Most of our Christmas songs and customs aren't really all that old. One that's more antique than most is the famous song about the partridge and the pear tree. But what's it really about, and where did it come from?
One idea is that it's an old English memory game for Twelfth Night celebrations, which officially closed the Christmas season. Players gathered in a circle and repeated verses of a song, with those who failed to remember them dropping out one by one. There's a reference to this in Mirth Without Mischief, a children's book printed in 1780. The game probably dates to the early part of the 16th century, nearly 200 years previously.
However, some people have suggested a French origin for the song, for two reasons. One is that the French red-legged partridge roosts in trees much more than the English grey partridge does and wasn't introduced until the 1770s. The other reason is that the French word for partridge is "perdrix" – pronounced "perdree", which is very like "pear tree" if you don't know French. So the song could have been about an English partridge and his French lady-love – "A partridge and une perdrix".
The music for the song is by James O. Halliwell and dates to 1842, though Frederick Austin added the "Five gold rings" bit in 1909.
Another idea is that the song was a rhyme to instruct children in the Catholic faith during the Reformation, when it wasn't safe to do so. Rev Mark Lawson Jones in his book Why was the Partridge in the Pear Tree suggests:
One partridge – Jesus
Two turtle doves – the Old and New Testaments
Three French hens – faith, hope and charity
Four calling birds – the four Gospels
Five gold rings – the Pentateuch
Six geese a-laying – the six days of creation
Seven swans a-swimming – the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
Eight maids a-milking – the Beatitudes
Nine ladies dancing – the nine fruits of the Spirit in Galatians
Ten lords a-leaping – the Ten Commandments
Eleven pipers piping – the 11 faithful apostles
Twelve drummers drumming – the 12 points of the Apostles' Creed.
Whether this is true or not, it's a good way of remembering some Bible truths at Christmas.
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