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On the Fourth Day of Christmas Is the Gift a Calling Bird or Collie Bird?

Updated on December 14, 2017
Chuck profile image

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

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.

Words & Their Meanings Changed as the English Language Expanded Around the World

show route and directions
A markerEngland -
England, United Kingdom
get directions

England where the Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas" originated during the Middle Ages.

B markerNorth America -
North America
get directions

North America(United States & Canada)which was colonized and once ruled by Great Britain and where English language and culture continue.

C markerAustralia -
Australia
get directions

Australia, another land colonized by the English and where English language and culture continue.

D markerNew Zealand -
New Zealand
get directions

Another of the many places in the world where English language and culture predominate.

© 2010 Chuck Nugent

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    • profile image

      sajidkinghj 7 years ago

      I have wondered before which is the correct version, as I have heard both sung. At Christmas this year I also wondered about the song "We Wish You A Merry Christmas." In the UK people usually sing the line "Glad tidings we bring to you and your king," yet in American films I have heard it sung "to you and your kin." So would like to know which is correct.

    • deblipp profile image

      deblipp 7 years ago

      Your first title 'Words Change with Time and Place' is really impressive and i started reading your hub and i agree with you.

      Thanks

    • Chuck profile image
      Author

      Chuck Nugent 7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      Muldanian - Thanks for your comment and welcome to HubPages.

      I don't have a researched answer for you. However, the phrase "Glad tidings" sounds somewhat old fashioned so I suspect this is an old carol. My guess is that it is an old carol that originated in the UK and when it crossed the ocean to America we probably dropped the "g" and changed "king" to "kin" as we have no king.

    • 1stPhotoInvites profile image

      1stPhotoInvites 7 years ago

      12days of Christmas! I miss Christmas now.

    • dpatullo741 profile image

      dpatullo741 7 years ago from UK

      My grand mother was telling me about carols but I was always in doubt about. Your article has cleared by views.

      Thanks

    • profile image

      Muldanian 7 years ago

      I have wondered before which is the correct version, as I have heard both sung. At Christmas this year I also wondered about the song "We Wish You A Merry Christmas." In the UK people usually sing the line "Glad tidings we bring to you and your king," yet in American films I have heard it sung "to you and your kin." So would like to know which is correct.

    • RNMSN profile image

      Barbara Bethard 7 years ago from Tucson, Az

      what a great article and wonderful read!! I never knew any of this and its one of my favourite carols!!

      Thank you so much Chuck!!

    • profile image

      travel forum 7 years ago

      i enjoy reading this hub really love it

    • amybradley77 profile image

      amybradley77 7 years ago

      It's a Calling Bird, I'm certain. Since I have on video tape, the live version of me and allot of cousins singing that very song, live at Christmas for our parents and grandparents. This just happened to be my personal line, and I clearly remember singing it, while my crazy cousin next to me kept screaming louder and louder as if a threat of some kind to me "five golden rings"!! The things we do for are families, right. A.B.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I knew the word should have been "collie" bird, Chuck, but I admire your great research on the issue. I didn't know about the }Golden" rings -- very interesting.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I’ve been singing this song since childhood without knowing its true meaning! Thank your for the information and an interesting hub.

    • kaoskakimu profile image

      kaoskakimu 7 years ago

      woho.. really good article... thanks Chuck!

    • RedElf profile image

      RedElf 7 years ago from Canada

      Such a wonderful series, Chuck! I have enjoyed every one of your "Twelve Days" hubs, but this one particularly intrigued me, as so many people do not know about the "collie" (black) birds any more. My English granny would be very proud of you! Cheers!

    • profile image

      bettybarnesb 7 years ago

      This song is how my Church ends the Christmas program each year. The men line up and sing one version of the song and the women then line up and sing another version of it. It is always a lot of fun. How you had a great holiday.

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 7 years ago from Oklahoma City

      I'll take the pheasants over blackbirds any day. Come to think of it, though, the crows that live here in Oklahoma are large enough to be meals in themselves.

    • SteveoMc profile image

      SteveoMc 7 years ago from Pacific NorthWest

      I learn something every day. This I did not expect. I am guilty as charged having calling bird and gold rings, never knowing the truth. A fun read.

    • chspublish profile image

      chspublish 7 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks for the very stimualting hub and yes, I did check out the research on the blackbird. It's very revealing what songs can tell us about the history of ourselves.

      Happy New Year, Chuck!

    • Kind Regards profile image

      Kind Regards 7 years ago from Missouri Ozarks - Table Rock Lake

      Chuck, Great Hub! Kind Regards

    • bobmnu profile image

      bobmnu 7 years ago from Cumberland

      Very interesting hub. I enjoy the Christmas Stories and the meanings behing some of the songs, symbols and customs of the season.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 7 years ago from St. Louis

      Enjoyed this. I'd give ten collie birds if I had them.

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