Christmas Greetings

23rd December 2021

Robin Cards

I wonder if readers of these pages from overseas (that is not here in the UK) are sometimes a little puzzled this time of the year when they receive the occasional Christmas card with images of robins on the front? If it’s any consolation, those of us who live in the UK receive an enormous proportion of robin cards at this time of year, too. I did a quick audit last Christmas of those we had and the ratio was almost one third. That’s a lot of robins.
scattered grouping of numerous Christmas cards with robin images on front
A handful of robin cards

Foreign robins

Although the US, Canada and Australia all have native birds called ‘robins’ they are different. They were usually only named that way due to their loose resemblance to the UK/European robin. In truth, the species of these parts of the world are all different. And they look different too. The American robin, for instance, is over twice the size of the European one, and is not related at all. Settlers and explorers to these places would often feel nostalgia for the wildlife back home, and so named the first red-breasted bird they encounters as ‘robin.’
two images of birds - robins. The uk above is smaller and the us, beneath larger
The UK robin (Erithacus rubecula) pictured above, compared to its American namesake (Turdus migratorius) seen below.

Christmas and robins

So how did the association between the English robin and Christmas come about? The answer is tied in with the very naming of the bird itself in recent times, because it didn’t always have the present name. Long ago, the English called it the Ruddock (from the ruddy coloured breast). A little later, by the medieval period, it had become known as ‘The Redbreast.’ Then, by the time the Tudors and Elizabethan had arrived, it had already become common practice to attach popular Christian names to birds and other animals. So we had Jenny Wren for instance, and the Redbreast became Robin Redbreast, after the diminutive of Robert.

Later still, in Victorian times, with the arrival of an efficient and reliable postal servce for everyone, aided by the availability of the first postage stamps, folks began sending one another greetings on holidays – and at Christmas in particular. This coincided with the availability of low-cost printed cards, as well.
Early 19th-century postman
The postmen of the Royal Mail who delivered them wore red tunics (yes, prior to privatisation, the English had their letters delivered by the Queen’s postal service!). Very soon, they became fondly known as robins, and so the bird of that name began appearing on the cards too. This association grew and grew and really took off during the 20th century, by which time the robin was everywhere to be seen at Christmas, on wrapping paper, toys and cards of every shape and size. Eventually, the ‘redbreast’ part of the name was dropped, and the bird simply became know as the Robin – the name that it enjoys still to this day.
By the way, another association of the robin with Christmas might well stem from the fact that it is just about the only bird here in Britain that can be heard singing in the depth of winter - a little nugget of information taken from the recent book ‘The Magnificent British Garden Robin’ which was written by A.Robin, Esq and illustrated by me. Available here, and here, and ... well, you get the idea.
book cover shows red-breasted robin bird with text
All you ever wanted to know about Robins.

Seasons Greetings!

So whether you have a robin picture in the post this year or not (I know one person who lives outside the UK and told me that their English robin card they received one year is still kept and remains a favourite.) let me wish you a very Happy Festive Season. I think we all deserve it.

Meanwhile, here's one I made earlier.
Christmas card with robin amid holly leaves and text message in green
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

You might also like

Author Q&A
Exclusive interview with author A. Robin, Esq
head and shoulders half profile of a robin
Georgian era
The Skating Minister by Sir Henry Raeburn.
small image of black-clad minister skating on ice
When Alexander met the Queen. The ingenious Mr Bell.
photo of Queen Victoria seated at desk, in thought, writing
Snowdrops and Periwinkle. A look at the garden.
small photo of snowdrops in garden setting
small up-arrow linking to top of page