Be Your Own Birder

The Seventh Day of Christmas

Seven is a lucky number in many cultures, and it can be especially lucky for birders, holiday carols, and fun feathered gifts.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…
…Seven swans a-swimming.

Seven Trumpeter Swans A-Swimming - Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren
Seven Trumpeter Swans A-Swimming – Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

Lucky Number 7

The number 7 is considered a lucky number in many ways, often thought to represent perfection and harmony. The number has great cultural significance, and is present in more ways than we often realize – seven days in a week, seven colors in a rainbow, seven continents on our planet, seven wonders of the world. There are seven vertebrae in our necks, seven is a prime number, and seven stars make up the Big Dipper.

But what does seven have to do with swans, and which swan species is the intended gift for the lucky recipient?

Which Swan?

Ironically, coincidentally, or just plain amazingly, there are seven swan species in the world.

  • Black Swan
  • Black-Necked Swan
  • Coscoroba Swan
  • Mute Swan
  • Trumpeter Swan
  • Tundra Swan
  • Whooper Swan
Black-Necked Swan - Photo by Mike Beaumont
Black-Necked Swan – Photo by Mike Beaumont

The carol’s lyrics don’t tell us exactly which swan is meant to be the gift, but given the the carol is European in origin, the birds’ ranges can be useful to puzzle out which swan would have been available for gift-giving. The coscoroba and black-necked swans are native only to South America, and wouldn’t have been imported or familiar at all in Europe at the time of the carol. Likewise, the black swan is an Australian native, and also would not have been available as a holiday gift. The trumpeter swan is only found in North America, again making it unavailable for seasonal sharing.

This leaves the tundra swan, mute swan, and whooper swan, all of which can be found throughout Europe. Of those three, only the mute swan (Cygnus olor) is a resident in much of Europe year-round, rather than a seasonal guest. At the time of the carol’s introduction, mute swans were already partially domesticated and part of private collections in Europe, making them easier to import, sell, or trade during the holidays.

Mute Swan - Photo by ianpreston
Mute Swan – Photo by ianpreston

What Swimming Tells Us

The fact that these swans are simply swimming – not laying eggs (as a gift of food), not classically domesticated poultry raised for food (as hens would be), and not used for practical purposes (as “colly” birds would be for coal miners) – tells us this is a pure gift of luxury. To have swimming swans in one’s private pond is a symbol of elegance, refinement, and wealth, and what’s more, having seven of these beauties conveys even stronger emphasis on bounty and prosperity. This unequivocally demonstrates that the true love spoken of in the song – the one giving these gifts – is wealthy and well able to provide for a partner.

Swans as True Love

One last bit of symbolism is associated with swans as they relate to this holiday carol. Swans are often associated with romantic gestures, just as two turtle doves can be, adding another layer of symbolism and connection to the song. Yet while swans are typically monogamous and do mate for life, they can “divorce” if a pair is unable to produce healthy, viable offspring, or if a stronger, more attractive mate appears. But perhaps with seven swans, the gift and the sentiment are a bit more secure!

Christmas Swan Topiaries - Photo by Jared
Christmas Swan Topiaries – Photo by Jared

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