COLUMN: Why the robin became our Christmas favourite

The RSPB will hold their Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend
The RSPB will hold their Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend

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. For starters, the robin has long been associated with this time of year. 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. Just the bird to have for the annual mid-winter knees-up!

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. Of course, you didn’t pop down to the supermarket to buy a pack, oh no! 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’. And you know what, the idea stuck.

As symbols go though, it is a pretty good one. 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 be not a native bird, but one flown in from the continent, escaping the harsher weather there. British robins are friendly, but continental ones are a lot more wary of humans. No real reason why, but British people do seem to have taken robins to their heart. It nearly always tops any poll of people’s favourite bird.

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

By Dr Chris Andrews, visitors services officer at RSPB Frampton Marsh.

Photo by Ray Kennedy.