I’m usually dashing here, there and everywhere, rarely taking a moment to breathe…but on the odd occasion that I spot a robin outside, I come to a sudden standstill and squeal to whoever else is in the house, ‘there’s a robin in the garden, quick, come look!’
I’ll stay rooted to the spot, face and hands pressed against the glass, watching every tiny flicker of movement until the robin decides to flit off. No matter how brief the experience, I’ll always be left with a lasting sense of wonder and joy for several hours afterwards.
If I were to say where the enchantment with robins came from, I’d say it was probably from when I obsessively watched the 1993 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book The Secret Garden when I was small.
Delving into the lore surrounding robins has been fascinating. One of the most memorable things I encountered was in an article written by journalist Peter Walker. He describes how he was visiting an elderly female friend, and, as they chatted over a cup of tea, the postman arrived with some Christmas cards.
His friend opened one of the cards up, shrieked in horror and threw it onto the fire. It transpired there had been a robin on the front of the card. The old lady was of a generation that believed, if a robin – in any form – entered your house, it heralded a death in the family. I came across dozens of accounts where elderly folk had torn up cards featuring robins, and damning those that sent them.
To kill one of England’s national birds was once considered extremely unlucky, and it’s said that the hand that did the deed, would continue to shake for the rest of the person’s life. If a farmer were to cause the death of a robin, he could expect his barn to catch fire or his cow’s milk to run the colour of blood.
Christmas cards printed in the late 1800s, early 1900s were heavily influenced by folk customs and were often fascinatingly macabre. Many could be found to feature dead birds, predominantly the robin. John Grossman, the author of Christmas Curiosities: Old, Dark and Forgotten Christmas, wrote that the poor dead robins were “bound to elicit Victorian sympathy and may reference common stories of poor children freezing to death at Christmas.”