One Song, Twelve Days, and at Least 184 Birds

12Days

’Tis the season for that peculiar Christmas carol, the one about a repeated litany of mostly live gifts, including dozens upon dozens of fowl, great and small—“The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a song that features more than enough birds for a large aviary!

Unfortunately, the winged creatures named in this tune—at least six different types—were likely included for another reason, as all of them have made their way onto dinner plates in Europe at one time or another. Mike Bergin, birder and founder of the website 10,000 Birds, offers a particularly enlightening post on this song and its “astonishing insight into the extravagant gifting conventions and ravenous appetite for bird flesh in England during the Baroque era” (1). Of course, much of the poultry named throughout this Christmas carol are still consumed today, but some much more regularly than others.

A Little History behind the Occasion and the Carol

For a better grasp of the context involving the song’s many birds, let’s consider a few things. First, the Twelve Days of Christmas occur from Christmas through January 5th. Secondly, as part of this long tradition, a feast day is held afterwards on January 6th marking the Christian celebration of Epiphany (2). So the inclusion of game birds throughout this song makes quite a bit of sense. Some people have even speculated that the golden rings introduced on the fifth day may actually refer to ring-necked pheasants (3). Anyway, the dozen types of gifts, with the exception of the golden rings (if taken literally as finger trinkets), could be considered either of entertainment or gastronomic value—all important for a large celebratory banquet commemorating the Magi’s visit to the Christ child.

As for the Christmas carol, evidence indicates that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” has its origins as a “Twelfth Night ‘memory-and-forfeits’ game,” a function noted in the first printed version of the song around 1780; and the game may have developed earlier in France (4). We do know that neither the song nor the game is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. However, his play likely preceded the Christmas carol, for the former was composed possibly as early as 1599 (5).

Bird Gifts Galore

When talking about such seemingly disparate things as geese-a-laying, maids-a-milking, and ladies dancing, context is critical. As mentioned earlier, the birds cited throughout “The Twelve Days of Christmas” have historically been used for food. The most obvious ones are the French hens and geese-a-laying, feast items today with a long culinary history. Like chickens, the greylag goose has been domesticated in Europe for centuries, its meat and eggs both used as food (6). The mentioning of both these birds in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” easily suggests some relevance to a large celebratory meal.

Due to changes in cultural and culinary preferences, the other birds may seem less obvious today as menu options. The partridge, the only fowl that appears every day on the song’s daily gift list, was “frequently served at medieval tables, where it was prized for its tender flesh” (7). It’s still consumed at dinner tables but ranks in popularity far behind larger poultry such as the chicken and turkey.

The turtle-dove, albeit symbolic of romantic love, has been desired for centuries by the stomach as well as the heart. After all, dovecots, structures built for housing pigeons and other small birds until ready for the table, were common in the Middle Ages and sometimes contained turtle-doves (8). Clearly the appreciation of a bird’s pleasing appearance and positive associations was not enough to safeguard it from the most basic of human instincts—hunger.

Today we value mute swans primarily for their beauty. But in the past, these large, graceful birds also made their way into English feasts (9). For instance, they were eaten on important occasions, such as Christmas (10). While the meat is reportedly not considered succulent, it clearly had its share of enthusiasts (11). One reason may have been its size, for an adult male mute swan can weigh more than 50 pounds (12). Scholar Venetia Newell also reminds us, “Chaucer says of his worldly monk in The Canterbury Tales (1387): ‘A fat swan loved he best of any roast’…” (13). Of course, the bird’s popularity as poultry for England’s aristocracy and grand feasts has significantly waned since that time.

Blackbird Pie?                                  

Finally, we have colly birds, the fowl that was consumed primarily by the lower classes. Although in some versions the gifts are “calling birds” (as in caged songbirds such as canaries, starlings, and the like), the first printed version of the song uses “colly,” a word describing something that has been blackened, as if by soot or coal (14). So, in that case, we are actually talking about European blackbirds, which belong to the thrush family (15, 16).

People supposedly ate colly birds, while others apparently enjoyed watching live ones endure a cruel (but fortunately infrequent) dining practice. The birds, inserted inside a baked pastry that had been taken out of the oven to cool, were forced to entertain upper-class dinner guests by erupting from the served pie, as described in the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” (17, 18). That poem, of course, refers to a pastry made with 24 of these creatures. By the conclusion of our Christmas song, the “true love” has handed out 36 blackbirds—an ample amount for one and a half of these large dishes. “Calling birds,” to me, seem much more preferable.

All in all, we have 184 birds given over the Twelve Days of Christmas. And if you consider the “five golden rings” as intending pheasants, the tally grows to 224. No matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of birds. You either have a major holiday feast in the works—one perhaps to end all feasts—or a heckuva re-gifting nightmare!

Sources:

  1. Bergin, M. “Birds of the Twelve Days of Christmas,” 12/25/13, 10,000 Birds: http://10000birds.com/birds-of-the-twelve-days-of-christmas.htm.
  2. “Epiphany”, 10/7/11, BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/holydays/epiphany.shtml.
  3. Bergin, M.
  4. “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” 12/24/13, Snopes.com: http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/music/12days.asp
  5. Shakespeare, W. Bevington, D. (editor). The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Fourth Edition. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1997. p. 326.
  6. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 80, 88.
  7. Heck, C., and Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. p. 488.
  8. Scully, T. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, United Kingdom: Boydell Press, 2005. p. 77.
  9. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 90.
  10. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 44.
  11. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. p. 90.
  12. Weidensaul, S. The Birder’s Miscellany: A Fascinating Collection of Facts, Figures, and Folklore from the World of Birds. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991. p. 3.
  13. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 60.
  14. “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” 12/24/13, Snopes.com.
  15. Bergin, M.
  16. O’Connor, M. “The Twelve Days of Christmas Explained: Is it Calling, Collie or Colly Birds?”, 12/24/10, Bird Watcher’s General Store: http://www.birdwatchersgeneralstore.com/TwelveDays.htm.
  17. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. pp. 467-468.
  18. Scully, T. p. 109.

Halcyon Days—Here Again?

halcyon

Today marks the first day of the so-called “halcyon days”—or does it?—a period of fifteen days in December first recognized by ancient Mediterranean civilizations for its tranquil weather. During this brief time winds calm and storms typically abate, so that the so-called halcyon birds could supposedly build their nests upon the waters.

Some classical texts indicate that for the first seven days prior to the winter solstice, these birds constructed nests from fish bones, while during the seven days after, they tended to their eggs and hatchlings. Aristotle writes of this process in Book 5, Chapter 8, of his The History of Animals. Several ancient writers reiterate the claim, including Pliny and Plutarch (1). Other sources, as we shall see, appear to dispute the time period, indicating an earlier arrival of the halcyons’ brief mating season.

But are halcyon days something that actually occurs? Aren’t these birds just a mythological concept? Or do they actually have real-life counterparts? Where does the myth end and the truth begin?

When the Winds First became Still

The origin of the halcyon bird goes way back thousands of years. It’s rooted in a mythological love story involving Alcyone and her royal husband Ceyx. The Catalogue of Women (usually attributed to the Greek poet Hesiod, possibly a contemporary of Homer) and Metamorphoses by Roman writer Ovid are two popular sources, among others. Despite several variations in the tale, the crux remains the same. Ceyx perishes in a shipwreck and a distraught Alcyone dashes into the sea. The gods react with compassion, reviving her husband by transforming him into a bird. They, too, of course, turn her into a bird so they are both alive and alike again.

Halcyon days apparently resulted so the two feathered lovers could mate without disturbance on the sea. Such calm periods are noted in Halcyon, a short dialogue sometimes dubiously attributed to Lucian of Samosata. According to Ovid’s account (Book 11 of Metamorphoses) Alcyone’s father Aeolus, the demigod and wind keeper of Homer’s Odyssey (Book 10), halts the winds for several days each year for his daughter. Ancient writers such as Aristotle, Simonides, Pliny and others link the period of tranquility for mating halcyons to Sicily (2). Incidentally, while to the south of Sicily lies Malta, to the north are the Aeolian Islands—the namesake of Alcyone’s father.

The Real Halcyon, New Lore

Although we know today that the halcyon is a mythical creature, the bird interestingly has a real-life counterpart. Since the halcyon is described in several texts, such as in Book 9, Chapter 15, of The History of Animals (Aristotle again), as a blue and green bird comparable in size to a sparrow, the creature later became associated with the kingfisher. In fact, some of the scientific taxonomical names for kingfishers are derived from the word “Halcyon.” However, unlike the mythical halcyon, the common kingfisher nests in burrowed holes along lakes, river banks, and seashores (3).

A host of new lore also ended up developing around the kingfisher, due to the bird’s link to the ancient stories. In fact, the conflation of the Alcyone myth (romantic love associations) and halcyon days (wind associations) with the kingfisher has resulted in some peculiar practices during parts of history. For instance, according to ornithologist Peter Tate, “… the Tartars of Eastern Europe and central Asia believed kingfisher feathers could be turned into powerful love talismans. The method was to throw plucked kingfisher feathers into water, collect all those that floated, and then stroke the hapless object of affection with one of them” (4). In the late nineteenth-century, John Ashton notes an even stranger application: “If a dead Kingfisher were hung up by a cord, it would point its beak to the quarter whence the wind blew” (5). Belief in the dead bird’s wind-detecting ability, as Ashton adds, even found its way in the plays of William Shakespeare (King Lear, Act 2, Scene 2) and Christopher Marlowe (Jew of Malta, Act 1, Scene 1). Several decades later in seventeenth-century England, Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, criticized such practices as scientifically erroneous (6).

Separating Myth from Reality

Much of the lore surrounding the kingfisher, of course, is clearly without merit. Although the birds are monogamous, they can mate several times throughout the year, usually starting in the spring or summer (7).  Also, the idea of halcyon days as a set period of time in December is far from universally accepted in Europe, even in areas near Sicily, where the mating ritual is noted by several ancient sources. In some parts of Europe halcyon days is akin more to what we call Indian summer here in North America, occurring as early as November. For example, when Shakespeare refers to halcyon days in his play The First Part of King Henry VI (Act 1, Scene 2), his Joan of Arc equates it with “St. Martin’s summer.” British folklore scholar Venetia Newell points out, “In France, especially, the kingfisher is associated with St. Martin, whose day (November 11th) often falls within a period of fine weather before the onset of winter” (8). Furthermore, in Malta where kingfishers can reside from August to April, the birds are also associated with St. Martin of Tours rather than the winter solstice (9).

So what are we to make of all this? Have halcyon days passed us by? Perhaps such brief periods are not something actually restricted to a calendar. Perhaps they are simply feelings of serene bliss and beauty, at times contingent upon an experience or setting. They may become available when, as Walt Whitman writes, “all the turbulent passions calm…”, or while, like Ogden Nash states, “… We vegetate, calm, and aesthetic, / On the beach, on the sand, in the sun” (10, 11).

Perhaps in these days of ratcheting pressures involving holiday season preparations, we can still find some respite, no matter who we are or where we live, whether celebrating with others or relaxing in contemplation. With a few deep breaths, our mind—like Alcyone’s mythical nest—occasionally can settle into near stillness upon the oft-turbulent sea of existence. Maybe, in such moments, halcyon days can be found… here and now, again and again.

Sources:

  1. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 21.
  2. Ingersoll, E.
  3. “Kingfisher”. Avibirds Bird Guide Online. http://www.avibirds.com/html/Kingfisher.html.
  4. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, Delacorte Press Hardcover Edition, 2008. p. 70.
  5. Ashton, J. Curious Creatures in Zoology with 130 Illustrations throughout the Text. London: John C. Nimmo, 1890. p. 200.
  6. Browne, T. Pseudodoxia Epidemica. 1646; 6th, 1672 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/pseudodoxia/pseudo310.html).
  7. “Kingfisher”. Avibirds Bird Guide Online.
  8. Newell, V. The Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., U.K.: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 39.
  9. “Kingfisher”. Malta Independent Online. http://www.independent.com.mt/articles/2014-02-07/news/the-kingfisher-3899883521/.
  10. Whitman, W. “Halcyon Days.” Walt Whitman Archive: http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/periodical/poems/per.00093.
  11. Nash, F.O. “Pretty Halcyon Days.” Best Poems: http://www.best-poems.net/ogden_nash/poem-13465.html.