So today we come to the five gold rings in the twelve days of Christmas — you know, the place in the song where everyone turns into bathroom baritones (or the female equivalent), holding forth with the long notes in the “five go-old riiiiiiiiiiiiings” line!
And here we meet head-on the pietistic rhetoric about the song having hidden meanings—the five gold rings stand for the five Books of Moses, just as the two turtledoves signify the two testaments of the Bible, the three colly-birds point to the three persons of the Trinity, the ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments, and the twelve drummers drumming symbolise the twelve points of The Apostles’ Creed. Pietistic tosh, clearly debunked by snopes.com!
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But beware: another danger lurks here! Recently, no less a venerable and reliable source than the UK Mirror (!!) has quoted a Canadian astrophysicist, Dr Anna Hughes, who tweeted that “’five gooolden riings’ is not in fact referring to 5 literal golden rings, but to five ring-necked pheasants, aka more birds”. Perhaps she felt that commenting on popular christmassy songs would bring her more fame and renown than her PhD is astrophysics and her research in quantum computing? (Thanks to my friend James Ellis for bringing this *learned* article to my attention 😁)
Sadly for the Mirror, and Dr Hughes, this theory is not new. In a 1951 article, Ben Shahn had suggested that “the five golden rings refer to the ringed pheasant”. A decade later (1962) William and Ceil Baring-Gould published a book in which they reiterate this idea, which implies that the gifts for first seven days are all birds. The Mirror, and Dr Hughes, are rather late to the party!!
According to Dr Wikipedia, “Others suggest the gold rings refer to “five goldspinks”—a goldspink being an old name for a goldfinch; or even canaries. In his blog entitled “The Illustrated Etymologicon”, journalist and author Mark Forsyth suggests “the rings could be ring-bills, ring-birds, ring-blackbirds, ring-buntings, ring-dotterels, ring-pigeons, ring-plovers, ring-sparrows or ring-thrushes. There’s a veritable aviary of birds that could be called rings and that, given the feathered context, is what the song is about.” So why pheasants?
However, the original 1780 publication of the song included an illustration that clearly depicts the “five gold rings” as being jewellery.
Further light is shed on the gold rings by Dr Pamela Patton, an art historian who has specialised in medieval Spanish art and currently teaches at Princeton University. Dr Patton writes, “the familiar version of the carol that emerged in 1909, when Frederic Austin published his arrangement. And the “five gold rings” part that’s so fun to belt out? It was Austin who composed those two famous bars and added them to his arrangement of the traditional melody, which was copyrighted by the publisher!”
On a roll, she continues, “It was also Austin who added the word “On” to the beginning of each verse. Interestingly, for the twelfth day, Austin doubled down on the melisma, so the final verse calls for the word “gold” to be sung with a flourish of four notes rather than the two usually sung today.”
The publication she refers to is Frederic Austin, arr., The Twelve Days of Christmas (Traditional Song) (London: Novello, 1909). She records all of this on her blog site, “The Index of Medieval Art”. (The arrangement by Austin is not medieval, and the song itself falls just beyond her area of expertise, having first been published in the 18th century, but her blog post contains a fine exposition about a number of gold rings from antiquity in various museum collections.)
So the combination of the artwork and the musical arrangement would point to the five go-old rings being just that—not a gift of yet more birds, but rather an expensive jewellery gift from the true love in the song!