COLUMN: How did the robin become such a festive favourite?

Iconic robin: Photo by Ray Kennedy.
Iconic robin: Photo by Ray Kennedy.

This week’s column comes from Chris Andrews, from the RSPB ...

When it is December, you can hardly move without seeing one particular bird - the robin.

Adorning Christmas cards, wrapping paper, tree decorations and on posters, the robin really is the bird of the season. But how did it get to be so?

Well, it seems to be a combination of things.

In pagan Britain it was the symbol of the winter solstice. You see, most birds go quiet in the winter. Singing is a territorial display, designed to keep others away from their nest sites. But with no breeding going on, why sing? Well, the robin is rather more single-minded and will try to hang onto its territory all year round. Hence, even in the bleak midwinter, it will still be singing. This was seen as a symbol of life showing forth, even when everything seems so desolate.

But the robin really got cemented into the national consciousness as the symbol of Christmas in the Victoria era. This was the time when the practice of sending cards to loved ones was taking off. If you wanted to impress, you showed off your artistic side by making your own. One person doing so drew their inspiration from the postmen of the day. Their uniform included a bright red waistcoat meaning, not unsurprisingly, they were nicknamed ‘robins’. So the artist drew a picture on their Christmas cards of the bird robin delivering letters and entitled it ‘The Christmas Post’. The idea stuck.

At this time of year robins can be very easy to see. Cheeky, cheerful, quite prepared to cadge some food off us humans. With time and patience, robins can even be persuaded to eat off your hand. Though sometimes at this time of year the robin you meet might seem a bit more wary. This will not be a native bird, but one flown in from the continent, escaping the harsher weather there.

No real reason why, but British people do seem to have taken robins to their heart.

There are even suggestions of making it the UK’s national bird!