You might not know that people used to send Christmas cards featuring dead birds during the Victorian Era. Here’s the story behind that strange custom!
What a strange time was the Victorian Era, when people used to pose and photograph dead bodies in otherwise ordinary situations, or send Christmas cards with the weird image of a dead bird on it. Queen Victoria herself even popularized a crazy fashion consisting of decorating the corpse of an evergreen tree during December. Strange indeed.
We’ve all seen the morbid pictures, and many probably still do the tree thing to this day—probably. But the dead-bird tradition is far more obscure. Why on Earth would anyone do this? Well, the answer is as funny as it is predictable. Care to venture a guess?
What drives so many strange behaviors?
The short answer—superstition. That’s right, when it comes to human behavior, there are few things as consistent as our tendency to connect in our imagination dots that are completely unrelated in reality. Every culture and historical period have their own idiosyncratic beliefs regarding what counts as good luck and what doesn’t, and Victorian England was no different. Apparently, people back then associated dead birds, specifically robins and wrens, with good fortune. So sending someone a card depicting a dead, cute little songbird—or perhaps even an actual, tiny corpse—was a way of wishing them the best for the new year.
A noble sentiment?
Exactly why this was so is not clear. Perhaps dead birds were used to signal the fragility of life, as some claim, as they and their flight represented the quick passing of the years (specifically, they could be a symbol for the notion that time flies). Others have suggested these guiltless creatures are reminiscent of little children in the concept known as “Babes in the Wood,” where unexperienced innocents unknowingly enter a dangerous situation. The goal of these motifs is to evoke a feeling of sympathy for the less fortunate, a sentiment closely associated with the ideal spirit of Christmas.
There are other more likely explanations for this practice, though. There’s an old Irish festival that is celebrated on December 26th, during St. Stephen’s Day, which once involved hunting a small wren as an essential part of the festivities. Today this is mostly symbolic (no wrens are currently harmed, fortunately), but it used to be an actual good-luck ritual that gave the festival its name—Wren Day. Still, it seems slightly odd to consider wren-killing, symbolic or otherwise, good luck. Then again, most good-luck charms are ultimately strange to the eyes of those who don’t know how they came about. It’s certainly not stranger than the rabbit foot superstition, anyway.
So, yeah. The Irish used to kill birds for luck to celebrate Christmas, and that tradition was probably incorporated into Victorian customs through Christmas cards. Seems straightforward, right? The practice died off at some point in the late 1800s, but the cards’ designs survive for our amusement (or indignation, as the case may be).
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