Folk traditions about the robin are contradictory; some link it with death, others see it as a sacred bird, cheerful and friendly to humans. The idea that a robin pecking on a window or entering the house brings death has been recorded in many areas from the early 19th century onwards, and is still sometimes found; a Gloucestershire girl in the 1950s said it was a death-sign to receive a * Christmas card with a robin on it (Folklore 66 (1955), 324), and a woman in Hull in the 1990s always threw away such cards from mixed packs (Gill, 1993: 67). However, the great popularity of robins on Christmas cards from Victorian times onwards shows this fear must be rare.
   A belief first recorded in the late 16th century may explain the link with death. It was thought that if a robin found someone lying dead, it would cover the face (or even the whole corpse) with moss, leaves, or flowers, being a 'charitable' bird, 'that loves mankind both alive and dead'. There are many literary allusions to this idea, and it forms the climax of the ballad of 'The Babes in the Wood'.
   The robin, and his alleged 'wife' the *wren, were sacred, according to well-known rhymes:
   The robin redbreast and the wren Are God Almighty's cock and hen.
   Hurt a robin or a wran, Never prosper, boy or man.
   A pious legend, probably from medieval times, says the bird got its red breast when it injured itself in trying to pluck out a thorn from Christ's crown of thorns; alternatively, that its feathers got singed as it carried water to souls in the fire of Purgatory. Either way, it was blessed by God for its kindness.
   To kill or injure a robin, or steal its eggs, was regarded as wicked, and sure to bring bad luck; 19th-century sources speak of cows giving bloody milk, piglets dying, or buildings catching fire, while the Farmer's Weekly in 1974 quotes a warning that 'you'll end up with a broken leg or arm'. In Yorkshire in the 1880s, a boy who took a robin's eggs would be surrounded by other boys, pointing, hissing and slapping at him, and chanting
   Robin takker, robbin takker, Sin, sin, sin!
   ■ Swainson, 1885: 12-18; Radford, Radford, and Hole, 1961: 282-4; Opie and Tatem, 1989: 328-40.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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