On The Fourth Day of Christmas is the Gift a Calling Bird or Collie Bird?
Words Change with Time and Place
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 or four calling birds.
In my Hub On the Fourth Day of Christmas, I explained that in the original song as sung in England during the Middle Ages and Tudor era had four collie (or colley) birds as the gift on the fourth day of Christmas.
Now, centuries later, the song as is commonly sung in the United States and other former English colonies, such as Australia, Canada, etc., the four birds are frequently written and sung as calling birds.
While calling birds roll off the tongue easily and sound good to the ear, there is no such creature as a calling bird. Do a search on the web using the phrase calling bird or calling birds and most results will explain that this is simply a modern corruption of the old English phrase collie bird.
The Carol is Really About Food and Parties
Collie is a term derived from the word colliery which is an old English word for a coal mine. Collie or colly meant black like coal. So the collie birds in the song referred to blackbirds which are common in England.
Not only common but, in the Middle Ages the terms collie and blackbird were frequently applied to any type of bird that was black including, as one commenter on my On the Fourth Day of Christmas Hub stated, starlings.
During the Middle Ages and Tudor times, starlings were among various types of wild local birds that were kept in cages as pets. Various types of blackbirds were also eaten as food along with other game birds. So the lover’s gift in this case was one of food or a pet.
While men today will take their true love out to dinner at a fine restaurant they generally don’t give the woman they are courting a frozen chicken or turkey (or, worse yet, live ones) as gifts, we must remember that in the days when this song originated restaurants were rough taverns frequented mostly by men and food had to be either hunted, obtained from farms or farmers on market days.
The Five Golden Rings on The Fifth Day Also Refer to Birds
Over the centuries customs and words change. The word collie did not follow English settlers to the colonies and in our era of science and more precise classification different species of birds have unique names.
And, not only didn’t the word collie follow the English to the colonies, it has also fallen into disuse in England and is no longer a common word there let along a generic name for blackbirds.
Given the changing customs and changing word meanings over the centuries it is not surprising that our interpretation of the song has also changed.
Just as the four collie birds in the fourth stanza of the song have morphed into the more understandable, but non-existent, four calling birds, in newer English speaking nations, the five golden rings in the fifth stanza have also changed.
While the fifth day’s gift remains five golden rings, the image in modern peoples minds and in most illustrations accompanying the lyrics is of five gold rings for one’s fingers. However, the five rings referred to five ring necked pheasants. Again, food was not as plentiful and as easily available as it is today so gifts of food were more common.
The Important Thing is that We Can Still Enjoy the Carol
In the end, it can be interesting to know the history and meanings of words of old Christmas carols but the important thing is the joy and pleasure we get from signing or listening to the carols.
And if the words and images in the song change with time that simply means that there is a timeless quality to the carol and that is good.
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...
- On the First Day of Christmas
Why 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 the song pre-dates dwarf fruit trees so we are talking about a good sized tree which...
- 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
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 three main varieties of chickens...
- 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
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 singers' and illustrators' minds,...
- 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...
- On the Tenth Day of Christmas
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 probably evolved from more...
- 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...
- On the Twelfth Day of Christmas
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. Twelfth Night is the night before...
Words & Their Meanings Changed as the English Language Expanded Around the World
England where the Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas" originated during the Middle Ages.
North America(United States & Canada)which was colonized and once ruled by Great Britain and where English language and culture continue.
Australia, another land colonized by the English and where English language and culture continue.
Another of the many places in the world where English language and culture predominate.
© 2010 Chuck Nugent