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On the First Day of Christmas A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Chuck enjoys celebrating holidays with his family. This has led to an interest in researching & writing about holidays & their traditions.

My True Love Gave to Me – A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Dec 19, 2006 (updated 12/27/2010)

While the Twelve Days of Christmas is a very popular song, some of the lover's choices of gifts for his beloved seem odd to many people today and the gift of a partridge in a pear is one of the seemingly odd choices.

While both partridges and pears were common in England during the period when this popular Christmas carol emerged one wonders why a gift of a partridge in a pear tree?

A partridge is not a small bird that can be easily placed in a cage in the kitchen. And, with the exception of dwarf pear trees which existed but may or may not have been common in the areas where this song originated, we are talking about a good sized tree which makes for a rather large and bulky gift.

Like other songs and art in general, the gifts in this song could have been chosen for symbolic reasons or possibly because they fit into the rhyme of the song.

Medieval Music

In Medieval and Tudor England, when this carol developed, the twelve days of Christmas were a time of partying and feasting by the upper classes and the partridge is a game bird that would have been a popular main course at one of the feasts.

Since Christmas Day, December 25th, is the first of the 12 Days of Christmas (and the Eve of the Epiphany on January 5th the twelfth day) the pear tree with a partridge in it is given to the beloved on Christmas Day itself. It could be that partridge was a popular dish on Christmas day in that era.

In fact, the first seven stanzas of the song involve different types of birds that would have been served during the feasts.

Similarly, the pear was a common fruit which would have been available for the feasts. Thus, the song could easily be about the feasts during the English Twelfth Night Celebrations.

on_the_first_day_of_christmas

Some Other Theories About Why a Partridge in a Pear Tree

Three other theories have also been advanced regarding the origin of this stanza, which, like the other stanzas, could have originally been a part of another song or rhyme.

One theory is that the partridge symbolizes Christ and the pear tree the cross. This fits with the hypothesis that the song was originally a mnemonic used by English Catholics to secretly teach the faith to their children during the period when the Catholic faith was illegal in England.

A second theory, is that the English word for partridge may have come from the Greek word Perdix which was the name of one of the kings in Greek mythology. This king, along with the Goddess Athena had sacred links to the pear tree in some parts of Eurasia.

According to legend, when King Perdix was cast from a tower into the ocean, he emerged as a bird and was carried to heaven by by the goddess Athena. Thus, Athena represents the pear tree carrying the bird, Perdix, to heaven. Following the introduction of Christianity, the partridge was sometimes used as a symbol for Christ and, in this light, it makes sense having it as a part of a Christmas carol.

Others have pointed out that the French word for partridge is perdix (same Greek origin but, more than likely, the word came from Greek to French then to English rather directly from Greek to English). This is the basis for the third theory which is based on the fact that, in French, the word perdix is pronounced as pear dree.

Since the monarchy in England traces its origins from William I, Duke of Normandy in France. Duke William, also known as William the Conqueror, defeated the Saxon King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and became King of England and the founder of the Norman Dynasty in England.

In the centuries that followed, French was the language of the nobility while Anglo Saxon remained the language of the common people. In time the two languages merged into what we now know as the English language.

Norman England

English is a Dynamic Language that Changes Over Time

The song itself has strong French connections and it is quite possible that some early versions had a pear tree as the gift and others a partridge.

Because the names for both were so close in the two languages, the partridge ended up in the pear tree.

As will be seen later in the Hubs dealing with the fourth and fifth verses of the carol, the partridge in a pear tree is not the only gift in which the form of the gift or word describing the gift have changed meanings.

In recent times the four colley birds in the fourth verse have become four calling birds in many places. 

Similarly, the five golden rings in the fifth stanza are now visualized by many as five pieces of jewelry rather than five ring-necked pheasants.

In conclusion, it must be remembered that this carol evolved out of the popular culture of the Middle Ages and Tudor England.

Various versions of the carol were sung for two or more centuries before the words were recorded and published. Despite the fact that the words have been preserved in written form for over two centuries, the carol continues to evolve and the words and symbols continue to change. The one constant is that it remains a popular carol and people continue to enjoy singing and listening to it.

Words to the Carol Were Sung for Over Two Centuries Before Being Published in Written Form

In conclusion, it must be remembered that this carol evolved out of the popular culture of the Middle Ages and Tudor England.

Various versions of the carol were sung for two or more centuries before the words were recorded and published in book form. 

The words to today's version of the carol are basically the same as those first recorded and published in the eighteenth century.  While the printed word is great for preserving music and literature, it also results in an accepted version that helps to kill off other, unrecorded versions.

Despite the fact that the words have been preserved in written form for over two centuries, the carol continues to evolve and the words and symbols they describe continue to change. The one constant is that it remains a popular carol and people continue to enjoy singing and listening to it even if the gifts themselves seem a little odd to modern llisteners.

Two Turtle Doves

Two Turtle Doves

Three French Hens

Three French Hens

Four Collie Birds

Four Collie Birds

Five Golden Rings

Five Golden Rings

Six Geese A-Laying

Six Geese A-Laying

Seven Swans

Seven Swans

Eight Maids A-Milking

Eight Maids A-Milking

Nine Ladies Dancing

Nine Ladies Dancing

Ten Lords A-Leaping

Ten Lords A-Leaping

Eleven Pipers Piping

Eleven Pipers Piping

Twelve Drummers Drumming

Twelve Drummers Drumming

Links to My Other Hubs on the Twelve Days of Christmas

  • The Twelve Days of Christmas
    The Twelve Days of Christmas is a popular carol that dates back to the Middle Ages. Being much older than other popular Christmas carols, this one appears to have evolved rather than being composed and...
  • Is it a Calling Bird or a Collie Bird in the Carol The Twelve Days of Christmas?
    December 26, 2010 New Hubber, Mary Jane Danley, saw my Hub On the First Day of Christmas and sent me a request asking if the gift on the Fourth Day of Christmas was originally four colley (or collie) birds...
  • Are Twelve Days of Christmas Lyrics A Secret Code?
    Do a search on the words "Twelve Days of Christmas" and you will find numerous references to a theory that the song originated as a secret code for persecuted Catholics in Elizabethan England. Read about the theory and its supporters and critics her
  • On the Second Day of Christmas
    Doves are a common symbol for love and peace, two Christmas themes. Turtle doves are a common species of dove found in France and England and they were often kept in cages as pets during the Middle Ages and...
  • On the Third Day of Christmas
    Dec 20, 2006 (updated 12/27/2010) The three French Hens probably refer to a variety of chicken from France. There are many varieties of chicken and in the period during which this carol developed there were...
  • On the Fourth Day of Christmas
    In the discussion dealing with the Partridge in a Pear Tree in the first stanza of the song it was pointed out that the gift of a partridge in a pear tree may have come about because of a mix-up between French...
  • On the Fifth Day of Christmas
    Dec 20, 2006 (updated 12/27/10) Unlike the four collie birds in the previous stanza who just had their name changed to a different, and non-existent, species of bird, the five rings in this stanza have, in...
  • On the Sixth Day of Christmas
    Geese were among the first birds to be domesticated. Our Neolithic ancestors discovered that, rather than spending days searching for animals to kill or nests to rob, it was easier to capture them live and...
  • On the Seventh Day of Christmas
    On the seventh day the lover sends seven swans. Throughout history swans have been associated with royalty and the swan is often used on royal symbols and other decorations. Swans are also found in myths...
  • On the Eighth Day of Christmas
    The eight maids a-milking addresses two of the major themes of fifteenth and sixteenth century English celebrations and parties during the Christmas holidays food and romance. What is a feast or...
  • On the Ninth Day of Christmas
    The nine ladies dancing evokes images of music and dancing which were a big part of the celebrations at this period of history in England. The term ladies probably refers to noble ladies as in a Lord and his...
  • On the Tenth Day of Christmas
    December 21, 2006 The ten lords a-leaping most likely refers to leaping dancers (called morris dancers) who performed leaping dances between courses at feasts. This type of wild and strenuous dancing...
  • On the Eleventh Day of Christmas
    At the big feasts held during the holiday celebrations the guests were often entertained by musicians, dancers, jugglers, etc. as well as singing and dancing themselves. Bagpipes and their younger cousins the...
  • On the Twelfth Day of Christmas
    Dec 21, 2006 (updated 12/27/10) With the twelfth day we have reached the end of the song and have arrived at the last day of Christmas known as Twelfth Night on which the partying and feasting continued....
on_the_first_day_of_christmas

© 2006 Chuck Nugent

Comments

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on December 16, 2011:

Pcunix - Thanks for visiting and for pointing out my error regarding dwarf trees. I did fact checking on most of my other points but simply assumed that dwarf fruit trees were an innovation from the last century or so. I have changed the text to reflect this.

Thanks again and sorry for my delay in replying to your comment.

stemginger on December 07, 2011:

Oh dear! you may be starting a problem of your own because the picture of two turtle doves above is in fact a picture of two collared doves! This is a bird that originated from Asia. Some time around the middle part of the 20th century it expanded its range west and first nested in Brtain in 1955 (norfolk I beleive). It is now quite common in southern Britain but most certainly wasn't common anywhere in europe in the middle ages.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on November 17, 2011:

Alexander the Great brought dwarf apple trees from Asia in 328 b.c. - why do you say the song prates dwarf fruit trees?

But it is a fun series!

Derek Slark on January 06, 2011:

It is my understanding that the feet of the partridge are designed for standing on the ground and cannot grip. As the pear tree would have to be small enough to deliver to their loved one there would be no large branches for the partridge to stand on, therefore if you put it in a pear tree, it would not be able to hold on to the small diameter branches and as a consequence would fall out.

Nice series.

emo on August 20, 2010:

Really nice Hub, never really thought about the symbolism of the Partridge in the song before...thumbs up!..

dsgdgd on August 06, 2010:

i want the ladies

Healthy Living Is from allergies, people, flowers. health, diet, art, medicine, mental health on May 21, 2010:

Great Post

Chalisa Srichai on December 25, 2009:

Happy

new

year

ok

Nicola Mo on December 15, 2009:

How interesting, I really enjoy your hub.

Thanks and Merry Christmas

bev on December 09, 2009:

http://www.carols.org.uk/the_twelve_days_of_christ...

Lita C. Malicdem from Philippines on November 26, 2009:

Twelve Days of Christmas, wow ! Great hub ! Some Filipino songwriters have their own version of said song, but I still love the original, add to it the story behind.

adthelad on August 04, 2009:

Unless of course the true love is Christ because of whom we have a 'patriarch in a Pierre tree' - i.e. Pope in a decendency from the other Popes (Peter being the first). Then it would make sense why it was a rhyme sung by Catholics to teach their children who really was the head of the church and not the usurper Henry VIII.

Remember you heard it here first :)

simplyjo on July 22, 2009:

Very nice :) I also have some interesting Christmas hubs. Do check them out.

Joilene Rasmussen from United States on June 18, 2009:

I am always fascinated by the meanings behind things...my mind wanders around, wondering, a lot.

livelovecoffee from Georgia on January 20, 2009:

Awesome Hub. Very simple

jennifer v. on January 06, 2009:

great hub :]

Copper Bracelets on January 05, 2009:

Nice sharing

moneymakersguide on December 24, 2008:

Thank you for sharing:) Very nice analysis of the song:)

Pandemonic on December 20, 2008:

I have always understood that the last line of the chorus comes from an old latin carol which reads "Et aperuit in aperto" = "and she (the Virgin Mary) gave birth in the open"

Sandilyn from Port Orange, FL on December 07, 2008:

Interesting hub. I always like to know the origins of the songs that we sing, especially those over the holidays. These songs we have been singing for all of our lives.

I find that the Greek usage is unique and something that I had not thought about although they came into play many times

Meey Christmas!

DarleneMarie from USA on October 26, 2008:

Really nice Hub, never really thought about the symbolism of the Partridge in the song before...thumbs up!

MrMarmalade from Sydney on January 25, 2008:

This is a great hub and I love those songs

thank you.

I do not think I want my true love giving them all the same.

Thank you

caspar from UK on December 20, 2007:

A great hub series! Very interesting. We sing these songs without usually giving any thought to what they mean. They are not very practical gifts are they? I think I'd ditch my true love if he tried it.

Zsuzsy Bee from Ontario/Canada on November 28, 2007:

What a great HUB!

I love it

regards Zsuzsy