In 2015, the Robin was named Britain’s national bird , scoring 34% of the vote and knocking the barn owl and blackbird into second and third place, with 12% and 11% respectively. The robin is, of course, the bird which we traditionally associate with Christmas. Its image is everywhere at this time of year, from cards and wrapping paper to tableware, cake decorations and jumpers. But how and why has this little bird become a Christmas icon?
The name ‘robin’ is derived from the old English word ‘rudduc’, meaning ‘little red one’. Due to its bright orange-red breast feathers, the robin is instantly recognisable, even to small children. It provides a splash of vivid, festive colour in the bleakness of winter.
Native robins live in Britain all year round, with very few migrating. Numbers actually increase in the winter months as robins from Scandinavia, northern Russia and other parts of northern Europe arrive for the season. So at Christmas time they can often be seen in gardens and parks. They have an endearing habit of coming close to watch you, even following your footsteps, and seeming quite tame. They appear friendly to us humans, but in fact they are far from friendly to each other: their seemingly cheerful tune is actually the sound which a male robin makes to mark its territory – robins are aggressive, and can fight to the death to defend it. The robin’s brightly-coloured breast, ostensibly so pretty and Christmassy, is really another form of territorial defence. Yet despite its belligerence, the robin’s popularity as the nation’s favourite bird seems assured.
Why do we so often see Robins on Christmas cards? The most well-known theory is that it’s because in Victorian times, when the tradition of sending Christmas cards became very popular, postmen wore red coats and were thus nicknamed ‘robins’. Victorian Christmas cards were often illustrated with pictures of the postmen who delivered them; from the 1880s, the figure of the postman gradually started to be replaced by the image of the bird.
The robin has long had folklore connections with Christmas. There’s an ancient fable which tells of the presence of one at the birth of Jesus. A fire was lit in the stable to warm the new baby. When the fire started to blaze, the robin – then an all-brown bird – placed itself between the fire and the baby to prevent the baby from being burned (or depending on which version of the fable you read, the robin fanned the flames with its wings to keep the fire alight when it was about to go out, or brought twigs in its beak to add to the fire). Being so close to the fire, the robin’s breast feathers were scorched by embers. The red mark created by the scorch was then passed down generations of robins as a symbol of the bird’s kindness and bravery.
So, consider the significance of the robin, the nation’s favourite bird, on the next Christmas card you receive or send – and, in this wintry weather, don’t forget to put out food and water for them! If you’d like to know more about robins, the Woodland Trust can help.