On the Fourth Day of Christmas

On the Fourth Day of Christmas...Four Calling Birds

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 and English.

The Four Calling Birds in this stanza is due to a mix up between the English language as spoken in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the English spoken today. It could also be due to a mix up between English as spoken in England and English as spoken in England's former colonies, particularly the United States and Australia.

When they get to this stanza many people may wonder just what is a calling bird. Most probably just assume that it is the name used in past centuries for one of our common birds that goes by a different name today.

It's Colly Birds, Not "Calling Birds"

The verse, four calling birds, is actually a corruption of the English word colly or collie . So, we are referring to four colly birds or four collie bird s (the words to the song were probably written before the creation of the dictionary, so the spelling of old words tends to be flexible).

What is a colly bird? It is a black bird. In England a coal mine is called a colliery and colly or collie is a derivation of this and means black like coal. For a long time in England, blackbirds have been referred to as both blackbirds (as in the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence ) and colly birds as in The Twelve Days of Christmas .

Even in Tudor England these birds went by two different names so it is not so unusual that there would be some confusion three centuries and a couple of continents later.

While the name blackbird migrated beyond England, the name collie bird remained behind in England where, even there, it tended to diminish in use over the centuries. Today, many published versions of the song in the U.S. and Australia give the birds' name as calling birds rather than collie birds.

As to why the person in the song would give his true love a gift of blackbirds, the answer is that this would have been another gift of food. Blackbirds were plentiful and were a common food.

From the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence we see them being served as a meat pie and this may have been the way they were commonly served. In times past in Great Britain, pies were a convenient way to serve and eat a meal with the meat, potatoes and any vegetables all cooked together in an easy to handle crust (forks not having been invented at that time, table utensils consisted of knives, spoons and one's fingers).

It wasn't until the British began establishing colonies in what is now the United States that pies (at least in the United States) evolved from being a main course to being a desert.

© 2006 Chuck Nugent

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11 comments

Bobby Beeman 3 years ago

The 4 Colly birds evolved by devine intervention into Calling birds. It is in reference to the four Gospells calling out salvation to lost souls.


Pat in Ann Arbor,Mi. 3 years ago

Or it might refer to the Coly(Mousebird) once widely distributed in Europe and the UK.


Meghan 4 years ago

Are you sure about the birds?I mean most birds have a "bird call".So does it specifficly mean that one bird?


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Chuck 5 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Mary Lou - you are correct and thank you for pointing out this fact about starlings.

While a common nuisance in much of the eastern North America, starlings are not native to North America I remember reading somewhere that during the 19th century some individual in New York or one of the other eastern states who liked Shakespeare attempted import and release members of each species of bird that was not native to North America but mentioned in Shakespeare's plays. Starlings were among those he brought over and released and they thrived and became a common nuisance.

Thanks again

Chuck


Mary Lou 5 years ago

Blackbirds include starlings, which were kept as pets in England because of their singing.


Eanraig 5 years ago

An interesting thought, and one I have heard repeated, however I would submit that Collie birds could refer to any small bird caught in the forest.

Coille is the genitive form of the Gaelic word coill and means a forest. Many small birds were given names such as

calman-coille - woodpigeon, corcan-coille - bullfinch, lasair-choille - goldfinch, and of course the famous bird of the Highland forests, the capull-coille (capercaille).

One fact is often overlooked among people that search for English origins of this song is that Christmas was not a major holiday in England during the time this song originated and in fact Christmas celebrations were outlawed by Cromwell during his reign. The origins of this song are in France and Scotland (The Auld Alliance) where Christmas celebrations were prolonged events with much rowdy celebrating and feasting.

To me assuming an origin of collie birds from English slang is as silly to me as some ignoring the Gaelic origin of the word Collie dog. English thought is that the word originates also from their slang for "black-colored" when in fact it originates from the word Callaidh which means "active, clever,quick and nimble" - all words that describe the breed. They will try to assign an origin to any European language except the one the breed originated in - a clear reminder of the racism and cultural snobbery inflicted upon the Gaelic speakers in the past.


VivekSri 6 years ago

Great idol and good bird story. Would like to excavate more on this topic, thanks that your hub showed the way.


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Chuck 6 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Carrie C. - thanks for the comment and for pointing out that fruit trees are not native to North America and what we have were brought here from Europe.

In my Hub "Cranberries – History and Recipes" ( http://hubpages.com/food/Cranberries--History-and-... ) I did point out that cranberries, blueberries and concord grapes were the only fruits native to North America.

Thanks again.

Chuck


Carrie C.  6 years ago

Good article, but I feel I should point out that there were, in fact, no real native fruit trees where the English landed in North America. Apples are actually native to Asia, but had been brought to Europe. Cranberries were native; hickory nuts were native. I'll have to check, but I think blueberries were native. Really, though, very little else would have been available to early English settlers in North America that they did not also have in England, and that they had not, in fact, brought with them.


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Chuck 9 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Thanks for the comment, Ralph. I'm working on the pictures and hope to have them added, along with the remaining 7 days, soon. Between my regular job, grading finals for the evening classes I teach and Christmas shopping, my writing time has shrunk to about 40 minutes before breakfast in the morning. But I am glad people enjoy the articles.


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Ralph Deeds 9 years ago

Great job on these hubs! A few pictures would help.

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