How the Robin became part of Christmas

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Waiting for titbits

The robin was voted Britain’s national bird in a 1960 poll, and that popularity hasn’t diminished over the years. Stephen Moss in his 2017 book The Robin – a Biography suggests that although it evolved as a woodland bird (and remains so on mainland Europe) in this country robins prefer to live in gardens where they can feed, breed and roost.

They don’t usually migrate to somewhere warmer, and they are one of the few birds that can be heard singing in winter. The (to our ears) cheerful sound is actually an aggressive claim to territory by a male robin.  Cold weather also means robins have to plump up their feathers to trap a layer of warm air beneath, which makes them look portly and even more endearing than normal. And because they spend so much time in gardens they become accustomed to humans and relatively tame.

Our last house in Manchester where we lived for nearly twenty years had a large garden which needed some degree of attention all the year round. I wasn’t exactly a keen gardener dashing out at every opportunity, but there was something relaxing about ‘tidying up’ at the end of the autumn as it was getting colder – clearing the remaining leaves off the lawn and beds, dead-heading perennials and splitting them up where necessary. And invariably I had a robin as a companion perching nearby – often on my garden fork – keeping a close eye on what I was doing and checking for any titbits being dislodged by my scraping and digging when it would swoop down and retrieve what it had spotted – usually a worm. Then flying back to its perch its head would be cocked on one side as if listening to my voice. Was I talking to myself or the robin? Who knows.

Their particular association with Christmas probably began around the time the Penny Post was introduced. Until 1840, letters were paid for by the recipients, not the senders, and they were charged by the mile. The Penny Post moved the cost to the sender, and brought in a flat charge of one penny, a tenth or less than earlier prices. Just three years later, Henry Cole, eminent civil servant, inventor and a prime mover in the new postal system, had a thousand cards printed showing a family Christmas dinner (above). But at one shilling each, there was no great demand although the enthusiasm of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for the practice of sending cards (even encouraging their children to make their own) did help.

Gradually though the sending of cards gained popularity, as printing technology improved leading to a drop in prices, and the introduction of a halfpenny postage rate. Eventually the Royal Mail postmen on their rounds wearing their bright red coats became a familiar sight (pictured below left). They were nicknamed ‘robins’ or ‘redbreasts’ and the nickname stuck even after 1861 when they started wearing dark blue coats, with red collars and cuffs, and red piping on their trousers.

At some point whimsical artists began to draw robins in the role of postmen delivering cards (below right).

“Oh, but it’s mortal wet,” said the shivering postman as he handed in that and the vicar’s newspaper. The vicar was a man of the world and took the Jupiter.

“Come in, Robin postman, and warm theeself awhile,” said Jemima the cook, pushing a stool a little to one side, but still well in front of the big kitchen fire.

The above quote is from Anthony Trollope’s 1860 novel Framley Parsonage. In 1854 Trollope – working for the Post Office – recommended the introduction of the pillar box. At that time, they were painted a rather unfestive sage green and weren’t painted red until 1874 when (usually topped with snow) they increasingly featured on Christmas cards as a perch for a singing robin (example below).

The legend most often quoted about how the bird got its distinctive red breast (which is shared by both male and female adult robins) tells that a robin pulled a thorn from the crown of Christ whilst he was on the cross and that it was Christ’s blood that stained the bird’s feathers. As legends go, it’s not very Christmassy.

There’s another – lesser known – tale which takes place in the Bethlehem stable. The baby Jesus was asleep in his manger and the fire keeping him warm suddenly blazed up very strongly. A passing robin, seeing that Mary had been distracted by the inn-keeper’s wife, flew down close to the fire and fluffed out its feathers to protect the baby’s face. This resulted in its breast being scorched by the fire. The redness caused was then passed onto future generations of robins. Before you all start commenting furiously on the unlikelihood of these events, I’d remind you that I did say it was a fable. (There’s probably a similar tale told in Lapland explaining how Rudolf got his shiny red nose!)

In recent years we’ve had a bird feeder holding a fat ball hanging near our kitchen window. It’s designed to attract blue tits and great tits who can hang on to the narrow perch and peck out chunks of food. And then along came a robin. At first he used to just sit underneath the feeder and scavenge bits of food the tits had dropped. Then for a while he tried flying up to the feeder to see if he could grab anything before needed to go back down again.

And then – not long after that – he learned how to balance on the perch and peck greedily into his all-you-can-eat breakfast. Clever birds, robins. God bless ’em everyone.

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