Christmas is a time when we habitually bring wildlife into our lives, perhaps more than any other time of year. Fir trees spring up in our houses, mistletoe hangs under arches, holly and ivy adorn our doorways and robins are aflutter in our gardens and greetings cards.
These traditions stem from our longstanding love of symbolism and also demonstrate how our lives are inextricably linked with nature. Though many of us don’t realise it, we are highly attuned to the changing seasons and rhythms of the natural world, and this comes through strongly in December.
Robins’ association with Christmas dates back to Victorian times when postmen wore red tunics and were nicknamed ‘robin redbreasts’. The bird began appearing on Christmas cards to represent these messengers who would deliver the season’s greetings. Robins are one of the few birds that can be heard singing in winter, as both the males and females maintain territories for feeding during this period. They also begin exploring other robins’ territories looking for a mate, so are more visible now than at other times of the year.
One of our most practised Christmas traditions - kissing under the mistletoe – also comes from the Victorian era, when a boy could win a kiss from a girl for each mistletoe berry he picked from his bunch. This game probably originated from a Norse legend in which the goddess Frigga declared mistletoe a symbol of love. Mistletoe is an evergreen plant, but is best seen during the winter months when it hangs from the bare branches of host trees.
European pagans are thought to be responsible for our fondness for fir trees. They dressed their homes with vibrant evergreen branches to brighten up the winter months and remind them of the warm seasons to come. This tradition lives on in the form of the Christmas tree, which brings joy and festive cheer into our homes year after year.
Come spring our attention will turn to a new set of traditions, and as the seasonal cycle rolls on we celebrate each phase and the wonderful wildlife it brings – even if we don’t realise it at the time!