The Partridge in a Pear TreePosted: 30 December 2010
“On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me
a partridge in a pear tree.”
So goes the first verse from one of England’s most well-known carols, the Twelve Days of Christmas. The twelve days of Christmas begin on St. Stephen’s Day (26th December) and continue until Twelfth Night; the evening of the 5th January and the night before Epiphany. Epiphany (6th January) celebrates the coming of the Magi and marks the end of the Christmas season, a tradition dating from medieval times.
You may be surprised to learn that the Twelve Days of Christmas was first written down in 1780. It was included in a children’s book named Mirth Without Mischief, and probably intended as a memory forfeit game to be played on Twelfth Night. The players would each recite a verse from memory and the first to make a mistake would be subject to a forfeit.
Since its first publication there have been many suggestions, both religious and secular, of the meaning behind the verses of the popular carol. A romantic but sadly unlikely theory theory first published by Canadian English teacher and hymnologist Hugh D. McKellar in 1979. It claimed that the song was invented during the religious turbulence of the Tudor dynasty. Hidden meanings in each verse were allegedly a way of secretly teaching the Catholic faith to children without raising the suspicions of the ruling Protestant church.
The first verse of the song is perhaps the strangest. Why a partridge, and why in a pear tree?
McKellar claimed that the partridge represents the Christ child; and indeed, there is scripture to partly support this. The idea is that Jesus Christ is a ‘mother bird’ who seeks to shelter her ‘chicks’ – in this case, the errant Jerusalem (Luke 13:34). Though, this ignores a certain important fact about the partridge.
Greek mythology tells us of Perdix the clever nephew of Daedalus, and how his inventions drove Daedalus into a jealous rage. Daedalus could not stand to see his own achievements outdone and so threw his nephew from the top of a high building. However, the goddess Athena had admired Perdix’s ingenuity and saved his life by changing him into a bird.
Perdix became the first partridge, and gave his name to it; today we know the English grey partridge as perdix perdix. The partridge, quite understandably, never lost his fear of heights!
In the past a partridge would have taken pride of place on a Christmas table, as a handsome alternative to the pheasant. Like the pheasant and according to the Greek myth, the partridge is a flightless game bird and is never found roosting in trees. They make their nests in hedgerows and among woodland ground plants. It is therefore very unlikely that the original singers of the Twelve Days of Christmas ever saw a partridge in a pear tree, and thus our problem remains.
The most probable answer to the riddle is that there was no pear tree in the first place. Derived from the Greek, Perdrix is the French term for partridge. You would pronounce it as ‘pair-dree’. To an English speaker of the time who did not understand French, this would’ve sounded a lot like ‘pear tree’. Over the years and with a little imagination, you can see quite easily how ‘a partridge une perdrix’ became the line we sing every year at Christmas.
Photo from Door Couture.