Health Consequences of Actually Living the 12 Days of Christmas

All that milking. Would you even survive?
nicholasputz/Edsel L/State Library of South Australia/Rosie 55/flickr

For a song that’s on heavy rotation in malls and soft-rock stations this time of year, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” has surprisingly mysterious origins.

It was first published in England in 1780 as a nursery rhyme in the book Mirth Without Mischief, but that rendition might have been predated by an even earlier French version. The song wasn't set to the tune we now know it by (gooooold riiiiiings!) until 1909, by the composer Frederic Austin. A rendition from as late as 1908 includes the lines, “12 bulls a-roaring” and “11 bears a-baiting.” Sweet dreams, kids!

We also don’t know exactly what the song is supposed to mean. Some think it’s a coded way of teaching Catholic children the Catechism. In Mirth Without Mischief, it was intended as a memory game.

At least one theory holds, though, that the “Twelve days of Christmas” paints an image of a joyous festival, in which seven days of feasting on birds are followed by five more of revelrous dancing and leaping. It’s not as weird as you think: Europeans centuries ago ate most of the animals mentioned in the song, including the “golden rings,” which some think refers to pheasants, not jewelry.

That’s the idea I’d like to embrace today, as I attempt to determine what a “Twelve days” feast would actually look like, nutritionally speaking.

Before you scoff, consider that the song’s many fowls and physical activities are already being tabulated for an annual “Christmas Price Index.” This year, it tops $114,651. But aren’t you more likely to do some dancing yourself this holiday season than you are to buy nine dancing ladies? 

With that, here is your 12-days-of-Christmas diet, should you choose to celebrate this year like an 18th-century British villager:

Day one: Partridge in a pear tree

There seems to be no end to the partridge recipes on British cooking websites. Some of them even include pear, providing you with the full first-day-of-Christmas experience in one dish.

This one for “Roast Partridge with Honey Glazed Pears and Celeriac Mash" looks particularly appealing. Unlike American recipe indexes, though, few British sites include the nutrition facts. It appears that a serving of roasted partridge alone has 212 calories. A pear has 96.

Day two: Turtle doves

Here’s a mind-blowing fact for you: Doves and pigeons are the same bird. I know. One is an adorable symbol of peace, and the other shits on your car, yet the two terms can be used interchangeably.

Regardless, you can eat them. Another quaint British recipe site details a pigeon pie that you can make whether, “you’ve been out on a hunt all afternoon, trampling through the frosty fields or if you’ve just been to the shops and bought some pigeon.”

A serving of roast pigeon has 187 calories, and the Daily Mail points out that, like partridge, pigeon is a “healthier meat, with less fat than roasted lamb or duck.”

Day three: French hens

The french hens in the song might have been Faverolles, colorful chickens named after an eponymous French village. They were once used for meat and eggs, but now just mostly to show off their distinctive, fluffy plumage and salmon-colored combs.

In the Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, published in 1594, a recipe for “Chickens after the French fashion” recommends, “Quarter the Chickens in foure peeces: then take after the rate of a pinte of wine for two Chickens: then take time & parsly as small minced as ye can, and foure or fiue Dates, with the yolkes of foure hard Egges, and let this boile together, and when you will season your pot, put in salt, sinamon and Ginger, and serue it foorth.”

A similar breed might find its way into something like this modern recipe for roast poussin, or a young chicken. There about 219 calories in 100 grams of plain roasted chicken meat.

Day four: Colly birds

If you have a smug historian friend, he or she might have already informed

Wikimedia Commons

you that it’s “colly birds,” not “calling birds.” “Colly” means “black as soot,” so the song’s authors might have meant blackbirds in this line. In Medieval Europe, a popular party gag involved putting live birds under a pie crust just before serving, so that they would flutter away just as the pie was cut open by guests, according to the Medieval historian Melitta Adamson. Thus, “four and twenty blackbirds..."

There aren’t too many culinary tips for blackbirds available these days. However, the site “Crowbusters” assures readers that a similar bird, the crow, can be hunted, carved, and cooked into dishes such as “crow kabobs.” Mmm.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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