If you’ve ever found yourself singing Christmas carols and wondering why on earth any would-be suitor would give the gifts of trees, birds and drummers, look no further – here you will find the meanings of all those twelve “unusual” gifts.

The Pear Tree

Folklore claims that a young maiden was supposed to walk backwards around a pear tree three times on Christmas morning, and then gaze into the branches, where she should see the image of her future husband. In England, the red-legged partridge was commonly known to sit in pear trees.

Two Turtle Doves

Doves for centuries have symbolized both love and fertility, and are believed to mate for life. Today, they symbolize marital devotion, faithfulness and love forever.

Three French Hens

During the 18th century, large, exotic fowl from Asia were brought back to England. These birds mated with the descendants of the Roman-breed chickens. It is believed that the ‘three French hens’ in the song represent a new breed. White chickens are believed to bring good luck, and hens are believed to symbolize motherly devotion.

Four Colly Birds

All these years you’ve been singing “calling birds” when the reality is, it’s colly birds. A colly bird is a European black bird, so the song is really saying four crows. Sounds like a terrible gift, but back in the medieval days, blackbird was considered a delicacy.

Five Golden Rings

If you’re a jewelry fan, you’re going to be disappointed to learn that it’s not actually gold rings that are given on the fifth day. The five golden rings are said to represent the gold rings on a pheasant’s neck, as eating pheasant was only for the very rich and royal.

Six Geese A-Laying

In the 18th century, the goose was the customary Christmas dinner.

Seven Swans A-Swimming

In 1304, King Edward of England took his vows of knighthood over two white swans decorated with gold nets and crowns, and swans subsequently became associated with royalty. For some time, having swans was strictly exclusive to the monarchy. In Britain today, the swan is still considered a symbol of royalty.

Eight Maids A-Milking

In the 18th century, when a maiden was asked to “go a-milking” it was a proposal of marriage.

Nine Ladies Dancing

Music and dancing were a big part of the Christmas celebrations in England at this point in history. The term ‘ladies’ probably refers to noble ladies, as in a Lord and his Lady, or a lady in waiting.

Ten Lords A-Leaping

In Britain, the lords a-leaping are assumed to be Morris dancers, highly costumed folk, who performed between the courses of a Christmas feast.

Eleven Drummers Drumming

The drum became associated with the trumpet, to announce the arrival of each course during the banquets. A skilled musician could not only play the pipes, but also the tabor, a small drum. This was known that whittle and dub.

Twelve Pipers Piping

The pipers referred to in the song would be the professional bagpipe musicians hired to entertain the guests with their music, which they provided for dancing.

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