An opportunity to set right one of the most common misconceptions about the ‘Twelve Days Of Christmas’ song today, as today – and almost without exception – the subject matter is deemed to be ‘four calling birds’. There have been a number of variants over the years – canary birds, coloured birds, curly birds, even coloured balls – all of which have been used at one time or another. However, going back to the original version, as is our stated purpose, we find that it is, in fact, ‘colley birds’ (as an aside, the use of ‘calling birds’ is nothing more than a 20th century affectation, first being recorded in 1907).


However, that leaves us with the vexing question of what exactly a colley bird might be ? Well, in simple terms, it’s a black bird – not specifically a blackbird as in the common thrush-sized garden visitor, but anything arrayed in predominantly black feathers, so any member of the crow family might just as easily have fallen under the remit. However, the use of the term for an actual blackbird has precedent in several old English songs and verses, from Somerset to Wiltshire to Yorkshire and Northumberland, so it may be as well to go with such a preponderance of evidence when it comes to the most common usage.


The word ‘colley’ in this context shares the same root as coal, colliery, charcoal and the like – all, of course, inferring a degree of carboniferous blackishness – and the word itself means ‘to blacken or begrime an object with coal dust’.


Now, mention of Northumberland brings our Fourth Day artefact in to sharp relief. It’s an engraved late Victorian tankard, bearing – amongst other things – the image of a blackbird, and the details of the original recipient – a Mr Thomas John Armstrong (1850-1927). This gentleman was resident in 14 Hawthorn Terrace, Elswick, in the centre of the city of Newcastle. The glass does not bear any indication behind the reason for it having been so engraved, but it is recorded that Armstrong – as well as being a respected and long-standing ‘Land Agent’ – was an associate member of the Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineering, as well as being a Freemason, and that may be reason enough for it to have been embellished with the miner’s bird. It should also be noted that, again in the north-east of England, Blackbird was an occasional given name for someone who worked as a coal miner, so the link between the bird and the trade was clearly well-established..


The tankard is also engraved with ears of barley – one of the standard ‘insignia’ for ale or beer, and one would like to think that Mr Armstrong put it to good use, enjoying a draught or two of well-malted brew from his personalised tankard – a most appropriate use for a very fine thing indeed…

As you’re here, why not take advantage of our Christmas Sale – select anything you want on the entire store, and use the code TWELVEDAYS in the shopping cart to get 12% off the marked price – the promotion runs until January 6th, so take your time and browse through the very many items we have listed.