Partridges and pear trees

A partridge in a pear tree

In the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, the gift given on the first day is a partridge in a pear tree. As partridges nest on the ground and are unlikely to be found in pear trees, this seems a bit strange to me.

A possible reason why partridge is in the pear tree in the song is because of a mistranslation of the French perdrix/perdriole, which sound a bit like pear tree, but mean partridge. The English version was possibly based on a French folk song: there are three that feature partridges, and/or was originally a children’s game.

The lyrics of the English version of this song that are most common today were first published in 1909 by Frederic Austin, who also wrote the current melody. Other versions of the words and tune have been around at least since 1780, when the song appears in a children’s book, Mirth without Mischief, with the title The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball.

In the 1780 version the gift on the fourth day of Christmas is colly birds – colly was apparently an English dialect word for black. The other lyrics are more or less the same as the current version.


This entry was posted in English, French, Language, Words and phrases.

3 Responses to Partridges and pear trees

  1. David Eger says:

    I’ve heard that the song is a reference to the old practice among the well-heeled of stuffing progressively smaller birds inside one another (goose, chicken, grouse, pheasant, partridge, quail, pigeon, thrush, sparrow, wren…). What that has to do with gold rings, maids a-milking, ladies dancing, lords a-leaping (What sort of lords leap, anyway?) etc., I don’t know.

  2. Kevin says:

    colly (black) = coal-y?

  3. Simon says:

    That is the etymology of colly, Kevin.


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