There are so many images of Christmas these days. Once upon a time when the first Christmas cards emerged, such cards were initially love tokens. Later as the ethos of greetings cards for the Christmas festival developed, images were either of a religious nature or indeed based upon Dickensian scenes, often of horse drawn carriages arriving at well-lit wayside inns. More modern imagery seems to know no such bounds as the full gambit of graphic arts are unleashed upon the Christmas season. Today’s cards express so many different sides to Christmas but wildlife images are among the favourites.
Thus, of all the traditional images, one stands out as the perennial Christmas card image, robin redbreast. The robin is, of course, the one bird you are likely to hear carousing on Christmas Day albeit that the robin’s notional mate, Jenny Wren, is also known for its song during the depths of winter. However, robins are the real winter songsters primarily because they establish feeding territories in the winter with almost as much enthusiasm as they establish breeding territories in the spring. And song is very much about pronouncing that territorial integrity.
As said, this integrity is as vigorously defended as those spring territories and the plain fact of robin life is that they are fearsome defenders of their realms to such an extent that they are prepared to fight literally to the death in defence of them … not very Christmassy you might think! But that is the fearsome reputation of robin redbreast. No prisoners are taken! Yet there is a surprisingly gentle aspect alleged to robin behavior by none other than poet William Wordsworth who claimed that when his sister Dorothy was ill, a robin entered her bedroom, fanned her face with its wings to cool her fevered brow and sang to her. Perhaps the poet was using poetic licence? Robins may be prepared to live cheek by jowl with mankind but I doubt with such intimacy!
Robins are sometimes bold in the extreme. Many’s the gardener who has found his labours intently watched by a robin simply because he or she frequently digs up worms and insects which are soon seized by the hungry redbreast. Robins certainly know when it is of benefit to befriend mankind! That the robin has always been a blessed bird harks back to early Christianity when it was believed the robin plucked a thorn from the brow of Jesus when on the Cross, thus staining his breast red with the blood of Christ. Indeed, the caging of robins was rife in Continental Europe but it was a hobby that never took off in Britain although the keeping of other caged birds, such as goldfinches, was popular here. Indeed, there was a saying that “a robin in a cage puts all heaven in a rage.”
Yet another myth relating to the robin’s redbreast, tells us that although the wren was the ’fire-bringer’ the robin took the burning brand from the wren to bring it on the last part of its journey, singeing its breast in the process. Robins and wrens have always been closely associated and indeed, they are named in the old Christian saying, “the robin and the wren are God Almighty’s cock and hen.”
The robin, of course, famously appears in Glasgow’s coat of arms in memory of the part a robin played in the life of Glasgow’s patron saint, St Kentigern, who it is said kept a tame robin when under the tutorship of St Serf at Culross. Kentigern was a much favoured pupil who consequently incurred the jealous wrath of his fellow pupils. Indeed, so enraged were they that they killed the robin but St Kentigern restored the bird to life. Hence, the ‘robin proper’ in the city’s coat of arms.
The early use of robins on those first Christmas cards also led to the very first postmen being called ‘robins’ on account of the fact that they were dressed in bright vermillion coloured waistcoats. Today’s posties wear red anoraks maintaining the red tradition. But then there’s a lot of red about at Christmas including Santa! A lot of children will be thinking of that gentleman over Christmas and perhaps pinning their hopes upon him. His origins are obscure but seem on balance, to originate from a Russian philanthropist who delivered presents from his reindeer drawn sledge for all the children across a snowy Russia.
So, it’s Christmas. A time when we make contact with friends old and new through the myriad of cards that will come showering through our letter-boxes. It is perhaps a time for reflection and very much a time for generosity of thought. No doubt a lot of children will be eagerly exploring their stockings and pillowcases for those much-wanted presents but we also need to think of those for whom Christmas simply doesn’t happen, the old and lonely, the homeless and the sick. For them there is a bitter irony about the ritzy glitter of the modern Christmas.
Think also of the birds. As temperatures fall and the rain comes down, natural food begins to run short. They need our help now as never before so please feed them. However, remember once you start you must keep topping the feeders up for they come to rely upon our generosity for their survival.
Such is the variety of cards these days that all manner of animals and birds make their appearance from red and roe deer to the inevitable reindeer. From blue tits to great tits and many more. One of growing popularity is the colourful goldfinch but that should come as little surprise, for goldfinches figure in many devotional paintings, particularly those featuring the Madonna and Child. Something like three quarters of European devotional paintings feature a goldfinch so is the goldfinch in danger of ousting the robin as the Christmas bird? I doubt it. Cock robin, robin redbreast, Ruddock or if you have the gaelic, broindbergh (red belly) is the one you’ll find hopping across your mantlepiece. Happy Christmas!