The 13 birds of Christmas

Stephen Moss compiled a list of the 13 birds most associated with Christmas. Most of them are from The Twelve Days of Christmas with a bonus bird:

Like many ancient rhymes, stories and songs, The Twelve Days of Christmas has been the subject of countless explanations of its ‘real meaning’. Some have suggested that it is an ancient version of a wedding list – a series of increasingly lavish gifts presented to a married couple, from a humble partridge to an entire drumming band.

Others have seen a more sinister meaning in the verse, speculating that it was originally written in code during the Protestant Reformation, to teach Catholic children their faith. In this interpretation, three French hens represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; four colly birds, the gospels; 12 drummers drumming the Apostles, and so on.

As a lifelong birder, I have another suggestion: that each of the carol’s 12 lines represents a bird. Given that the first four lines, along with the sixth and seventh, are explicitly avian, I suggest that the whole verse was originally written to celebrate 12 different birds.

Spoiler alert: the 13th bird of Christmas is the robin but the reasons Moss gave for why this is are particularly interesting, from biblical robins to 19th-century postmen.

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