Dec 24 2010
The Twelve Days of Christmas repeats the refrain “A partridge in a pear tree.” What species are they talking about?
The song comes from England, so shouldn’t the bird? Unfortunately it’s more complicated than that. The words were published in England in 1780 but they are older and probably French. So the partridge could be either French or English.
Here’s a partridge that’s both: The red-legged partridge is originally from France but was introduced in England in the 1770’s.
Now about the pear tree…
The gifts in the Twelve Days of Christmas are fantastic and extravagant. (Imagine receiving eight maids-a-milking!) “A partridge in a pear tree” is fantastic too because partridges are terrestrial birds who rarely perch above the ground. But of all the partridges in England the red-legged partridge is the most likely to do it.
Despite this convincing argument musicologists say the pear tree might be an English mangling of the French word for partridge — perdrix. In French the ending consonant is often silent. Say perdrix three times fast and it begins to sound like “pear tree.”
Are you the partridge in the perdrix?
(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)