Published: 18-03-2010, 04:16


The robin appears on CHRISTMAS CARDS, ORNAMENTS, and other Christmas decorations. No one seems to know, however, just how the bird became a CHRISTMAS SYMBOL. British and Irish folklore links the robin with the wren, another Christmas bird (see also Wren Hunt). Past folk beliefs assigned magical qualities and near sacred status to both birds.

British and Irish folklore often paired the robin and the wren. Some folk verses painted the two as sweethearts, in spite of the fact that they represent different species. These verses always cast the robin as male and the wren as female. The following lines describe their romance:

Cock robin got up early
At the break of day,
And went to Jenny’s window
To sing a roundelay.
He sang cock robin’s love
To little Jenny Wren,
And when he got unto the end,
Then he began again [Lawrence, 1997,38].

Traditional lore also paired robins and wrens according to their shared qualities. Several English and Irish folk verses express the following sentiment:

The robin and the wren
Are God Almighty’s cock and hen [Armstrong, 1970,168].

Perhaps the assumption that the birds were especially beloved by God gave rise to folk beliefs warning against harming robins or wrens. As the following folk verses teach, bad luck inevitably fol-lowed:

Cursed is the man
Who kills a robin or a wren.
Kill a robin or a wren Never prosper, boy or man.
The robin and the redbreast
The robin and the wren
If ye tak’ out of the nest
Ye’ll never thrive again [Lawrence, 1997,40].

According to various legends, one of these sacred birds once per-formed a heroic feat for humankind. Old tales from various parts of Europe lauded either the wren or the robin as the original fire-fetch-er, the creature who delivered the first flames to humankind. In addition, English folklore assigned supernatural abilities to the robin. A fairly widespread belief credited the robin with a foreknowledge of death and illness. According to these beliefs, a robin tapping on the window or flying in or about the house meant that death, disease, or some other misfortune would visit the family. Along similar lines, English folklore also claimed that both the robin and wren pitied the dead. According to this belief, the two birds often covered the lifeless bodies of whatever dead creatures they encountered in the woods with moss or leaves. These gestures of compassion supported their reputation as kindly, holy creatures.

Very little in the above account makes the robin a natural choice for a Christmas symbol. Nevertheless, in Victorian times the robin appeared frequently on Christmas cards as an emblem of the season (see also CHRISTMAS IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND). Perhaps the popularity of this image grew out of a general affection for this non-migratory bird, remembered especially at the time of year when nature presented the robin with its harshest conditions (see also CHRISTMAS SHEAF).
In addition, some connection can be drawn between the bird images printed on some nineteenth-century Christmas cards and elements of the folk beliefs explained above. For example, one illustration depicts a smartly dressed robin in top hat, jacket, and vest courting a wren in bonnet and shawl. Another shows a winter woodland scene in which a robin and wren drape moss and leaves over a doll (whose body resembles that of a dead child partially covered with snow). Other Victorian Christmas cards cast the robin as a symbol of the new year and the wren as a symbol of the old year.
Far more difficult to understand, however, is the popularity of Christmas cards depicting dead birds, especially robins, which peaked during the 1880s. Sentiments such as “Sweet messenger of calm decay,” and “Peace divine” accompanied these perplexing pictures. Nowadays most people would agree that neither the sentiments nor the images evoke the spirit of Christmas. The Victorian fondness for that which evoked tender emotions, especially pity, may explain the popularity of these kinds of cards.
Few people today associate the robin with death. Instead, the image of the robin at Christmas time probably triggers kindly thoughts about animals enduring the cold of winter or about the promise of spring to come.