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When my daughters were chubby-cheeked, Santa-believing preschoolers, my mother bought them a Christmas-themed book to add to our collection. I placed it on the shelf next to the Christmas tree, along with the ones about Frosty, Rudolf and the Gingerbread Man.
This book, “Redbird at Rockefeller Center,” was about a little girl who was heartbroken when the tree in her backyard — and the bird who lived in it — got hauled off to Rockefeller Center.
It’s a somber tale with a conservation-minded moral (Christmas trees are lovely for people but sad for trees and birds) that is slightly questionable in modern times, but it has a joyful ending. Through Christmas magic, all of the red bird ornaments come to life and carry the tree (and the bird) back to New Jersey.
Year after year at Christmas, I pull “Redbird at Rockefeller Center” out with all of our seasonal books, decorations and the ornament bin, inside of which are a couple of our own red birds.
How exactly did red birds, including northern cardinals, become associated with Christmas? There are a number of reasons, but the most obvious one is their color.
Cardinals don’t fly south for winter, so they actually stick around at Christmastime. While we’re gathering to open gifts, they’re literally flitting around outside, dressed in Santa’s bold color. (Male cardinals get their color mostly from the berries and carotenoid-rich food they eat.)
We can see their bright red plumage against the snow in our backyards — a gorgeous sight fit for holiday cards and fine china place settings. They might as well be posing for us. Their bright color also reminds us of the cycle of seasons and spring, just ahead.
In fact, the color of male cardinals (and their spiked crest of feathers) inspired Western European settlers to give the species its name. The bird’s appearance reminded them of the red vestments worn by Roman Catholic clergy. This association also makes them a natural fit as Christmas birds, since Christmas is traditionally a Christian holiday.
Many Christians associate the color red with the shed blood of Christ, who died for the sins of the world to bring people eternal life. Some believe that when you see a cardinal, it’s a reminder that your loved ones aren’t truly gone.
Others believe that a cardinal itself can symbolize a heavenly visitor — a loved one returning to see you after their passing. This spiritual belief has been associated with ancient Egyptian, Irish, Celtic and Hindu traditions, among others. It has also been a documented belief among many Native American tribes. Thus, red birds fit right in during the holidays, a time when many reflect upon past memories with departed loved ones.
If you’d like to attract northern cardinals to your yard, you could start by planting low-growing berry shrubs and fruit trees. Cardinals especially love fruits from low-growing shrubs and fruit trees, including dogwood, sumac, blueberry, hackberry and northern bayberry.
Another option is a good, old-fashioned bird feeder. Place it close enough to some trees to provide protection from predators, but far enough that squirrels can’t climb into it.
Fill it with black oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, peanuts or cracked corn. Make sure to refill the feeder in the afternoons since they tend to forage late in the day.
And of course, make sure the feeder’s within a good view of your window! Whatever the sight of a cardinal means to you, you’ll have a perfect view to take it in.
What is the significance of red birds during the holidays? originally appeared on Simplemost.com, helping make the most out of life.