Nothing quite beats the festive season. While Christmas might look a little different this year, RSPB England’s Becca Smith takes a look at Christmas folklore and tradition in an attempt to answer: what is the nature of Christmas?

Christmas is a funny time of year – we gather together to give gifts of the latest gadgets and shiny new toys while surrounded by traditions steeped in folklore from centuries ago. When putting up your decorations or writing your Christmas cards, have you ever wondered why we associate robins with Christmas? Or perhaps what all the fuss over mistletoe is about? Maybe you’ve always wondered where “the holly and the ivy” came from or if partridges really do roost in a pear tree ….

Photo: A robin in the snow. Credit: Ben Andrew

Robins are for all year round, not just for Christmas

Don’t let the Christmas cards fool you – robins can be found across the country all year round. Think back to that time when you were digging in the garden and your feathered friend perched bravely on the spade handle waiting to catch a worm or two. It comes as no surprise that the robin has been crowned Britain’s National Bird.

So why are robins associated with Christmas, I hear you ask. The reason goes back decades, to the 1900s in fact…

At a time when the idea of sending Christmas cards was really taking off, you could catch sight of your Victorian postman in his bright red coat from a mile off as he jollily delivered your season’s greetings. The uniform, as a proud link to the British flag, quickly earnt postmen the nickname of ‘robin redbreast’ and as Christmas drew near, the link was made between the familiar cheeky little bird and spreading messages of Christmas cheer. Artists soon began illustrating Christmas cards with the birds delivering festive letters and cards, and they quickly became a Christmas icon – a reminder of goodwill to all.

Nowadays, their cheerful song is the soundtrack to many a wintery morning – although to burst that charming bubble, this cheerful piping tune is less ‘peace and goodwill to all’ and more a male robin’s aggressive claim to territory.  Fortunately, their efforts to maintain their patch aren’t fruitless, as the robins we know and love from our gardens are still the most common breeding bird in Britain  – why not look out for them during your Big Garden Birdwatch?

Photo: Frost tipped holly. Credit: Andy Hay

Why are we decking the halls with boughs of holly again?

While you’ve got your eyes peeled for robins, you may notice the holly growing despite the cold weather. Used as decorations as far back as the Roman times, holly branches superseded the famous Christmas tree as a English festive decoration, with the prickly leaves thought to symbolise the crown of thorns Jesus wore.

Also linked to Pagan traditions surrounding the Winter Solstice, Holly is thought to be the male equivalent of the female plant Ivy, with both plants being used to ward off evil spirits and celebrate new growth.

This new growth is great for wildlife, as the berries provide vital winter food for birds and ivy nectar is a fantastic late season nectar source for insects. To help the wildlife in your local area, why not check out our guide to gardening with wildlife in mind here?

Photo: Mistletoe. Credit: Hans Braxmeier, Pixabay

Mistletoe and wine

Another plant that can be seen throughout the winter, mistletoe blossoms despite frosty conditions, and so was seen as a symbol of vivacity amongst the Druids thousands of years ago. Linking back to ancient beliefs around the plant’s healing properties and power to restore fertility, we still hang sprigs in our homes today to bring good luck and symbolise love and friendship as a result.

Photo: A blackbird on a snow covered feeder table. Credit: Chris Gomersall.

While all this talk of nature at Christmas might have you itching to go outside to discover which feathered friends are still on your feeders or which plants are still thriving despite the cold, what about the nature you can’t see at Christmas? It’s time to debunk some Christmas myths…

A partridge in a pear tree – or actually, not quite. Partridges are ground nesting birds and so the chances of finding them roosting in a pear tree are zilch…sorry! In fact, grey partridges are on the RSPB’s red list for conservation concern, and so you’ll be lucky to spot one.  

4 calling birds – Sorry to interrupt you mid-verse, but you’re singing it wrong…the original song is thought to say 4 colly birds. “Colly”, an old English expression for coal black, instead refers to our familiar garden friend, the blackbird.

Thankfully, blackbirds are faring a little better than partridges, having taken 5th place as one of the most sighted birds during the Big Garden Birdwatch this year. However, 1 in 4 birds are now on the red list for conservation concern, including grey partridge, and are at risk of going extinct. To learn more about how you can help these birds, see here.