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Fun learning what’s behind Christmas carols

This year I’ve had the words of a few traditional Christmas carols brought to my attention.

“Now, bring us some figgy pudding, and bring it out here,” followed by the insistence that the carolers won’t leave until they get some, is a phrase I’ve taken a closer look at recently.

Someone asked me if I knew that figgy pudding takes about a week to make. I hadn’t known that — and when I looked it up I learned that traditionally it took even longer. According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, traditional recipes took at least a month to develop the flavors.

I learned some other things about figgy pudding. This is not an American-style pudding — but rather a British, steamed cake-style pudding, and figs are not the typical ingredients.

It dates back centuries, and the original recipes were meat-based. By the reign of Elizabeth I, prunes and other dried fruits were popular, and took over the pudding scene.

Charles Dickens in the 19th century wrote about figgy, or Christmas, puddings.

The carol, which carries the threat of long-staying house guests unless this historical treat is produced, is thought to date back to the 16th or 17th century; the version we commonly sing was copyrighted in 1939 by composer Arthur Warrell.

Another carol I enjoyed learning about recently is the 12 Days of Christmas. This season, social media fills up with memes about how many birds the singer gave their true love. For the first time this year I saw some noting that there are even more birds than appears at first glance. In fact, all the gifts are birds.

I found speculation on many blogs about all the birds in this song. Some suggest this song may have a lot of symbolism tied in with each gift — much to do with nature, fertility, renewal and other themes popular in songs dating back to pagan times.

Suggestions vary on which gifts are which. The first four days explicitly gift birds, although I found it interesting that four “calling birds” was actually most likely “colly” birds, which would have meant a black bird. Five golden rings could be ringed pheasants. Six and seven are also birds, and then we get into a little more interpretation and guessing.

Eight maids a milking could be magpies, which have a milky white patch on their breast. One writer and researcher suggested that eight magpies had a specific meaning as well, involving starting fresh and leaving the old behind — noteworthy because the eighth day of Christmas falls on New Year’s Day.

Alternatively, the maids a milking could be cattle egrets.

Ladies dancing may refer to lapwings, which wheel and swoop in courtship displays. Lords a leaping could be cuckoos, who lay their eggs in nests of other birds. Sandpipers are not a far stretch for pipers piping. Drummers drumming could be snipes or ruffed grouse.

Historically variations named different gifts or the same but on different days or with the mother gifting to her daughter.

We probably can’t definitively decipher the meaning behind this memory game-style song. I like the bird theory, which lines up with many seasonal Lithuanian folk songs I’m familiar with, which celebrate nature and animals.

This is an old folk song, and most likely different singers throughout the centuries had different meanings for the gifts.

While many joke on-line about how all these birds would be a bad gift, I like the fanciful idea of receiving so many birds for Christmas.

I could enjoy them all while waiting for my figgy pudding to be ready.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email