27 December 2008

Five Gold Rings, Four Colly Birds, and Mincemeat Pie

We all know the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. What you may not know is that the words commonly published today have been changed from the original. The song began as a secular love song, but days four and five had a different meaning than what is often assigned to them now.

The Twelve Days of Christmas
The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me
A parteridge in a pear tree. (Now "partridge")

The second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two turtle doves
And a parteridge in a pear tree.

The third day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a parteridge in a pear tree.

The fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Four colly birds . . .

The fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Five gold rings . . .

The sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Six geese a-laying . . .

The seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Seven swans swimming . . .

The eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Eight maids a-milking . . .

The ninth day of Christmas my true Love sent to me
Nine drummers drumming . . .

The tenth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Ten pipers piping . . .

The eleventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Eleven ladies dancing . . .

The twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Twelve lords a-leaping,
Eleven ladies dancing,
Ten pipers piping,
Nine drummers drumming,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Six geese a-laying,
Five gold rings,
Four Colly birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a parteridge in a pear tree.

In old illustrations that go with this song, five gold rings are not jewelry. They are golden ring-necked pheasants.

The fourth day's gift was Colly Birds. Four Calling Birds is due to a mix-up between the English language as spoken in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the English language as we speak it today. Colly or collie birds are blackbirds. In England a coal mine was called a colliery. Colly or collie is a derivation of this, meaning black like coal. In old illustrations the birds are the European Blackbird, which is related to our American Robin. As to why would a true love give blackbirds, they were a prized food in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. e.g. Sing a Song of Sixpence.

Notice that makes the first seven gifts all food. Eight if you count the milk the maids were providing. It was quite the thing to give gifts of food. Now why the sudden jump from food to people? I haven't been able to find documentation, but the last four gifts are all entertainments. That would also have been acceptable and expected gifts from one's true love.

Blackbirds have a specific tie to Christmas food in England - the Christmas Pie, now known to us as Mince Pie or Mincemeat Pie. Originally the Christmas Pie was a huge lavish dish that was the centrepiece of the holiday celebration. It was made with as many rich and luxurious ingredients as could be found, and this included blackbirds. In fact, any kind of meat and poultry could be minced together with fruits and spices for the concoction.

In medieval times, this was simply called The Christmas Pie, and would often be shaped into a manger or crib to reflect the religious significance of the celebration. All this changed when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came into power in the seventeenth century. Every ‘abominable and idolatrous confection’ was outlawed, and thus the Christmas Pie was made illegal.

Luckily, as with many Christmas traditions during Cromwell’s reign, it went underground. The Christmas Pie became a traditional round pie and was called a Minc’d Pie, so as to avoid prosecution by the authorities. After Cromwell’s regime was removed in 1660, the Minc’d Pies remained in their new form, growing larger and more elaborate.

When England established colonies in what is now the US, the various minced meats were gradually omitted and replaced with suet, nuts, fruits, spices and syrups. (Supposedly this was due to the abundance of fruit trees found here, which also gave origin to the phrase, "as American as apple pie"). This mixture even today is still referred to as mince or mincemeat. (See Pear Mincemeat).

Not for the fainthearted! Looking online I found reference to a Christmas Pie baked in 1770 that contained the following:
* 7 blackbirds
* 6 pigeons
* 6 snipe
* 4 geese
* 4 partridges
* 4 wild ducks
* 2 curlews
* 2 ox tongues
* 2 rabbits
* 2 turkeys
* 2 woodcocks

The pie was huge and had to be put on a cart to be wheeled in to the celebration. I have to say I believe I prefer the smaller, sweet treat we have today.

And remember, when you are singing The Twelve Days of Christmas, it is colly birds, not calling birds.

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1 comment:

Teacup said...

Hi Becky;

I enjoyed reading that and copied and pasted it. I never really looked into the meaning of the song. But this was very interesting.
I remember when my daughter was small, for each day she would draw a picture that was in the song.
The recipe for the Christmas Pie baked in 1770.......well I guess that I would have to pass.

Erica