Just in time for the holidays, we’ve scoured our collections to find you some appropriate imagery to go along with that beloved carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas”. This post was written and compiled by Mario Rups, cataloger in our Resource Description unit. We hope you enjoy the delightful selection!
A Partridge and Pears
In this case, the Bambusicola fytchii, or Mountain Bamboo Partridge. The species name is in honour of Albert Fytche, Chief Commissioner of the British Crown Colony of Burma (1867-1871). The range of this bamboo-eating bird includes Burma, as well as India, Tibet, and much of continental Southeast Asia. Our image comes from John Anderson’s Anatomical and zoological researches . . . (London, B. Quaritch, 1878), available in its entirety on the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
And let’s not forget the pears! Wonderful, luscious, juicy. So good eaten fresh, poached, or baked into a tart. But let’s think outside the box for a moment. Have you ever had them in a grilled cheese sandwich, with bacon and a little fig jam? Or how about as an appetizer, sliced in wedges, with a leaf of arugula and a sprinkling of crumbled bleu cheese, wrapped in a bit of prosciutto? You can explore more delectable fruit in our Seed and Nursery Catalog Collection. This particular image comes from the back cover of Green’s Nursery Co. catalogue, Spring 1899.
The turtle dove in the carol was most probably the European turtle dove. Because this bird forms a strong bond with its mate, it is often considered symbolic of true love, making a pair of them a fitting gift in the song. Our example comes from A natural history of British birds &c. with their portraits, accurately drawn, and beautifully coloured from nature (London: Printed for S. Hooper, 1775), in the Smithsonian Libraries’ Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. You can read or download this book via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Or, specifically, the image of a hen from a French book on birds. I don’t think we know if the carol has a particular breed of chicken in mind, frankly. For that matter, “hen” can mean the female of any game bird. An early 19th century Scots version of the lyrics has three plovers, instead.
If you are interested in ornithological illustration in general, the introduction by Leslie K. Overstreet (rare book curator at our Cullman Library) and Kathryn E. Zaharek to our digital library version of François Nicolas Martinet’s Ornithologie is well worth reading. The book (without the added introduction) can also be both read and downloaded via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Calling Birds (or Colly Birds)
Ooops. This one presented some difficulty. An image of a songbird might have worked, but one doesn’t normally consider singing to be the same as calling. Instead, then, we present this crow. Crows are tremendously smart birds, and playful, too. (There are videos showing a crow sledding on a plastic lid down a sloped, snowy roof, flying back up, and doing it again.) But how do crows fit the lyrics? Simple. A slight revision. Come sing with me now: “Four cawing birds …” This illustration, like the previous one, comes from Martinet’s Ornithologie.
Here’s where, until one of our trade catalogs with jewelry is digitized, we have to get a bit creative. Sticking with an all-bird theme, then, we present: the Formosan ring-necked pheasant. Did you know pheasants originally came from Asia? They were introduced into Europe as early as the Roman Empire, and into North America in 1881; they are now also found in parts of South America, in South Africa, and in New Zealand and Australia. These lovely examples come from William Beebe’s A monograph of the pheasants (London, England: Published under the auspices of the New York Zoological Society by Witherby & Co., 1918-1922), in the Smithsonian Libraries, Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. The Biodiversity Heritage Library has all four volumes available for reading and downloading.
Geese, of course, play their role in popular culture. There’s the nursery rhyme, “Goosey goosey gander …”, for example, and the goose that laid the golden eggs in “Jack and the Beanstalk”. Back in 1906 and 1907, Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf wrote two children’s books, still popular in Europe, about Nils Holgersson, a mean and lazy farm boy who is shrunk very small by a magic curse and ends up riding on the back of a runaway domestic goose, joining a group of wild geese on their migration.
Our trio of geese here come from Johann Andreas Naumann’s Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas (Gera-Untermhaus: F.E. Köhler, 1897-1905) in the Smithsonian Libraries’ Birds branch library
Swans are beautiful creatures with often rather nasty tempers (trust me, do *not* anger a swan!), but like geese, they also form a large part of our culture: H.C. Anderson’s “Ugly Duckling”; the Greek myth of Leda and the swan; Hindu goddess Saraswati riding on a swan; Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole”; Lohengrin and his swan-drawn boat; Camille Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” in his “Carnival of the Animals” … The list goes on.
Like their relatives the geese, these examples are from Johann Andreas Naumann’s Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas .
We earnestly searched among the colorful digitized images from our collection for eight maids a-milking — alas, in vain. We hope you will accept this quiet pastoral scene of milk cows, instead. After all, they’re the ones who provide you the milk and cream for your Christmas eggnog. And, after the receipt of a total of 12 partridges (and 12 pear trees), 22 turtle doves, 30 French hens, 36 calling birds, 40 gold rings, 42 geese, 42 swans, 40 milkmaids, 36 dancing women, 30 leaping lords, 22 pipers, all marching along to the beat of 12 drummers, you might want to rest up with a glass or two of eggnog as you ponder what you’re going to do with all of them.
Ah, the nine ladies dancing! Well, two, at any rate, but their energy dancing the can-can makes up for the lack in numbers. This is from Peter Seymour’s pop-up about the “naughty nineties”, i.e. the 1890s, when a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Pulling the tab seen on the right-hand side of the page causes the ladies’ skirts to flip back and their right legs to kick up with wild abandon. (I suspect this may remind some of you of certain Christmas parties–?) Fa la la la la, and oo la la!
On the tenth day of Christmas, the postal service delivers ten lords a-leaping. What leaps to mind for this line? Frogs, of course, and I daresay you have never before seen a more lordly frog than this one! The charming scene is from an illustrated edition of the folksong “A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go”. The frog, and his companion the rat, have paused along the way to visit Mrs Mouse. Shortly thereafter, a cat and her kittens come tumbling in — but let’s draw the curtains on the stage at this point, shall we?
Illustration from H. L. A. Stephens’ A frog he would a wooing go. (New York: Hurd & Houghton, c1864), in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum rare book collection.
Some of you are now staring at this image and thinking someone at the Smithsonian Libraries has gone stark, raving mad. How on earth does this picture of stretched-out sea horses illustrate “Eleven pipers piping”?! Meet the pipefish, a relative of the seahorse and the seadragon. They’re called pipefish because of the pipe-like snout with its tiny, toothless mouth. Generally weak swimmers, they go into energetic courtship dances; as with seahorses, it’s the pipefish male that broods the eggs.
These fellas are from Marcus Elieser Bloch’s Ökonomische Naturgeschichte der Fische Deutschlands (Berlin: Auf Kosten des Verfassers, und in Commission in der Buchhandlung der Realschule (1783-1785), available in it’s entirety from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
We end our variation of the 12 days with this splendid ruffed grouse — sometimes known as “drummer grouse” because of the loud, drum-like sound the male makes with its wings when he is courting. The Cabinet of natural history and American rural sports, with illustrations, v. 1, 1830 (Philadelphia: J.& T. Doughty), in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Library rare book collection.
We hope you enjoy your holidays and whatever gifts they bring!