14. Seven swans a-swimming
Swans have long been associated with both Christmas and royalty, having been served at royal banquets for hundred of years.
There’s a popular myth that the Queen owns all the swans in Britain and that only she is allowed to eat them. However, other landowners have been able to possess swans since the 15th Century, but only those of a certain income as ordained by the crown. This made swans a valuable commodity, with privately owned birds being given unique marks etched into the beak.
Unmarked swans were automatically property of the crown, and the cost of swan marks meant ordinary people couldn’t possibly own one. Only marked swans could be eaten, and though swan for Christmas dinner fell out of fashion in the 1700s, that law that remained in place until 1998.
These days unmarked swans are protected as wild birds, so it is still illegal to keep or kill them. Today there are only two companies which still exercise their right to swans, granted to them in the 15th century or earlier – Vintners’ Company and the Dyers’ Company in London, who now mark their swans with leg rings, rather than etches to the beak. And though the crown still technically owns all unmarked swans, that right is only enforced along one stretch of the Thames. Every year, a count of swans along a stretch of the Thames is conducted, with birds being divided between the crown, Vintners and Dyers – a centuries-old tradition known as ‘swan upping’.