Swallows, springtime, and “Carol of the Bells”

by Brendan Keegan, Gardener
April 12, 2019

Swallows, springtime, and “Carol of the Bells”

Tree Swallow. Photograph by Bob Mayer.

Tree Swallow. Photograph by Bob Mayer.

Visitors on the grounds may have noticed small numbers of migrant male tree swallows, recently returned from Central America, circling above the Arboretum landscape. Watching them gracefully swoop above the meadows, it is easy to understand why swallow species as a whole are beloved signs of the spring around the world. Ukrainians, for example, celebrate the return of migrating barn and red-rumped swallows in folk songs.

In the ancient Ukrainian chant “Shchedryk” (meaning “generous one”), a migrating swallow returns to a homestead in early spring. The swallow lands in the cottage window and tells the farmer of the good fortune that the growing season will bring: newborn lambs, grain in the field, a beautiful wife, and coming wealth. Early Slavic people in Ukraine recited a version of this chant to wish each happiness and wealth on New Years Eve, which Ukraine’s pre-Christian cultures celebrated in early April. For them, the return of spring was a holy event, the rebirth of earthly life after the cold, dark winter. Even today, signs of spring, such as flowing sap in silver birch, buds on pussy willows, and the return of swallows, remain strongly symbolic in Ukrainian culture.

A pair of tree swallows. The female (right) has survived her first spring migration–her plumage will be identical to the male ‘s next year.

The modern Ukrainian arrangement of “Shchedryk” (see below) should sound familiar to listeners in the United States. Arranged by Mykola Leontovych in 1916, this tune was traditionally sung on January 13, the eve of the Julian New Year, in adherence to the Orthodox Christian calendar. However, after hearing a Ukrainian folk choir perform “Shchedryk” as a choral round, American composer Peter Wilhousky was inspired to write English lyrics, which he published in 1936. In doing so, he turned the ancient springtime, new years chant into the widely popular Christmas carol, “Carol of the Bells.”


A tree swallow perches on the nest box in the background.

Oblivious to the influence of their Ukrainian kin on U.S. holiday music, our tree swallows continue to dip and soar through the landscape, their numbers increasing daily. In addition, a new Arboretum nest monitoring group will collect data on those that raise young in our nest boxes to contribute to NestWatch, a citizen science program run by Cornell University. In any case, whether you are in Boston or Kiev, expect to see more of these gorgeous symbols of seasonal transition arcing through the sky. When you do, recall the generous message of “Shchedryk” and listen close. You may even hear a swallow sing, “spring has returned—happy new year!”


One thought on “Swallows, springtime, and “Carol of the Bells”

  1. Hello Brendan ~~ Great article on the tree swallow & how it affected the Ukrainian culture!Interesting to note, behind the West Roxbury Court House in JP is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
    Hopefully, a pair of bluebirds will nest in the AA this season although the male should have returned by now. Also, house wrens will soon follow & perhaps crested flycatchers will return.
    Dan Vara, abutter to the AA @ the Carriage House

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