On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a killdeer in a pond apple tree? Well you weren't expecting a partridge in a pear tree, were you? This is South Florida, and we really don't have partridges or pear trees.
But why a killdeer instead, and why a pond apple tree? It all goes back to why The 12 Days of Christmas was written in the first place.
According to one theory, the song originated as a kind of code to help English kids learn Catholic catechism at a time in England when it was a dangerous thing to be Catholic. Get caught and you could lose your head, so stealth was paramount. The number in each verse represents a fundamental part of the Bible, the items somewhat random. The two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments, the three French hens, faith, hope and charity, the four calling birds, the four gospels, all the way down to the 12 drummers drumming, which are the 12 apostles of Christ. The "true love" in the song is God.
That brings us back to the first verse, the partridge in a pear tree. The partridge is said to represent Christ. Why a partridge? A European partridge will feign injury when a predator threatens its nest in hopes of drawing the attention of the would-be attacker to himself and away from his offspring. In other words, the partridge is willing to sacrifice himself to protect his children the way Christ was willing to sacrifice himself for us.
We really don’t have partridges nesting here in South Florida, but we do have the killdeer, a small bird that nests on the ground and also engages in the fake injury routine when its offspring are threatened. The idea is that the predator will be fooled into seeing the "wounded" killdeer parent as an easy meal and chase after it and hopefully forget about the nest. The only problem with the killdeer is that we've never seen one in any kind of tree. But we've never seen a partridge, either.
As for the pear tree, it seems to be along for the ride, with no particular symbolic meaning in the song. So as its replacement, we’ll pick the pond apple tree, which is common here in South Florida and the fruit vaguely looks pear-like. Pondapple trees are also incredibly important in the natural scheme of things, providing both food and shelter for many animals.
Our second choice for the song: a wild turkey in a cabbage palm tree. Why? Turkeys are members of the same taxonomic family as partridges and Florida has its very own turkey subspecies, the Osceola. It’s hard to imagine a turkey sitting in any tree (we have seen it), let alone a cabbage palm, but cabbage palms are Florida’s state tree. So there's that ...
For the record, we grew up thinking The 12 Days to be entirely secular, which isn’t surprising since the religious code theory didn’t surface until the 1990s. That's also one reason why some doubt its veracity.
And there are several other problems with the theory, including the strong possibility that the song originated in France, not England, and that a Christmas song wouldn’t be all that useful in helping kids learn catechism — it would be weird if you sang in it July — and that the symbolism itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But for the moment, we’ll accept the theory as Gospel, pardon the pun.
A killdeer in a pond apple tree indeed.