Open Country by Erica Hume Niven

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The seven whooper swans that arrived at Loch o’ the Lowes during the third week of December, while I was away, have been joined by a mute swan and her two signets.

I took my father down to the willow wood, to the shore, where a break in the trees creates a doorway to the reed bed corner.

These birds are so serene. Even in the wind that blows hard from the west, they have a certain amount of dignity as they hold their long necks up against it. As the whooper swans are winter visitors, it is not surprising that the sight of them evokes Christmas symbolism.

In the Middle Ages swans and peacocks were served “endored” – meaning they were skinned with their feathers intact, then roasted and dyed with saffron mixed with butter, and finally they were served in the skin and feathers that had been removed earlier.

In 1482 an Act of Parliament stated that all swans were in the ownership of the landowner and must be marked to show which estate they belonged to. If a swan went missing the owner had a year and a day to find it. All unmarked swans were the property of the Crown.

Thankfully, the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act made it illegal to kill swans; although, surprisingly, roast swan was still found on royal banquets up until the 19th century. The people of the Orkney Islands own their swans, but they are also limited to watching them.

I enjoyed the coincidence of the seven swans a-swimming – when only seven had arrived. So I decided to research the symbolism of the swans and why they should be included in the lover’s gifts in The Twelve Days of Christmas.

In Hindu, Celtic and Greek myths swans are associated with love, their union being long lasting. Just for this reason the pertinence of their inclusion in the song is clear. However, a common perception of the meaning of the song has been argued as referring to the catechisms of the Catholic Church.

More precisely the song is alleged to have been written by persecuted Catholics in Elizabethan times when the consolidation of the Church of England banned Catholic worship. The argument for this is that the numbers refer to, for example, the Holy Trinity, the five books of the Pentateuch, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed.

The argument falls down when the gulf is noted between the symbols of the song and the catechism they are said to refer to. Would these help a child remember the facets of Catholicism? The list of religious meanings cannot only vary, for example, the three gifts of the Maji or the three Theological Virtues, but overlaps with Anglican instruction.

Most notably the fundamental differences between a Catholic and Anglican, that of allegiance to the Pope and the practice of confession, are not included. There is a song that refers explicitly to religious tenets – In Those Twelve Days (The New Dial). This song also assigns a meaning to each of the 12 days of Christmas. In this instance the meanings are obvious.

“What are they that are but one? We have one God alone? In heaven above sits on His throne ... What are they which are but 12? Twelve are attending on God’s son; Twelve make our creed. The Dial’s done.”

Both songs rely on repetition of phrase and meter so that the singers may remember them more easily. If The Twelve Days of Christmas is just a secular song that brings images of gifts and merriment, then it most likely was written as a song to repeat each verse again and again while trying to remember the different gifts.

Secular or religious the animals, especially the swans, create their own special spirituality and symbolism. Even the five gold rings may be written as five golden rings which is said to mean pheasants. The real seven swans a-swimming can wash away the darkest thoughts with their gentle movements and strange whooping calls.