The red robin’s winter song

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THE dwindling days are a sign of the approaching winter solstice, the midnight of the year.

On December 22 the sun at midday will struggle up to its lowest point, before sliding below the horizon before 4pm.

Although most of us are insulated from the natural world we still feel a kind of dread at the retreat of the sun, much as our ancestors did.

Like them, we need light. It gives us a real lift to see the festive displays above our shopping streets, or a single Christmas tree glittering in someone’s window.

Here’s another reason to be cheerful: a robin’s red breast feathers caught by the low winter sun.

Few birds are singing now, but the robin’s winter song, sweet and melancholy, goes straight to the heart.

We’ve always liked robins, perhaps because those red feathers remind us of fire. The bird was sacred to Norse thunder-god Thor, and later it was known as Saint Columba’s little brother.

Another reason is that robins seem to like us. Serf, a monk in 6th-century Fife, wrote a touching note in the margin of a manuscript about the little red-breasted bird that came every day to share his bread.

Today robins are firmly linked with Christmas. This goes back to the early days of the postal service when the man who delivered the handwritten greetings wore a bright red coat. Naturally, this earned him the nickname Robin.

The postman had shed his red coat by the time printed cards were taking off in the 1860s, but everyone remembered the association.

Soon robins were appearing on the new cards, carrying envelopes in their beaks.

We still send Christmas cards, though not as many as we used to. Robins remain popular, and holly, and snow scenes, but only a fraction of today’s cards feature the Nativity. This isn’t new — neither did most Victorian cards.

The majority of the ones we buy today are charity cards, echoing the Victorian ideal of remembering the less fortunate at Christmas.


DECEMBER 21 is the feast day of St Thomas. Legend tells how a king gave him a large sum to build a palace, but instead Thomas spent it on the poor.

In the saint’s memory poor people used to go Thomasing on the 21st, visiting their well-off neighbours to ask for flour, candles, fuel, or money to help them through the winter.

When most people were Christian they were willing to alleviate hardship because giving charity was accepted as a Christian duty.

Attitudes began to change as standards of living rose at the end of the 19th century.

Thomasing and other similar customs came to be seen as begging, which was something shameful to be discouraged.

St Thomas’ Day is the traditional time to bring in holly and ivy.

Folklore says that it’s a wind prediction day, meaning that whichever way the wind blows will be the prevailing direction for the next three months.

If the day is frosty, the winter will be a long one.

Winter is showing us what it can do, with freezing gales interspersed with spells of milder weather.

Atlantic storms like this are normal at this time of year though they’re not usually so fierce as last week’s.

Colder weather brings frosty nights, when clear cold conditions give us the chance to marvel at the night sky.

Soon after the sun goes down, Venus is blazing low in the southwest.

The planet is easily found as it is brighter than any star, but don’t leave it too long because Venus sets two hours after the sun.

This leaves the sky to Jupiter, which is impossible to miss from nightfall until the early hours.

This hasn’t been a good year for meteor spotters. The moon has been bright enough to interfere with all of our favourite showers, including Wednesday’s Geminids.

But the new moon has a chance to make amends on Boxing Day, when its slender crescent will join up with Venus.