12 Blogs of Christmas – 7 Swans a-swimming

On the Seventh Day of Christmas my true love gave to me, seven swans-a-swimming. Firstly, when considering the logistics of the various gifts given as detailed in the familiar song, ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’, I would suggest this is one of the more difficult presents to source; Lords will typically do anything for money, even leaping.

Now let’s address the issue of what the seven swans-a-swimming represent, if like many others, you believe the song contains coded ecclesiastical references.

Depending on who you listen to, the swans represent variously:

  • The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit namely wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety and wonder.
  • The seven sacraments; prophesy, serving, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership and mercy.
  • The mysterious movements of the seven planets observed at the time of the songs writing.

However, others have pointed to the fact that in medieval times it was a wonderful, useful gift. It offered lots of meat, feathers and down, ensuring almost all of the bird could be used, so the song may be just recognising the value of the gift.

Of course, despite our disgust at the idea of eating swans today as we would turkey, duck or chicken, in the past it was a very familiar sight in medieval kitchens, regularly served at banquets and not just for members of the Royal family.

Rights of ownership misleading

While I’m on the subject, the Queen does not own all swans in the UK, as is commonly believed.

The swan we all think of when we see the word swan, is the Mute swan, our only permanent species, but not the only swans seen regularly in the UK. Two migratory species visit in winter, Whooper and Bewick's swans, which are not covered by royal prerogative.

The Queen however retains the right to claim ownership of any unmarked Mute swan swimming in open waters in England and Wales, but this only really applies to stretches of the River Thames.

Regardless of the species though, it is illegal to kill or injure any swan in the UK, or indeed interfere with a nest or disturb the birds in any way; prosecutions are on the increase, but the resultant 7-year sentence of transportation to Australia if found guilty has ceased.

Ownership by wealthy landowners used to be indicated by marks carved into their beaks at an early age, thankfully a practice long-since discontinued.

The question of swimming

Having recently been described as contrary, my issue is not with the symbolism of the seven swans or indeed the difficulty of fulfilling the gift giving, but with the idea of them swimming.

Swimming is usually defined in dictionaries as ‘the sport or activity of propelling oneself through water using the limbs’, which would seem to fit the description of a swan, moving about gracefully in the surface of the water.

But is a swan really swimming? With so much of the body above the waterline and only really the large-webbed feet hanging below, can we really regard them as swans-a-swimming? Surely without the ability to swim below the surface, we should talk in terms of paddling.

There are waterfowl that swim effectively underwater, like Grebe, Coot and Mallard, but swans do not dive, having evolved long necks to help them reach food below the surface.

So, it is my contrary opinion that we should be singing, ‘Seven Swans-a-Paddling’, which may not have the alliterative qualities so beloved of song-writers, but is more accurate.

And in our world of marketing communications and public relations, we like a good story and we’re never afraid to actively alliterate, but accuracy is our watchword, whether it’s popular or not.

Check out our previous instalments to read our takes on the 12 gifts