One of the most beloved holiday traditions around the world is caroling, celebrating the season with song. Carols can range from the glorious, such as “O Holy Night,” to the whimsical, such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” One of the best-known Christmas carols, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” commemorates the dozen days from Christmas Day to Twelfth Night on January 5, the eve of Epiphany (or Three Kings Day).
Many may not know that “The 12 Days of Christmas” was first published as a poem in the 1780 book Mirth Without Mischief (and that composer Frederic Austin only penned the music in the early 20th century). But most of us can at least list several of the presents that our true love gave to us. And many of those were gifts of poultry!
Music historians believe that the partridges, turtle doves, French hens, calling birds, geese and swans cumulatively listed in the song were not intended to be ornamental, nor were they presented to a soulmate with a sizable barnyard. Back in Elizabethan times, the 12 Days were the most anticipated and celebrated festival season, with much revelry including wassailing (going from one house to another, caroling and toasting each other’s health with mulled spiced wine, ale, or mead), dancing, and jokes and amusements overseen by the appointed Lord of Misrule.
How did all those birds fit into the merrymaking? They were the highlight of the feasting. In other words, they were dinner.
These days, not many celebrations call for roasted swan or doves braised in wine. But geese and chickens definitely do make the holiday dinner table in many a household. Here’s a look at how the birds in “The 12 Days of Christmas” were truly feted back in the days of Christmas past.
This European game bird was introduced to the United States in the early 1900s. Unlike the drawings of large majestic birds perched atop a pear tree, partridges—both the chukar and gray varieties—are compact in size, reaching about 1 foot in length and weighing about 1 pound.
Hardly a mouthful individually roasted, the partridge was typically served boiled with nutmeg, clove, bread and either sack (a fortified Spanish wine) or muscadine. Add pears if you wish!
The tiny European turtle dove is a harbinger of spring, its turr-turr-turr song associated with the return of sunshine and warmth. Turtle doves mate for life, which is most likely the reason that our true love presents us with a pair of these pocket-sized birds.
Since two doves weighed in at approximately 10 ounces, Elizabethan cooks made the most of this ingredient by baking them in pastry. Doves are still raised as a food source today. This modern recipe gives some insight into the dove-stuffed pastries from centuries ago.
The trio of chickens memorialized in “The 12 Days of Christmas” were not necessarily French. France’s historic geographical name was Gaul, and the people of France were called Gallic or Gauls (consider France’s beloved 20th-century statesman, Charles de Gaulle).
The scientific name for chicken, Gallus gallus, led people in past centuries to refer to these birds as Gallic roosters and hens and, eventually, French, even if the birds in question did not originate in France. During the Elizabethan period, however, all things French were considered fashionable, so it is quite possible that breeds of French chickens were raised and served up as part of the holiday feast.
Chicken was as versatile then as it is now. Cooks served it roasted, fried, fricassee and baked in pies.
When I was little, I thought calling birds were birds that called, like mourning doves or finches. As an adult, I decided that calling birds were actually call ducks, the adorable little loudmouthed duck.
I was wrong on both counts.
“Calling” is actually a distortion of “colly,” meaning as black as coal. Calling birds are in fact blackbirds, which we know from nursery rhymes were baked into pies and presented to royalty. These days, blackbirds are protected migratory birds, but in Elizabethan times they were simply another game bird to catch and cook for dinner.
While not as popular as chickens with today’s poultry keepers, geese were once the poultry of choice amongst wealthy landowners and lords. Cultivated since the days of ancient Egypt, geese were inexpensive to raise as they foraged with skill and fattened quite easily.
In addition to their rich, flavorful meat, geese also produced sizable eggs, and their feathers were used to fletch arrows and to stuff pillows and mattresses.
Geese have a long association with Michaelmas, an autumnal holy day that marked the end of the livestock-raising year. On Michaelmas, typically celebrated on September 29, debts were paid, servants were hired at “Goose Faires,” and landlords collected their rents, which often included one goose per tenant. Feasting on roast goose became the custom on Michaelmas, considered one of the English “quarter days,” marking the passage of a quarter of the year.
It made sense that the delicious bird roasted on autumn’s quarter day would also be roasted on winter’s quarter day, Christmas.
A symbol of luxury and wealth, this beautiful waterfowl graced the Christmas tables of British monarchs from the 1200s all the way through 19th-century Victorian times, when dining on them fell out of style. A 15th-century decree designated that only landowners of a certain elevated income were allowed to keep swans. Owned birds had to be marked with a specific, expensive and difficult-to-obtain beak mark. Anyone caught defacing a swan mark would be sentenced to one year in prison, according to the Order of the Swannes, a 1570 legal document.
British laws also prohibited the sale, hunting and driving off of any swans, with stiff penalties for lawbreakers.
All unmarked swans were designated property of the British monarch, a law that remains in effect today. One of the titles of the British monarch is Seigneur of the Swans. A highly trained team, the King’s Swan Uppers, patrols the River Thames, caring for unmarked swans and ensuring that the cygnets of unmarked females remain unmarked and property of the King.
As the traditional centerpiece of the Christmas feast, swans were served roasted whole, in their skin and feathers. Records show that King Henry III ordered 40 swans for his Christmas celebrations in 1247. Only royalty was allowed to feast on swan. The eating of swan by a non-royal was considered an act of treason.
In 1998, a law was passed that removed the penalty of treason, but it is still illegal to keep or kill a swan.