Twelve Days of Christmas: A Partridge in a Pear Tree

By Professor Anne Lawrence-Mathers

The partridge is the only figure in the song which appears every day throughout the twelve days of Christmas. There is an obvious explanation – the partridge is not only the harbinger of holidays (and food for a feast) but also a forecaster of things to come next year. The idea that the partridge possesses mysterious powers can be traced back to the classical world and to the medieval bestiary. Partridges supposedly filled their nests with the eggs of other birds but left the young birds able to return to their parents. Partridges also symbolised rampant lust, and females were believed to lay large numbers of eggs of their own.

Partridge[Image credit: Image by hellinger14 from Pixabay.]

Images of birds in trees full of fruit were popular in medieval manuscripts as backgrounds for scenes depicting lovers, which would make a bird-in-a-fruit-tree a very suitable gift from one true love to another, even if the associations of the partridge were rather more with lust than romance.

None of this explains why the partridge has chosen a pear tree as a home for the holidays, but fruit lingering on the tree would clearly be useful in the depths of winter.  The pear tree featured in medieval and early-modern works on food and health, which emphasised that the fruit was moist and cold in nature, and thus dangerous to the health unless cooked before being eaten. Cooked in wine, with spices and other fruits, it became a healthy delicacy, suitable for winter feasts. It may perhaps be relevant that the pear tree also features in a biblical parable, in which this tree represents patience, careful observation and good judgement. This has the advantage of linking to the concept of the partridge keeping watch from its perch and making judgements each day!

pear-3519397_1920.jpg[Image credit: Image by analogicus from Pixabay.]

The Partridge as Prognosticator:

The key text here is known to as ‘The Sunshine Prognostic’. It makes predictions for the coming year based on periods of sunshine each day through the Twelve Days of Christmas. The predictions relate to weather conditions, the productivity of crops, the availability of precious metals and other such economic indicators. A partridge which not only symbolised true love but also gave reliable predictions would obviously be a very special gift!

Here are the predictions:

  • Sunshine on Day 1 predicts good things for the rich and powerful, including the birth of children and an increase in their wealth.
  • On Day 2, sunshine predicts that gold will be discovered amongst the English.
  • Day 3: sunshine now signifies problems for the poor but good news for the rich.
  • Day 4: stores of gold will increase.
  • Day 5: flowers and crops will thrive and people will prosper.
  • Day 6: a very good year for dairy farmers and their produce.
  • Day 7: a very good year for orchards and fruit trees.
  • Day 8: there will be plenty of quicksilver (and thus a good year for scientists?).
  • Day 9: religion will make progress in the coming year.
  • Day 10: both the sea and the rivers will be full of fish.
  • Day 11: health will be poor in the coming year and many people will die.
  • Day 12: men will not wish to fight and peace will spread over the earth.

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