Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking at the robin, and its associations with Christmas, for her Specimen of the Month series.
'Robins are well known to be one of the traditional cover models of Christmas card multipacks. An icon of Christmas in the UK, the robin is only meant to appear when the festive lights are up, The Grinch is on TV, and the shops become a hostile habitat visited only by the brave, followed a week later by the disorganised.
The robins, delicately painted background and realistic looking snow make our diorama by Edward Hart a picture perfect Christmas scene*
But robins live in the UK throughout the year. Why then do we associate them with Christmas? There are a number of theories…
According to the RSPB, robins spend December roaming around the neighbourhood, looking for a mate to settle down with in the New Year, a resolution that’s mirrored by many humans. This extra movement around Christmas time, and presumably, the extra effort they put into showing off their musical talents, simply makes them more visible to the untrained human passer-by.
Following on from this line of reasoning, robins are also more ‘in your face’ around Christmas because they are one of the only birds that don’t suffer from Seasonally Affected Disorder** and thus continue their cheery singing even though the clocks have gone back and going to the toilet in the middle of the night is a race against frostbite.
In the winter, robins are also one of the earliest to start singing in the morning and one of the last to stop singing at night. They sound like neighbours from hell.
Robins sing to attracts a mate and to let other robins know this is its territory, Wikinature, 2005, image in public domain
An entirely different theory is that the association comes from the first postmen in the UK, who used to wear bright red waistcoats. They were, for obvious reasons of visual association, therefore nicknamed 'Robins'. Whilst the festive season is certainly a busy time for these robin-people, surely it’s not the only time of year in which they were employed? Personally, I find this association somewhat tenuous. However if you’d like a challenge, I will happily eat my blog if sufficient evidence is produced to support this claim.
Maybe the question should really be, would they be better off representing a different holiday? Unlike Father Christmas who is categorically absent for the rest of the year (supermarket shelves in October aside), the robin clearly raises its family with a staycation mentality. They may remind you of a time when everyone is obliged to be happy to see their extended family, and be nicer to fellow commuters, but the robin is an aggressive bird that when required transforms into a small, vicious, wing-ed nightmare that will fight other robins to the death if needs be. Call me a traditionalist, but that’s not very Christmas spirit-y. So in short, next time you’re selecting Christmas cards, perhaps you should go for the snowman.
*This diorama is just masquerading as a beautiful Christmas scene. If you look closer, the bricks the robin is standing on are actually a Victorian sparrow trap. If the robin went for the seed inside, the little stick would budge and BAM. Lights out Christmas robin.
**It is unknown if SAD affects any avian species.'
ARKive. (No date). Robin (Erithacus rubecula).
Horniman Museum and Gardens. (No date). Zoology: Edward Hart Collection.
RSPB. (No date). Birds and Wildlife: Robin.
RSPB. (2009). Birds and Wildlife: Ask an Expert.