The Legend of the Christmas Robin

A chara,- The robin has excellent credentials for inclusion in religiously-themed Christmas stamps. In Irish tradition, the robin (spideog ) was beannaithe, that is, blessed or holy, and had a sacred character. Various religious legends illustrated why.

As already observed (December 16th ), a religious legend common in Ireland tells how the robin's red breast was the result of the bird's attempts to assist Our Lord at the crucifixion. International folklore scholarship classifies this tradition . “Blood from cross on robin redbreast: He helps Jesus; rewarded with red breast.” Variations of this motif were the most common tradition associated with the origin of the robin's red breast in Irish folklore, but other traditions have also survived.

A tradition from Co Sligo told of the robin coming into a house where the infant Jesus lay sleeping: “A robin, seeing the open door and attracted by the motionless form of the lovely Babe entered and flew to the bed. The movement awakened the little Jesus, Who, seeing the pretty bird, put out His Hand and gently stroked it. The robin blushed scarlet at such an honour, and the breast which the Baby Jesus touched had always remained red.”

The robin was known in Co Clare (and possibly also in south Co Derry and in Gaelic Scotland ) as “spideog Mhuire” (“Mary's robin” ). Eugene O'Curry published a Clare legend which tells us “when the Blessed Virgin fled [to Egypt] with the Infant Jesus, her track was marked in the wood by a stream of blood drawn from her feet by the thorns and brambles; that the robin followed, covering the blood with the leaves of the forest, and pressing them down with her breast, which thus became dyed with the precious blood.”

An entirely different tradition associates the robin's red breast with the Nativity. I distinctly remember Donncha O Dulaing on his popular programme Failte Isteach on RTE Radio on a New Year's Eve many years ago reading a letter from a correspondent in the Midlands which he told of the way the robin got its distinctive red breast as a result of its attempts to fan the embers of a dying fire in the stable in Bethlehem. The fire was revived and the Holy Family had warmth but the robin's breast was singed red and remains so ever since.

So, it should be apparent that, on the basis of Irish tradition, the robin is “irreproachably religious” and that its appearance on an Irish stamp at Christmas is entirely appropriate.

Further information on the robin in Irish folklore can be found in two articles by the undersigned published many years ago in the journal Bealoideas, volumes 45-7 and 50. - Is mise,

LIAM O DOCHARTAIGH

Cuirt Belfield, Fearann Seoin, Luimneach.

(A robin at Christmas – Letter to The Irish Times, December 22 2010 )

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