"The Robin wears with honour
A breast of Christmas Red"
The robin is a familiar symbol at Christmas time and adorn many Christmas cards or tree decorations. Whilst so many other British birds have migrated for the winter, robins, with their red breasts highlighted against the snow, are a familiar sight around this time of year. Robins are very rarely seen or heard in summertime when they are moulting, and become somewhat retiring. They are seen more actively from September onwards, particularly at Christmas time when their song is at its strongest and males and females have paired up.
But the robin's association with Christmas goes further than their heightened singing activity at this time. In the festival of Yule the robin, symbolising the waxing year, triumphs over the wren, the waning year. This reflects the pagan theme of the Oak King defeating the Holly King on the Winter Solstice, bringing the new sun that begins to grow.
Tradition also connects the robin, and how it gained its red breast, with the story of Christ's birth. According to the old folk-tale, Mary was worried that the stable was becoming too cold as the fire burned low. She asked the animals in the stable to blow on the fire to keep it going but, deep in sleep, none heard her. The plain-brown robin heard Mary's pleas, flew in from the night and settled by the dying fire. It flapped its wings as hard as it could and sang sweetly so as to rekindled the fire. When this was done the robin went in search for twigs and sticks to toss into the fire to build it up to a roaring heat. One of the embers flicked onto the little bird and burnt its breast red. Mary, so thankful for the robin's help, proclaimed that its descendants would always proudly bear a red breast over its generous heart.
If you have ever wondered why robins are so often portrayed on Christmas cards with letters in their beaks or sitting by a postbox, then their traditional vernacular name of redbreasts or robin redbreasts provides a clue (they have only officially been simply "robins" since 1952). The 19th century postman's uniform was bright red. This led to their nickname "Redbreast" and eventually "Robin Redbreast" or "Robin Postmen" in connection with the robin and its own red breast -- and the fact that postmen delivered even on Christmas day.
Robin has been used as a personal name for centuries since it started life as a medieval diminutive for Robert: most famously used for the legendary Robin Hood. In the last century it has also been used for girls, either as Robin or, now more popularly, Robyn. In previous centuries girls were more likely to have been given the feminised form Robina, particularly in Scotland.
The Anglo-Saxon name for the robin was ruddoc, which became ruddock in the Middle Ages. It is related to the Old English rudu "red." Ruddock, Rudduck and Ruddick have all developed as surnames since the 12th century, while the similar sounding rudhek is the Cornish name for the bird. The Latin name for the European Robin is Erithacus rebecua.