The European Robin known colloquially as robin red-breast is synonymous with Christmas in Britain and is often depicted on cards, wrapping paper, advent calendars, stamps and crackers. The robin is one of the few birds that will sing throughout the British winter and can often be heard whistling its melancholy tune during the cold, crisp winter mornings. Although associated with myth and folklore dating all the way back to pagan times it wasn’t until the Victorian era that the robin became a beloved symbol of Christmas. In the pagan Yule festival the eternal circle of the year ends with the holly king (represented by the wren) doing battle with the oak king (represented by the robin). In the battle, the old year (the wren) is defeated by the new year (the robin) and the cycle starts again. This could be a reason why robins are associated with the Christian festival of Christmas but the reason why they appear on Christmas cards is a little more esoteric.
The Royal Mail, the British postal service issued its first uniform in 1784 and throughout the next century scarlet was the dominate colour of the uniform’s frock coat. This bright red uniform was to honour the crown (it was the Royal Mail after all) and reflected the red in the English flag. This red coated style meant that the postmen resembled the much loved bird the robin and hence the Victorian postmen were nicknamed “robins” or “redbreasts.”
During the 19th Century, Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria popularised the sending of greetings cards during the Christmas period. As the cards were delivered to people’s homes by postmen (the “robins”) who brought joy and happiness with their deliveries and so were held in great affection by the public. At this point an enterprising artist decided to replace the image of a postman delivering Christmas mail on cards with the image of a robin delivering the mail by holding the letters in his little beak. The trend caught on and remains popular to this day with traditional, funny and cartoon robins being found on all sorts of festive products. Fortunately one of the other traditions where Victorians caught and killed robins so they could use their feathers to decorate the greetings cards is no longer practiced.