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Outdoors: Ukraine, swallows and 'Carol of the Bells'


Originally, the "Carol of the Bells" was sung not at Christmas, but rather around Epiphany in Ukraine.

The melody we now sing was a protest song, written back in 1916 when Ukraine was seeking independence from Russia.

But the Ukrainian lyrics date way back to pagan times when the darkness of winter was frightening.

Back then, the new year was celebrated in April, and according to the ancient chant, a little swallow - the harbinger of spring - would appear at a window and tell the people that the sun would return and spring would come.

Lambs would be born, the harvest would be bountiful, money would be plentiful and their wives would be beautiful.

Even after the Julian calendar was adopted and New Year’s Day was moved to Jan. 1, Ukrainians celebrated New Year’s Eve on Jan. 13, and that night, young girls sang a version of this Epiphany carol for luck.

Even in ancient times, people believed that the sun would come back and that the swallows would return.

In Europe, swallows, which spend the winter in Africa, predictably return in the spring, just as our American swallows arrive at Capistrano and for that matter, at Interlochen, at just about the same time every year.

At their wintering grounds in Central and South America, photoperiod - the hours of daylight - increases after the solstice, and by March, sunlight entering a swallow’s eyes sends a signal to the brain to stimulate the production of reproductive hormones.

These hormones trigger migration.

Birds are genetically programmed to arrive at their breeding areas at just the time that insects are most plentiful.

I can’t help but wonder if climate change will alter the arrival time of swallows and other insect-eating birds.

But for now, we know that when the swallows return, spring has come, and we shall have green fields and the bounty of nature.

And I sincerely hope that by the time the swallows return to Ukraine, they again will experience the promise of plenty and a bountiful year ahead.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.