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.”
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.”
Day four: Colly birds
If you have a smug historian friend, he or she might have already informed
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.
Crowbusters does not, sadly, provide nutrition facts, but assuming your blackbird or crow is roughly the size of a pigeon, eating it by itself will likely set you back an additional 200 calories or so.
Day five: Gold rings (pheasants)
Unlike most things on this list, pheasant-eating is still very much a thing. If your friends still trust you with pies after you sprang that blackbird surprise on them, you can try your hand at pheasant pie, preferably using pheasants that come “with their feet attached.” A serving will set you back 1,365 calories, likely because the recipe also calls for a wholly New-World convenience: pre-prepared puff pastry dough.
Day six: Geese a-laying
Fois gras was first pioneered by the Romans, who force-fed pigs to their geese in order to fatten them. In later centuries, whole geese became the turkey of Europe, eaten on big holidays and rarely otherwise.
You may find it less morally reprehensible to roast an entire goose than to eat fois gras. If so, during the carving process you’ll want to remove all its excess fat, which is copious. A serving of roasted goose comes to about 340 calories, but it has far more fat than either pigeons or partridges. Day six will be your “cheat” day.
Day seven: Swans a-swimming
Swan was occasionally served in a “lifelike pose” for Medieval nobility, with the skin and feathers first gingerly removed, then later reattached after roasting. In 1482, though, all the swans in England formally became property of the queen, and until the late 1990s, killing or injuring an English swan was considered an act of treason.
The freedom to eat swans is perhaps the most important liberty the Revolutionary War afforded us. Here, then, is an Instructables recipe for swan burgers. It too lacks nutrition facts, so let’s add in another 340 calories, since goose is a related bird.
Be advised, though, that swan tastes like “fishy mutton.”
Day eight: Maids a-milking
After gorging on a menagerie worth of birds, it’s time for the activity-filled portion of the song, i.e. the Crossfit of the 1700s. For all of the exercises, I’m calculating the calories burned based on a 150-pound woman over the course of 30 minutes, and using WebMD’s activity counter.
Let’s start out slow with milking. Doing so by hand for half an hour will burn 102 calories. (A milking machine cuts it down to 51).
Day nine: Ladies dancing
Here’s where it gets tricky. Do we dance the chacha? Flamenco? Disco? They are all differently aerobic.
English country dancing often involved couples forming two long lines and taking turns flitting down the people-tunnel to rejoin at the other end. “Folk” dancing, its approximate equivalent, would burn about 150 calories.
Day 10: Lords a-leaping
This part is similarly confusing. Were they leaping for joy? Did they sit on something sharp? Was this part of the dance?
I’m going to take a logical leap and say that moderate jumping jacks would burn 119 calories.
Day 11: Pipers piping
The “pipes” in this case might have been bagpipes, which emerged in the late 15th century. The 1581 book Image of Irelande depicts bag-pipers leading troops into battle—and later being killed alongside the troops. Unless your Christmas tradition is especially gory, though, you can try simply playing the flute, which would burn 68 calories.
Day 12: Drummers drumming
Playing a set of modern drums burns 136 calories.
If you ate all of the birds in one day, including the pheasant pie, but not including all the trimmings for the other dishes, and subtracted the energy you expended milking, dancing, leaping, and drumming, you’d have consumed 2,384 net calories. That’s really not bad, considering the average American Thanksgiving dinner adds up to about 4,500 calories.
If hunting obscure waterfowl and rifling through “the shops” for pigeon meat isn’t your thing, you can always order the 12-bird “True Love” roast from Heal Farm, a British food company. The roast puts turduckens to shame, cramming almost all of the birds from the song—along with an assortment of stuffings—into a giant turkey.
If this monstrosity is your Christmas wish, all your true love needs to give to you is £670, or $1,094. Delivery is free.
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