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 adults—especially 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 songbirds—but 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, birds—colly 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.
(I’m not quite certain what tole means in this context—perhaps 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 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.
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.
“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.