Is it “Four Calling Birds” or “Four Colly Birds”? A “Twelve Days of Christmas” Debate

When I was a child my family would gather each year at my aunt’s house on Christmas Eve for a night of festivities and merriment. And each year, far and away my favorite activity was our traditional singing of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Each of us would draw one of the twelve days from a hat and then be responsible for singing the line associated with that day. While our rendition guaranteed giggles among the kids and guffaws among the adultsespecially when a particularly bad singer drew the “five golden rings” slip—one element of the song always proved a source of angry debate: Are the birds described on the fourth day of Christmas “calling birds” or “colly birds”?

Most of my family was certain the correct term was “calling birds” since colly wasn’t a word any us knew and calling made intuitive sense“calling birds” must be birds that “call out” in song, or songbirdsbut I and a few others disagreed. Those of us in the colly faction pointed to the “Twelve Days of Christmas” glasses out of which we were drinking. The glasses included the words from the song, and the glass for the fourth day clearly said “four colly birds.” Obviously that meant “colly birds” had to be the correct phrase! And so the debate raged.

As it turns out, our argument was for naught. Some basic research shows that, based on modern usage, both phrases are correct, though “colly birds” predates “calling birds” by more than a century.

Let’s take a closer look at the history, meaning, and usage of the two phrases.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was first published, likely after years of oral circulation, around 1780 in the book Mirth Without Mischief. As with many songs, it originally appeared in print without accompanying sheet music, and may have been intended to be spoken, not sung. I reviewed a digitized edition of Mirth Without Mischief available through the Library’s Eighteenth Century Collections Online subscription database and verified firsthand that it refers to the birds as “colly birds.” (Variant spellings of colly that appear in later publications include collie and colley.) Confirming the original use of colly raises another question, though: What, exactly, does colly mean, and what is a “colly bird”?

Merriam-Webster‘s entry for colly notes that it derives from the Old English word for coal (col). The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word’s use as an adjective to describe something covered in coal dust, or the color of coal, back to Arthur Golding’s 1565 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis (Fyrst fower bookes of P. Ovidius Nasos worke, intitled Metamorphosis). Here are the relevant lines, describing a raven, available online through the Perseus Digital Library:

As thou thou prating Raven white by nature being bred,
Hadst on thy fethers justly late a coly colour spred.

While Golding’s translation uses the word coly to describe a raven, Bunny Crumpacker notes in her book Perfect Figures: The Lore of Numbers and How We Learned to Count that this adjective likely describes a different bird in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”:

“Calling birds” are thought originally to have been colly, or collie, birdscolly meant as black as coal (like collier, a coal miner, or colliery, a mine), so colly birds would have been blackbirds. (216)

Although we’ve established the early precedence of “four colly birds,” a number of variants, including four canary birds,” “four Colour’d birds,” and “four curley birds,” appear in early printings of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” For instance,  I checked Chronicling America, the Library’s historic newspaper database, and found a version of the song in the January 7, 1869, issue of The Evening Telegraph (Philadelphia) that describes not “four colly birds,” but “three tole of birds,” along with other textual variants.

The evening telegraph. (Philadelphia [Pa.]), 07 Jan. 1869. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

“An Old Christmas Rhyme.” The Evening Telegraph (Philadelphia. Pa.), Jan. 7, 1869. Page 6. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

(I’m not quite certain what tole means in this contextperhaps the birds are a form of tribute, or toll? If you have ideas, let me know in the comments below!)

The modern text of the poem was popularized through Frederic Austin’s 1909 arrangement, The Twelve Days of Christmas: Traditional Song, which also gave us the common melody now used for the song (Gant, 171). In Austin’s text, the phrase in question becomes “four calling birds”:

Austin, Frederic. The Twelve Days of Christmas (London: Novello, 1909), p. 2.

Austin, Frederic. The Twelve Days of Christmas: Traditional Song (London: Novello, 1909), p. 2. Music Division, Library of Congress. Photo by Peter Armenti, 2016.

Austin was among the first, if not the first, to use the phrase “four calling birds,” and it took a while for it to catch on. I used Google’s Ngram Viewer to chart, very roughly, the popularity of the phrases “four calling birds” and “four colly birds” in Google’s English-language book corpus. The results indicate that it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that calling began to rival colly as the preferred word, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that calling seemed to surpass colly as the more common word in the song.

Google Ngram graph showing frequency of the term four calling birds and four colly birds in English-language books published from about 1895 to 2008.

Google Ngram graph showing frequency of the terms four calling birds and four colly birds in English-language books published from 1895 to 2008.

As the word colly passed out of common usage among English-language speakers, it’s no surprise that Austin’s similar-sounding alternative calling became more popular, even if nobody quite knows what a “calling bird” is!

This Christmas Eve I plan to resurrect my family’s “Twelve Days of Christmas” tradition. If I’m lucky enough to pull the fourth day out of the hat I know which version of the line I’ll use. If anyone tries to argue that I’m “calling” the birds by the wrong name I’ll skip the debate, point them to this post, and tell them that we’re both right.

Still, I’m curious: What do you call them? “Calling birds,” “colly birds,” or something else? Let me know in the comments below.


Sources

“colly, v.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 19 December 2016.

“colly, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 20 December 2016.

Crumpacker, Bunny. Perfect Figures: The Lore of Numbers and How We Learned to Count. New York : Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Gant, Andrew.  The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs. Nashville, Tennessee: Nelson Books, 2015.

Mirth without mischief. Comtaining [sic] The twelve days of Christmas; The play of the gaping-wide-mouthed-wadling-frog; Love and hatred; … and Nimble Ned’s alphabet and figures. London, [1800?]. Widely available at academic libraries through the subscriptino database Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

 

40 Comments

  1. Barry Murphy
    December 21, 2016 at 8:26 am

    Highest praise for Peter Armenti, though not at all to disparage his excellent colleagues. Is there a way that I can subscribe automatically to all his posts please?

    • Peter Armenti
      December 21, 2016 at 8:58 am

      Thanks for the kind words, Barry! There isn’t a way to subscribe only to blog posts written by a specific author. However, my colleagues are truly excellent, and subscribing to all From the Catbird Seat posts gives you the opportunity to choose which posts you’d like to read without worrying that you’ve missed a particular author’s posts.

  2. Matt
    December 21, 2016 at 10:58 am

    Awesome post, Peter! Happy holidays to you and your family. Hope all is well 🙂

  3. Kristina Sazaki
    December 21, 2016 at 11:27 am

    Fascinating! And thanks for the thorough explanation of your research process.

  4. Conn
    December 21, 2016 at 7:51 pm

    I love this kind of research. As to the “tole” in your example above, the text reads “three tole of birds” in both lines, rather than “three tole birds,” which makes it sound as if it is a container or a unit of measure. I searched around quite a bit, and I can’t find any definition of “tole” other than painted lacquerware, or the craft of creating such products.

  5. Everette Larson
    December 21, 2016 at 9:50 pm

    Regarding “tole of birds” Try lacquered or enameled metalware. See “Vintage Bird Wall Plaques, Gold Tole Flowers and Birds, Set of 2” on Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/listing/400140349/vintage-bird-wall-plaques-gold-tole?ref=market

    • Peter Armenti
      December 22, 2016 at 8:02 am

      Hi Everette,

      Thanks for the suggestion. The OED‘s earliest illustrative quotations for tole in this sense are from the 1940s, and I haven’t yet been able to find any evidence that tole (or related words such as toleware) was used to denote “lacquered or enamaled metalware” in the the late 1860s. If you come across any examples, let me know!

  6. Gail Petri
    December 22, 2016 at 12:47 am

    What a fun post! I’ll be singing calling birds in a few days!

  7. Gwen Winter-Neighbors
    December 22, 2016 at 9:31 am

    My family always had a Christmas play. We were given scriptures from the KJV of our Bible. Each Christmas we would play the same parts, if all were there. One Christmas our oldest brother was not there, and we opted for our Dad to play his part. He joined the Marines; we said Navy then. My sister’s First Soprano voice sang O Holy Night. I was a Second Soprano: I sang All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth. My teeth were missing. That part; after the serious Play. We did the whole story. Mary was visited by an angel ; Then the Shepherds were visited by angel of the Lord; then the Three Wise men followed the Star to Bethlehem; Mary and Joseph were going to the place where the Christ Child was lying in a manger. All the animals were there making soft sounds. Then the angels surrounded us again. We actually learned Bach’s Hallelujah Chorus. We three children sang in three church choirs for 10 or 15 years. Our voices were ‘golden’ ones then. Our Dad led us and our Mom fed us and dressed us for church.
    We all attended every Christmas Special Service at all our neighbors churches. Our youthful voices rang out. Naturally, all the neighbors joined us that were willing. I remember tears filling my eyes the first time I heard my sister Barbara sing O Holy Night- tears of joy that I knew were so close to the angels’ real choir in heaven that I could see real live angels. In Laura Creek Elementary School our music teacher was Mrs. Perry. I remember my mother putting me up on a strong table of oak and I sang two parts on stage in front of the whole school: All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth (mine were missing), then I recited “Twas the Night Before Christmas. I had two changes of clothing- one for each recitation. Later we all dressed in angel attire and sang Silent Night. The first Christmas tree we always made all the decorations. I remember Popcorn stringing; the dipping of cottonwood tree ornaments, cutting out snowflakes and angel designs with really old, old tree ornaments that I still cherish. Mother made our costumes. She custom made everything with brown paper patterns, and I watched her sew on the Singer while pushing the foot peddle. I loved watching her sew. I learned by watching her for many years.
    Our Daddy made wine for the Christmas Day Dinner. We always got a thimble of wine for Communion. The wine was only “once a year” because we were Cherokee Indians. We asked for permission from the Female Chief of our area. If we had a clean slate (no offences from the local), we were allowed to ‘make and serve’ tiny thimbles of it. Otherwise, no mention of this was allowed. Our tree was always a cedar that our Dad and brother gathered from the area beside the old cedar fence posts.

    I know a few neighbors would get a visit from our Table of Specially prepared treats. Mother made the most delicious Fruit Cakes for all. Barbara and I cracked the nuts. The fruit bars were the best. Some were tiny and filled with homemade or imported cherries and nuts. Everyone in our family gathered together on Christmas Day. Each brought their specially made dish of food. We all sat at the children’s table if we had extra surprises.

    Our Uncles sometimes showed up from their war adventures. We surrounded them; Daddy’s four brothers were each in a different division of service. I remember , Army, Marines, Naval Air Corp. and Coast Guard. I remember Donaldson’s Air Force Base in Greenville, SC. We had some Yankee Air Force members for Christmas Dinner. I remember the name Paul Miser. He was from up north in Pennsylvania. And Jack Wynn drove an Indian motorcycle. I have a picture of me sitting on that cycle. What a wonderful way to take care of our soldiers.
    My Dad was in the Coast Guard. In our home town we practiced air raids. A siren would sound and we would close the dark velvet drapes and hide under the tables. This was a serious practice. We were told to duck and cover our heads, and it was fun for us children in the beginning.
    I remember the Wooden Radio where we sat around “The Fire Side Chats “and listened to The F. D. Roosevelt”.. Many of our neighbors came over nightly and listened.
    I also remember Walter Winchell’s report. He started by saying, “Good Evening Mr. and Mrs. North and South America and all the ships at sea- let’s go to press.” He started some times by saying things like ”loose lips sink ships”.

    Those were wonderful days except when telegrams would arrive by special delivery telling of one of our lost soldier’s death. Most terrible happenings were told in whispers. We did not want to hear that part. I remember holding my fingers in my ears. Our family was fortunate, we lost only a few of my Dad’s brothers. They are buried at Arlington Cemetery in D. C. My Uncle Jack Walters went down somewhere at sea near Pensacola, Florida. Daddy said it was “top secret”. Uncle Jack flew jets. He was a test pilot.
    Uncle Hallie Lee never got over the ‘shakes’. He told us how the enemy would stab every other person sleeping in their bunker. He visited our home often. Mother would calm him and feed his wife and one baby boy. My brother would play ‘war’. We learned to sound like a bomb that is falling in the air. There was a newspaper article about Uncle Jack. He had been waiting for an appointment to West Point:. He got it, but passed away before he received it.
    We heard Churchill, and other war commanders, speak over the wooden radio. I remember the sounds when our Daddy would search for news- how the tuners shrouded with interesting sounds. We knew the enemy’s leaders names as well as the good guys. I remember the names Iron Curtain, Sputnik, Muttnik, and Yuri Gagarin, Russia’s first spaceman. Our brother taught us all our war cries. Every night at dinnertime our Dad and brother would review all the events of the war. My sister would not listen, but I would hear it all.
    We got letters from our family in the service. They were read at many dinnertime reviews. I would watch my mother’s eyes to see if she would tear up. My mother would visit our neighbors that had lost family members. She would always make us stay home. They cried a lot in those days. We children were very physically quiet in those times. My mother would have prayer with us each night. We always called our family men by name and pray for their safe return. Mother said that our God was in charge of those that are chosen for his Kingdom. That meant they went to heaven for our safety on earth and we revered them all.

    War is never pretty- except when it is over. My Daddy’s sister, Aunt Anne, had her picture in the local newspaper showing her in a new nursing outfit. Mother made us nursing capes in red and blue, and they were reversible. Aunt Anne had a real cape. We all learned to fold bandages and save fat from cooking that were used in the war. All families had war savings. We bought War Bonds and were issued food stamps. Mother kept them in a book. When they were used, they got a red stamp. I remember sugar was rationed. Everything that a woman wanted was rationed. I remember Uncle Halle brought my mother the first pair of nylon hosiery, our bill goat ate them up. Our mother cried and we were all sad for awhile.
    Barbara and I sat in the grass beside the clothes line and cried together. It seemed to help our Mother to cry. The goats were watching us from the edge of the house. We knew this was a serious time.
    Christmas Time in Dixie was fun, sad, and happy and joyful. When anyone from the service came home all the family and neighbors celebrated in song and food gatherings. Those days will remain in my memory. War is a time that having heavy velvet drapes to cover the windows made sense. Mother purchased the velvet from the local Conastee Mills. All our clothing was made by our mother. She made wonderful creative things for us all. We always had a summer and winter vegetable garden. We always shared our climbing beans with the less fortunate. We gave away because our parents taught us that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
    I still have that reference in my life. Living in the “Bible Belt” has been a wonderful time to grow and know that good and kindness overrules the bad times. May the USA grow in kindness for those around the world that need Love, Hope, Joy, and patience, and more happiness than the whisper news, My mother used to sing Love Makes the World Go Round’ and we would stand up and sing God Bless America. We all have been so blessed that counting our blessings puts our baby grandchildren to sleep.
    The four male Labs we had to feed for 9 weeks love the same song. Love indeed makes the world go ‘round.
    © by Gwen Walters Neighbors 21/21/2016

  8. Uncle Carm
    December 23, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    Great piece, Pete. I believe I was the one who first asked “What the heck is a colly bird?” Those Christmas Eve’s were lots of fun at Uncle Don and Aunt Pat’s house.

  9. JoAnne Armenti
    December 24, 2016 at 9:48 am

    Peter,

    Your post brought back so many memories of the good times we all had at Aunt Pat and Uncle Don’s on Christmas Eve with family and friends. I remember Aunt Pat always wanting to sing Five Golden Rings. The debate of the Calling Birds vs. the Colly Birds went on for years. Peter, great piece and thanks so much for the memories!

    Love,

    Mom

  10. Valerie (Kyriosity)
    July 16, 2017 at 7:40 am

    The word is still in use, though the dogs are more often brown and white nowadays, Lassie being the most famous of the Collie breed.

  11. Valerie (Kyriosity)
    July 16, 2017 at 7:44 am

    Oh, and did the glasses feature “gold” or “golden” rings? I’d love to know which of those is the earlier.

  12. Peter Mace
    December 22, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks for great article. We always sing colly birds, but our story of it mixes a couple of your segments, i.e. Colliery and canary. The miners , I believe, used canaries in the mines to give warning of gas as they would have been susceptible more quickly than the men, but also would quickly become black because of the coal dust, hence the linkage to blackbirds. This is probably completely made up, but it seemed very plausible when I was a kid.
    Kind Regards

  13. Martin Stevens
    December 25, 2017 at 5:26 am

    I am joining this thread a year later on. Fascinating both to understand the colley / calling birds argument and to read Gwen’s Christmas recollections.
    I spoke of calling birds and my wife corrected me with colley birds. I am glad that my version has some validity, even though I now prefer hers.

  14. Julie
    January 1, 2018 at 11:47 am

    I am English and have always used the phrase “colly birds”. It has often been a source of debate. Thanks for the confirmation that colly birds did exist and that I am not alone. I enjoyed the other comments too, especially Gwen’s story. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Eric Post
    February 3, 2018 at 5:34 pm

    Google Peanuts comic for Dec 20, 1987 for an explanation of Four Calling Birds.

  16. Pip hall
    November 15, 2018 at 5:27 am

    I heard – and sang – colly birds in my mid-late ‘60s infant class.

  17. Cathy
    November 26, 2018 at 8:08 am

    I have had Christmas dessert plates with each plate having a day – I have had these plates for at least 25 years. While taking them out for this Christmas (2018), I noticed the 4th day said ‘colly’ birds. WHY was this the first time I noticed it. So I went to my faithful friend – Google – and found your info. Very interesting and thank you for doing so much research on a traditional song that is only sung for about a month each year!

  18. Mick
    December 22, 2018 at 5:03 pm

    ‘Colly” of course but I am English:)

  19. Jill
    December 25, 2018 at 6:23 pm

    I have little doubt that “tole” in this context is a unit of measurement. Not sure if it’s meant to be a count (such as a gross), or a weight (as a pound, etc.), but that’s how I interpret that line. Loved this article!!

  20. Gregory Norton
    July 17, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    Yet the calling birds are almost always black (colly) in illustrations. Colly, like the twelve days of Christmas (starting on Christmas morning and ending the night before Epiphany – twelfth night) has passed out of our culture.

    Today we celebrate the coming of Christmas, not its arrival.

  21. Beth Bartholomew
    August 11, 2019 at 6:42 pm

    A bulletin board depiction of a pear tree with birds in it sent me off in search of French hens, turtle doves, and *calling birds*. I like the idea of colly meaning black – as in “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” and “along came a blackbird and pecked off her nose.” Wikipedia says the male European blackbirds call is varied and melodious. BTW they are ground dwellers, too. I can just see this pear tree with two cooing turtle doves, sharing the tree with the flustered quail, And 4 noisy blackbirds. Would the 5 gold rings be linked by a pretty ribbon & depended from the pear tree?

  22. Reina M Quantrell Dean
    November 10, 2019 at 11:25 am

    I had seen the English version and it had become a Christmas peeve along with Donder not Donner in A Visit from St Nicholas. I should give it up and spread cheer at Christmastime.

  23. Jim
    November 21, 2019 at 12:57 am

    @ Reina M Quantrell Dean
    It is indeed “Donner” and not “Donder”. Those two reindeer would be named in English “Thunder” and “Lightning,” which in German is “Donner und Blitzen”.

  24. Janet B
    December 9, 2019 at 4:46 pm

    When I was a girl in the 1960s the fourth verse I learnt was “four colly birds” and that is still the version I sing now. “Four calling birds” sounds wrong although that seems to be the usual version one hears now

  25. William Norman
    December 11, 2019 at 7:19 pm

    I’m sold on ‘colly birds’ meaning, blackbirds. All of the above confirms that this was the original and true meaning, and that ‘calling’ is a corruption of ‘colly’ ‘Colly’ rules OK, as far as I’m concerned. Naughty old Frederick Austin. Though he did a great job with his version of ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ now criminally unavailable. I much prefer his version to that of Benjamin Britten.

  26. Cecily Porter
    December 15, 2019 at 11:58 am

    colly birds and gold rings

  27. James Sevier
    December 25, 2019 at 7:25 am

    Thanks for all the info especially the thunder and lightning reindeer ⚡

  28. Su Mason
    December 27, 2019 at 10:34 am

    I grew up in Huddersfield Yorkshire (close to mining communities). It was definitely collybirds when I was young in the fifties. I never questioned it.

  29. Ann Lawrence
    January 3, 2020 at 10:16 pm

    European Blackbird….. a thrush

  30. WALTER BEECHER
    May 2, 2020 at 8:06 pm

    For Eric Post. In the New International Version the verse reads: “Now do not let my blood fall to the ground far from the presence of the LORD. The king of Israel has come out to look for a flea–as one hunts a partridge in the mountains.”

  31. Kate
    October 28, 2020 at 12:09 am

    I have always sung the song as colly ( in my youth it was spelled with an ie). After all a colly is a black bird and a calling bird is ludicrous. Song birds can not speak!

  32. Gloria Gooderham
    December 15, 2020 at 7:15 pm

    Found this while searching for “when are the 12 days of Christmas “? Serendipity finding this blog. I wonder if anyone is reading it now. I, too, loved Gwen’s account of her childhood memories. I enjoyed reading everyone’s posts. Forwarded this to all our 6 kids and some others. Just made my day and now I’m in the mood to celebrate Christmas. Funny, my husband’s roots are English and he’s bemused by my search saying “ I always knew it is was “ colly”. But, he was interested in learning about Donner and Blitzen because he studied German in school.
    Thanks again everyone who contributed and to the author, of course.

  33. Sammi
    December 19, 2020 at 7:16 am

    ‘three tole of birds’ makes just as much sense as colly or calling in the fact that they all represent a sound…bells peel or toll.

    So, ‘colly’ represents the literal black birds, blackbirds, the songbirds and their sound;
    ‘calling birds’ represent the sound birds make in their calls, or ‘songs’;
    ‘three tole of birds’ also represents the sound that birds make in a toll of three (three cycles, three songs, the loop of the ‘song’ three times).

    I enjoyed this blog 🙂 Thank you for sharing your research.

    Sammi – Cheshire, uk.

  34. Frank Roylance
    December 24, 2020 at 2:48 pm

    So, if we’ve established that the original lyric was colly, how should it be pronounced? To rhyme with “holy”? Or with the dog, “collie”? Long O or short?

  35. Goat
    December 27, 2020 at 9:01 pm

    It’s definitely ‘colly birds’, I don’t know why you said people who say ‘calling birds’ are also right, when they’re not.
    …It’s ‘gold rings’ too, BTW. Some lyrics say ‘golden rings’, but that would be really cheap – you can have golden (coloured) rings made of plastic!

  36. Kathleen York
    December 28, 2020 at 8:08 am

    At the age of 72, I just discovered this controversy as I was reading how this rhyme was used to catechise children and saw “colly” for the first time. As a child, I wondered whether it was “cawing” birds or calliing birds, because we had lots of crows arounding that intoned “caw-caw-caw” all the time. Once I was able to read, I saw calling birds and never again questioned it. Thank you for this delightful edification!

  37. Natalie Benincasa-Powell
    December 28, 2020 at 9:27 am

    Very well! Thank you immensely for this history of a delightful tradition
    and imagery~ to add depth of meaning to my joy if the song!
    1790 a quite different and appreciated focused time-
    Natalie

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