A Partridge in a Pear Tree
The tree is up, the lights are on and carols are in the air. Many of the exhibits in the Natural History Gallery lend themselves to a Christmas theme and one of them is the star of one of our most well-known and mysterious Christmas carols – The Twelve Days of Christmas. Though there are many variations, we’re all familiar with the repeating verses in which an evidently eager-to-impress ‘true love’ presents to the singer a myriad of gifts including French hens, gold rings and the iconic ‘partridge in a pear tree’.
The origins of the song are unclear, but it is thought to have begun as a children’s memory game. Children perhaps took turns to sing the lyrics, with any forgetting or stumbling over a line having to pay a penalty. This is how the song appears in ‘Mirth Without Mischief’, a children’s book published in 1780. The song likely goes back even further than this though and is thought to have originally been a French carol. The inclusion of a pear tree may be a misinterpretation of the original French lyrics – ‘a partridge, une perdix’ sounds a lot like ‘a partridge in a pear tree’ when said aloud.
There are two species of partridge on display in the Natural History Gallery, the native grey partridge Perdix perdix, and the red-legged partridge Alectoris rufa. An example of each is displayed together as part of the Field and Hedgerow display. The French origin of the song would suggest that the bird referred to in the carol is the red-legged partridge, a French native that wasn’t introduced to the UK until approximately 1770. Since then, the red-legged partridge has been extensively reared in captivity and released into the wild for shooting. The specimen on display is an adult male and has been in the museum’s collection for over 80 years.
Birds feature heavily in the song – perhaps more so than most realise. The familiar partridge, two turtle doves, three French hens, four colly (black) birds, six geese a laying and seven swans a swimming may not be the only birds mentioned in the song. The ‘five gold rings’ that don’t seem to fit into this avian group may in fact refer to the neck markings of the pheasant. The best remembered is no doubt the ‘partridge in a pear tree’ due to its repetition with every verse. Most of the birds listed in the song can be seen in the Natural History Gallery, so be sure to bring the family along to see how many you can spot when the museum reopens.