As Christians in America we may sometimes find it difficult to fully engage with the monolithic seasonal tradition that our nation calls “Christmas,” especially when the secular elements found within the holiday seem diametrically opposed to our biblical understanding of Christ’s birth. Clearly some of these blatantly unholy traditions are easily rejected or denounced, but others might provide an opening for us to promote the Gospel. How, then, do we do so without damaging our witness and bringing dishonor to our Lord Jesus Christ?
Although our American Christmas in general is slowly morphing into a more religion-neutral holiday, there is little argument that the British Victorians, inspired by the literary imagery of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, have set the basic groundwork for the symbols and traditions that still frame our country’s romantic vision of Christmas. The problem with this, of course, is that we inherited a somewhat broken system where secular traditions and Christianity continue to collide. Clearly the Victorian Brits often struggled with finding the proper focus for the celebration of Christmas with their confusing cultural mix of pagan symbolism, Romish tradition, and Anglo-Saxon heritage.
Indeed, the most famous preacher of the Victorian era, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, reflected this uncertainty in regards to England’s mongrelized Christmas, a hesitancy found especially among Protestants. In studying his sermons on the subject of Christmas, we find that Mr. Spurgeon was very reluctant to endorse the holiday throughout his ministry but certainly took advantage of the opportunity to expound on the doctrine of the Incarnation during that time of national focus. The tension always came, however, when he tried to strike the perfect balance between acknowledging the holiday’s doctrinal significance and warning against its inherent spiritual dangers from an ecclesiastical and cultural standpoint. As Jordan Standridge explains:
“Spurgeon was no Buddy-the-Elf when it came to Christmas. In fact, he resembled the Grinch more, but no one can deny that he loved the opportunity Christmas created to exalt and point people to Jesus Christ.”
The Curious Case Of The Victorian Christmas Postcard
Perhaps it is easy to understand Mr. Spurgeon’s love-hate relationship with Christmas when you look at how the Victorians often greeted each other during Christmas with their popular use of postcards to express their sentiments with festive, full-color illustrations and pithy messages. It is notable that many of these greeting cards paid homage to the religious or familial significance of Christmas, but a significant number of these postcards were anything but reverential in tone. In fact, some were eccentric, morbid, or somewhat creepy, with a wink to sin and a complete disregard for the season’s more loving and devotional themes.
The strange, anthropomorphic depictions of frogs, insects, or cats displaying cruel or bizarre behavior in various winter scenes brought a confusion that was only compounded by its pairing with the cheery salutations printed below the illustrations that often read, “Happy Christmas!” or “Wishing you the blessings of the season!” Amazingly, this untamed display of wacky, irreverent British humor preceded Monty Python’s Flying Circus by almost a century.
Here are a few striking examples pictured below:
America Follows The Victorian Example
Of course, America today is not to be outdone by these religious deflections and cultural distractions first invented by the Victorians. We, too, have found time to take the sacred observance of Christ’s birth and turn it into mere fodder for irreligious silliness and merriment. Most of us are all too familiar with the tragic ballad of someone’s grandmother being run over by a large antlered creature from the arctic region. Or how about the famous “Singing Dogs” canine choir with their pitch-perfect vocal rendition of “Jingle Bells.” And last but not least, we can never forget the plethora of Christmas romance movies from Hallmark that some might say are the most outrageous and subversive jokes of the season.
I bring up these contemporary examples in lighthearted jest, but my momentary diversion should not cause us to miss the serious point of the matter. For all the innocent but impulsive amusements we might enjoy during this time of year, there is a tragic consequence when we as a nation focus too much on such empty pursuits. The result? Namely this: an increasing disregard for the religious underpinnings of Christmas in order to break free from any obligation to God, especially in our seasonal pursuits of revelry and materialism.
The question for today’s thinking Christians, therefore, is whether or not to completely ignore such obvious attempts to downgrade the spiritual significance of the holiday, or rather to be on the lookout for those more-serious secular elements that provide us with an opening to share our faith and return the focus to Jesus. In looking back at the curious phenomenon of Christmas postcards produced in Victorian England, there was a notable example of just such an opportunity that might have been available to Christians who lived at the time, and could provide a template for our future use.
The Symbolism Of The Christmas Robin
One of the most prevalent symbols presented on the Christmas postcards of the Victorian era was the celebrated bird of the United Kingdom: the European robin, or more commonly known as the “robin redbreast.” Whether perched on a wintry twig, wearing a silk top hat, or holding a Christmas message in his beak, the robin was the character who most often greeted friends and family through the mail during the holiday season.
Why was the robin such a standard feature on British Christmas postcards back then? Two of the most popular answers seem reasonable enough. First, according to the 1678 writings of the English naturalist John Ray, the robin was synonymous with Christmas because the bird, normally hidden in the woodlands during the summer, would become bold, sociable and “familiar with man” as they sought out alternative food sources from cultivated shrubs and gardens in the winter-time. Over time, the robin became “a special part of [British] heritage which has evolved hand-in-hand with our distinctive traditional landscape” of a snow-covered Christmas in Britain.
Secondly, as reported by David Chapman, the English “robin redbreast” gave its name to the first Royal Mail postmen who wore red jackets as part of their uniform and soon became affectionately known as “robins.” At Christmas, people eagerly awaited the arrival of cards and letters from loved ones far and wide – delivered by their own local “robins.” It was only a matter of time, therefore, that artists began using robins in their postcard illustrations as the logical symbol of the Christmas greeting by mail.
The Legend Of The Christmas Robin
Neither of these historical backstories, however, explain how the robin became connected to the spiritual significance of Christmas as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. To find a direct link to Christianity, we must look farther back to the ancient British lore of the robin. These quaint legends speak to man’s heartfelt desire to find religious meaning in the world around them, and Christians were certainly no exception. As such, the European peoples of old were understandably drawn to the distinctive red breast of the robin and began to creatively speculate on how it may have gotten there. Two fables emerged over time from Europe’s growing Christian sentimentality and eventually took root in Britain.
According to The Sun newspaper: “One legend has it that when Mary was giving birth in the stable, the fire was dying and the robin used its wings to fan the flames. As the robin flew close to the fire, an ember flew up and made his breast glow red. Upon seeing this, Mary declared that the red breast was a sign of the bird’s kind heart and that the bird and all its descendants would wear a red breast proudly from that moment on.”
The other ancient tale, according to David Chapman, suggests that on the day of Christ’s crucifixion “a robin pulled a thorn from the crown of Christ whilst he was on the cross.” Hence, it was Christ’s blood that fell upon the bird’s breast and forever stained it red.
Of course, both of these sweet fables are nothing more than wisps of poetic homage to our Lord and Savior, but there is a spiritual reality in the legendary tale of the robin to which Victorian Christians might have related. Surely true disciples, like robins, must also display the unique “colors” that identify them as witnesses of the gospel truth of Jesus Christ. Is this not a thought supported by God’s word and worthy of our contemplation? John 13:35 comes to mind, among many others: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”
The Spiritual Application Of The Christmas Robin
In studying the history of the Christmas robin in Victorian postcards, however, I was struck by another particular aspect of this British tradition that speaks to the grace and mercy that is found in Christ alone. One of the common themes in these vintage postcards is the depiction of a hungry, destitute, or dying robin shivering in a cold, snowy landscape. Perhaps this image seems strange as a token of good cheer and Christmas blessing, but to me it holds forth the most compelling biblical imagery in which to direct our hopes, thoughts, and activities as Christians this time of year.
Certainly the poor robin of winter, though a beloved mascot for the British people, speaks to Christians everywhere as we contemplate the spiritual state of lost men and women. It is a call to empathy for those less fortunate, not just temporally speaking, but also for those who are spiritually hungry and in desperate need of the bread of life.
Not surprisingly, Charles Spurgeon saw the same symbolic significance in his day and used it on at least two occasions during his sermons. In 1896, he described the “poor in spirit” as a robin outside his window who fed on his food, then flew away to tell the other birds of his bounty:
“In the depth of winter, at a time when I had a balcony to my study, I put some crumbs out upon it, and there came a robin redbreast, first, and he pecked, and ate all he could. I do not know his language, but I fancy I can tell what he said, for he went away and came back with ever so many sparrows and other birds! He had said to them, ‘There are crumbs up here, come and get them.’ And they all came, and they came in greater numbers every day—and I do not know how it was except that they told one another…
Oh, there are some of you, dear robin redbreasts, that have been here ever so long, and have been eating my Master’s crumbs! You have brought some sparrows to the feast—now try to entice a blackbird, and if there is one blackbird bigger and bleaker than another, go and fetch him, and bring him, for Jesus says that He will cast out none that come to Him by faith—and you may be sure that it is true, for He is ‘a friend of publicans and sinners.'”
Later in his sermon titled, “Solace For Sad Hearts” from 1912, the Prince of Preachers once again saw the mournful seeker drawn to Zion as a timid robin:
“They are like the robin redbreast in the winter time—they venture near the house and tap upon the window pane—and yet are half afraid to come in. When the cold is very severe and they are very hungry, they are daring and pick up a crumb or two. Still, for the most part, they stand at the temple door and mourn. They are in Zion and they sigh and cry because they feel unworthy so much as to lift their eyes towards heaven! Ah, well, the Lord appoints great blessings for you—He is good to those who seek Him.”
Clearly we see that Mr. Spurgeon was inspired by the simple beauty found in his country’s affection for the winter robin and used it with great effect to provoke us to greater purpose for the glory of God. Likewise, we must take every advantage possible during this Christmas season to scatter the crumbs of the Gospel to the poor birds outside the doors of our homes and our churches.
With that goal in mind, I leave you with these various quotes from Mr. Spurgeon (compiled by the Spurgeon Center) that speak to our sacred mission during Christmas to disengage from the distractions of our frivolous culture and proclaim the Gospel with all diligence. Challenging us, Mr. Spurgeon said:
“I wish everybody that keeps Christmas this year, would keep it as the angels kept it. . . . Set an example to others how to behave on that day, and especially since the angels gave glory to God: let us do the same.”
“You must then keep this Christmas by telling to your fellow-men what God’s own holy Spirit has seen fit to reveal to you.”
“When you are at home on Christmas Day, let no one see your face till God has seen it. Be up in the morning, wrestle with God; and if your friends are not converted, wrestle with God for them.”
“Find something wherewith to clothe the naked, and feed the hungry, and make glad the mourner. Remember, it is good will towards men. Try, if you can, to show them goodwill at this special season; and if you will do that, the poor will say with me, that indeed they wish there were six Christmases in the year.”
Bottom line, we don’t need dancing frogs and insects to bring joy to the season (or even robins, for that matter). We need Jesus Christ, for he will save his people from their sins. May God bless you in your efforts to share His good news, not only at Christmas, but throughout the whole year.