I have a good friend, for whom the sight of a robin is a reminder of her much-loved and much-missed mother. Seeing a robin flit by is always a welcome sight for her. A reassurance. A tiny living prayer.
It made me wonder why certain birds and animals have acquired a particular significance. Harbingers of good – or bad – luck. It could be a black cat crossing your path. Rabbits and their feet. Magpies with ‘One for sorrow, two for joy…’ And there are many more. Today robins have a strong association with Christmas and even a cursory glance at a pile of Christmas cards will reveal many picturing bright little robins. What brought this about?
One story I read tells of the very first Christmas when a robin was bravely fanning the dying embers of the fire in the stable where the infant Jesus lay sleeping. If the fire went out the child would be chilled. The robin didn’t give up, but gathered twigs to keep the fire alight. A hot spark leapt from the fire and the little robin’s breast was burnt red. When Mary returned she blessed the robin for his care of her baby son, and for his bravery. From then on all robins carried a redbreast, a proud reminder of their generous act. And thus began their close association with Christmas.
Another legend tells of a robin trying to ease Jesus’ pain at the crucifixion by removing one of the vicious barbs from the crown of thorns. Some of Christ’s blood splashed onto the robin’s breast, again to become a permanent marker of the little bird’s bravery and compassion.
More mundane perhaps, is the story that Victorian postmen, clad in their bright red jackets, became known as ‘robin redbreasts’ and before long a robin appeared on an early Christmas card. Christmas cards were a new idea in the mid-19th century and rapidly became very popular. The robin has had pride of place there ever since!
One curious fact I discovered: look closely and you’ll see that a robin’s breast is orange, rather than red. It seems that the colour we know as orange today – named from the fruit – didn’t exist in the English language until the 16th century and wasn’t used as a distinct colour name until much later. ‘Robin Orangebreast’ doesn’t sound quite the same, though, and definitely lacks alliterative appeal!
But however their name, or their connection with Christmas, really came about, they are bright-eyed, intelligent, engaging little birds. Gardeners know that as soon as you turn the soil a robin will be there watching you closely, following your movements on the lookout for food in the disturbed earth. I find it a great pleasure to see these delightful creatures in my garden, or wherever I am outdoors. And the notion of their being a tiny living prayer is one I’m more than happy to go along with. Especially at Christmas.