We love the robin. This cheeky, cute little garden bird with its distinctive red breast and vivid song is a popular visitor to feeders and bird tables all round the UK – and it is one of the animals we most closely associate with Christmas too. But how well do we really know this much-loved creature? And why is it connected to the festive season anyway? Today, I’m going to attempt to find out more…
The European robin (Erithacus rubecula) is a common sight all year round and across the country, favouring hedgerows, gardens and parks in particular. They eat worms, seeds, insects, and fruit; frequently provided by us humans. They often nest quite close to us too – sometimes in unusual and unexpected places such as sheds, hanging baskets, discarded kettles or pots, and farm machinery – and have two broods of young a year, often more. The birds and their nests are protected by law.
Both the male and female adult robins have red breasts (young birds are a sort of spotty golden brown), and it is these red feathers that seem to trigger the highly territorial nature of this otherwise innocuous-looking small bird. Indeed, they will often aggressively defend their territory, and have been known to viciously attack other robins they perceive as a threat – and scientists have found that they will also go for small stuffed ‘toy’ robins or even clumps of red feathers!
Their attractive song is used to find a mate, although it is also part of their territorial display. Both the male and female sing, and have different songs for different times of the year, depending on the song’s purpose. During the summer time, territories will be held by mated pairs who defend it together, but by the time winter rolls round, each robin will be singing noisily to protect its own individual patch.
The seasonal changes in temperature that come with the onset of winter can be tough on the robin. They only live a couple of years anyway (although despite high levels of mortality, their numbers have actually increased significantly in the UK since the 1970s), and a severe, prolonged, snowy cold snap can be fatal – food is often scarce at this time of the year anyway, and this tiny bird can use up to 10% of its entire body weight keeping warm during just one cold night.
So, if the robin is generally not too keen on the cold winter snow, how on earth did it end up being associated with the stuff on millions of Christmas cards? This appears to be connected to the development of the postal service in the UK. From the late 18th century until well into the 19th, postmen working for the Royal Mail would wear a distinctive and rather smart red uniform coat – which soon gained them the nickname of ‘robin redbreasts’ from the general public.
By the 1840s, the cost of posting a letter or card had dropped to within the reach of most people, which meant the number of daily collections and deliveries increased dramatically (it was possible to send a letter and it be delivered to the recipient within hours of it being posted), and posties became a regular day-to-day sight on the streets of most towns and cities. Multiple Christmas-time deliveries by the red-breasted postmen must have cemented the connection to the robin in the popular imagination, and, as the 19th century progressed, the bird started to appear on seasonal greetings cards.
But there are also other stories that associate this brightly coloured bird with Christmas time. These are often religious in nature, and usually tell of how the robin got its red breast. An example of such a legend is the tale of the cheeky robin who flew into the cold stable in Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’s birth.
The story goes that on seeing Mary and her child, he flew in closer to take a look and noticed that their fire was going out. Fanning the embers with his wings, he got the flames going again – but the feathers on his breast had been burned off in the process. Noting his bravery, Mary blessed him, and his scorched feathers grew back bright red in recognition.
Robins are seen as connected with fire in other belief systems too. Some Native American legends depict it (probably in this case the American robin, which is a different bird altogether although still red-breasted) as either the guardian of or the thief of fire due to its red feathers.
In old British folk tales, to kill a robin was an immensely unlucky act which would bring the perpetrator nothing but sorrow, pain and heartache, and destroying its nest and/or eggs was even more of a doomed activity – this could lead to a death in the family, or the destruction of one’s house (very specifically) via fire or a lightning strike.
Lightning features again in Norse mythology, where the robin is seen as a storm-cloud bird, and, as such, is sacred to Thor, the god of thunder (although some sources list it as being associated instead with Odin, chief of the gods and father of Thor) because of its close and ancient association with fire.
And, unsurprisingly and rather appropriately for a nation obsessed with the subject (and, it seems, with robins!), there is also a weather connection in old British folklore, which held, in some parts of the country, that hearing a robin sing nearby meant stormy conditions were on the way. In Ireland, some believed that a robin entering your house indicated the start of snowy or frosty weather – and there’s that wintery association again.
But robins have also been associated with all kinds of other concepts at different times and in different cultures – including peace, charity and compassion (another connection to Christmas, perhaps?), both good and bad luck, and (in striking opposition to its energy and cheery appearance), death, too. Again, in some parts of Britain, it was believed that the robin was symbolic of an upcoming death. If one flew into your house or even tapped at your window, you were sure to be attending a funeral soon – possibly even your own!
Although we prefer to think of robins as singing melodiously in the garden or adorning cheerful snow-scene Christmas cards, it is interesting to note that so much of the various mythologies that surround this little bird deal with so many similar ideas, themes and associations – in particular, that of fire.
And fire – as a concept and in its essential reality – neatly brings us back to the association of the robin with winter, in particular back to the countless different midwinter festivals (not just Christmas) that celebrate light and warmth at the darkest time of the year; a time when the fire protects us all from the porous boundaries between this world and the next, from the cold that can kill, and from the wintery darkness that drags us all down.
In representing fire, the robin represents all of that too.
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You can find much more in the way of festive reading from me here.