Vibrant visitors add cheer to the season.
Redbirds–also known as northern cardinals–often appear as popular images in holiday decor. Their inquisitive beaks and lively red colors make them eye-catching additions to Christmas cards and ornaments, but how the birds became associated with the holiday season is a more mysterious story. That tale begins with the color red, a hue with many Christmastime connections, and includes the winter season, the habits of cardinals, and the symbolism that has developed around them over centuries.
One reason for cardinals’ association with the holidays is that they often visit in winter. According to All About Birds at Cornell University, “Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards.” The male cardinals that visit our homes are especially vibrant. They’re the bright red birds with pointed crowns that you see flitting around trees and feeders. Female cardinals have more muted feathers, with brown and gold-flecked plumage in addition to tufts of red at the crown and tail. Redbirds can also be seen as hopeful visitors, reminders of spring to come.
They survive in winter by feeding on seeds, berries, and all manner of insects. When cardinals appear in their bright colors in the winter months, they echo the saturated hues typical of holiday decor. If you would like to entice cardinals to visit your home in winter, you can maintain bird feeders and bird baths, and you can also ensure that your yard has plenty of leafy shrubs and trees in which the birds can find shelter.
The birds’ connection with the color red gave them their name. According to the Farmers’ Almanac, northern cardinals are associated with legends across a variety of cultures and religions. They explain how cardinals received their moniker, writing, “When European settlers arrived in North America, they noticed these birds’ bright red hue and how closely it resembled the red vestments of Roman Catholic leading bishops. And the bird’s jaunty crest is similar in shape to the church officials’ headgear, especially the tall, pointed mitre.” These religious associations may have helped to make the cardinal a popular holiday bird, and their eye-catching red color has made it easy to associate them with Christmas.
Love and Loss
Beyond the obvious associations with the color red, cardinals have also long been symbols of loved ones who have died. According to the Farmers’ Almanac, “It is common folklore that a visit from a cardinal represents a sign from a loved one who has passed. While this belief cannot be traced to a single origin, birds have often symbolized heavenly visitors, messengers to the gods, or even the gods themselves in feathered form.” These personal and sentimental resonances can also connect the birds to Christmas, a season when we often think of our families and those who are no longer with us.
Redbirds have come to hold many symbolic connections during the holiday season and beyond. Their meaning at Christmastime differs from individual to individual, but they are nonetheless a frequent visitor in holiday decor, Christmas cards, and ornaments. When you see a northern cardinal this winter, it may offer an opportunity to reflect, and you might just be inspired to take a moment and think about what it means to you.
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