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How the robin became an icon of Christmas

PUBLISHED: 14:51 16 December 2017

The robin's redbreast is a familiar sight in our gardens - and on our Christmas cards. Picture: Andy Hay/ RSPB

The robin's redbreast is a familiar sight in our gardens - and on our Christmas cards. Picture: Andy Hay/ RSPB

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Why do we associate robins with Christmas? Emily Kench of the RSPB explores a famous connection.

The robin is the poster-bird of Christmas. Red breasts, plumped feathers and snow saturate Christmas cards at this time of year. December is the robin’s time to shine. However, these tame little birds stay with us all year-round; they rarely move far from where they have hatched, and generally speaking, they don’t migrate. Why then, has this gardener’s friend become associated with Christmas?

No one has a definitive answer, but there are quite a few theories flying round. You could simply put the association down to the red colouration of the robin’s breast. Their own little Christmas jumper if you like. Robins just look festive, especially when perched upon a frosted holly branch.

This association with the colour red, though, runs far deeper. In prototype designs, some of the first-ever Christmas cards (did you know the RSPB was the first charity to sell Christmas cards since 1898?) illustrated a robin carrying an envelope in its bill.

In the late 1800s the arrival of Christmas cards from loved ones was hugely important to people. They were delivered by beloved Victorian postmen, dressed in bright red uniforms (a prominent colour in the British flag) which in time led to the adoption of the nickname ‘Robins’. ‘Robins’ were thought of affectionately. This is how artists came to illustrate Christmas cards with the delivery of a letter from an actual robin, instead of its namesake. The concept caught on, and the robin has remained an inseparable-symbol of Christmas ever-since.

An alternative tale has strong Christian roots; an underplayed character in a universal nativity scene. Whilst Mary gave birth in the stable, the simple source of heat and light – the fire - began to die down, but the robin – at the time a dowdy brown bird – fanned the flames with his wings. As he flew closer to the flames, in a heroic bid to keep the fire alight, a burning ember set his breast ablaze with a ruddy glow. Mary declared the red breast to be the sign of a kind heart and all robins since have been blessed with wearing a red breast.

The timings don’t quite add up though when you hear a different biblical story with a definite lack of Christmas. It is told that when Jesus lay nailed to the cross, a robin rested upon his shoulder singing sweet song, keeping Jesus company, relieving his pain. Blood trickled from Jesus’ crown of thorns, down to the little bird’s chest, staining it for ever-more.

However, the symbol of the robin pre-dates Christianity. Robins had a place in festive folklore and paganism, possibly because they keep singing while everything else is quiet, and they are easy to spot in the snow. These cheerful birds were adopted by midwinter festivals as a symbol of hope and luck.

Whether one, or a combination of legends have played their part, the robin is most certainly an affirmed Christmas character. If you’d like to purchase festive Christmas cards with robins aplenty, or robin-themed presents and tree decorations, visit rspb.org.uk/shop – your purchase will support the work of the RSPB and help us to give nature a home.

Why not look out for robins in your garden in the RSPB’s 39th Big Garden Birdwatch? Register now for your free Big Garden Birdwatch pack, which includes a bird identification chart, plus RSPB shop voucher and advice to help you attract wildlife to your garden, text BIRD to 70030 or visit www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch

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