One of the things I do around this time of year is dig out cards that were sent to me last Christmas and cut them up into labels for this year’s presents. So many cards are too beautiful to simply chuck into the recycling box, so I recycle them in my own way, and they look lovely adorning a gift with a bit of pretty ribbon.
What I noticed this time when I took the cards out is how many times a robin redbreast is a featured, whether it be front and centre or sitting discreetly in the background. The robin appeared on at least a third of the cards, so I began to wonder why and when this little bird became associated with Christmas.
One suggestion is that in Victorian Britain, postmen would wear red uniforms and were nicknamed ‘robins’ so the appearance of the bird was to represent these hard working individuals.
However, there is evidence to suggest the association with Christ goes back further than that. There is an ancient tale that has a robin approaching Jesus on the cross to pull a thorn from the crown to ease his pain and as it did so, a drop of blood fell on to his chest, turning it red. Another tale has baby Jesus lying in the manger while Mary is distracted chatting to the inn-keeper’s wife. Mary didn’t notice that the fire keeping her baby warm had begun to burn out of control, and so the robin bravely put himself between the manger and the flames, fluffing out his feathers to protect the child. In doing so, his breast was burned, turning it red for ever more.
In his column from 19th December 1981, Dad mentions that he found it odd that this bird became to be associated with Christmas when for centuries its appearance was believed to foretell a death. If a bird was spotted tapping at a window, it suggested that someone inside was going to die. If that bird was a robin, then the potency of the portent was even stronger. Similar beliefs had it that if one flew inside a church, it heralded the demise of one of the parishioners, or if a robin flew in to your house, then bad stuff was bound to happen. If it happened more than once, then the Grim Reaper was destined to pay a visit.
In fact, superstitions like these persisted well into the 20th century. Some people refused to buy Christmas cards with the bird on them and if they were in receipt of one from a well meaning friend, it would cause genuine consternation. Hull writer Alec Gill reported as late as 1993 that a woman he knew, when buying a box of assorted Christmas cards, would throw all those featuring robins into the bin. Does anyone today have that kind of fear?
At one time, it was thought that the robin was all brown (possibly being confused with a wren), and so tales like the ones I mentioned earlier developed to explain how the red breast was created. Another tells of it being scorched while trying to protect a wren from the wrath of the gods, and yet another that it was scorched while trying to extinguish the fires of hell by carrying drops of water in its beak.
From these beliefs grew the superstition that it was very unlucky to kill a robin, and if you deliberately caused one to die then you would be beset with very bad luck for the rest of your days.
It’s hard to reconcile these bleak superstitions with the cute little bird we see hopping about the garden all year round. They can be very tame, and Dad wrote about how one seemed to be following him as he cleared out a garden shed. They can be quite fearless and have a reputation for being fiercely territorial, actively challenging any rivals that dare to come near.
Interestingly, the robin’s breast is actually orange in colour, rather than red, but there was no word for ‘orange’ before the 16th century. Although the colour orange had existed since the 13th century, it was simply called ‘yellow-red’. It was only after the Portuguese brought the fruit into Britain in the late 15th century that the word ‘orange’ became to be associated with the colour.
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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 17th and the Gazette & Herald on 15th December 2021