their interpretative hands at.
But why the Partridge as the primary gift from the true love? The partridge could be a metaphor for the protecting love of God in the gift of the vulnerable Christ child born in a manger over 2,000 years ago. Picking up the theme of Jesus weeping over the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, when he had become the itinerant prophet calling a radicalised group of followers to a messianic challenge to the Roman, colonised state power of Herod’s court in Jerusalem and the established Jewish temple and its various theological protagonists (the Sadducees and Pharisees with their different reading on the afterlife amongst other key items) – Jesus states that he has often yearned to protect Israels citizens like a mother hen – gathering and folding her young under her protective wings.
The female patridge is known to protect her nest or her chicks from predators by luring them away through feigning a broken foot or wing thus protecting her offspring. However other allusions in the medieval bestiary also suggest the Partridge as a type of satan luring away sinners from God – as many partridges are known to steal the young from other’s nests. The narrative also captures the importance of returning to our true sense and return to the loving heart of God – our true mother. Whichever reading one takes the Partridge in a pear tree, is the first gift of Christmas day, and has been taken to represent the gift of the Christ child alongside a more straight forward gift of a french red legged partridge perched in a potted pear tree.
Which sets up the second day nicely – because if what we now have as a firmly rooted carol in our British carolling tradition with music added into the mix at some point during the nineteenth century – the first recorded by James O Halliwell in 1842 ( and published in his Nursery Rhymes of England 1846) the background of the lyrics lies in the dark earth of Europe undergoing Reformation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. What we may well be singing our way through each Christmas season is an early children’s catechism, with the birds, and other gifts being brought by our true love – being the gifts given by God through the various revelations of the Old and New Testament, and decisively on the first day, the gift of Christ in a manger.
So if this is indeed is the background of this wonderfully bizarre and gloriously variegated Christmas gift list for the twelve days – the second day of two turtle doves immediately concentrate the mind not only on the two testaments which constitute the literary backdrop for Christianity, the Old and New Testament, but also remind us of the covenant which God makes to Abraham which is sealed by the gift of the turtle doves / pigeons in Genesis 15:9.
But this reading of the twelve days as a catechism for Catholic children in Britain when the teaching of Catholic faith became challenging in Britain and some of the other protestant areas of Europe (1558 until 1829), is a very recent interpretation, first floated in 1979, a Canadian hymnologist, Hugh D. McKellar, and subsequently picked up by other on line blogging Catholic priests. The hard evidence for any of the etymology simply isn’t there – apart from its appearance in the 1780’s in a book of parlour/nursery games. We are left seeking to make sense of a wonderful set of riddling gifts, which are sent for table during the first seven days of Christmas when we move to ladies dancing and lords a leaping. But more of that in my next post.
A happy first two days of Christmas to you all, and pleasingly not a duck or turkey in sight.