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Why Are There Dead Birds on Victorian Christmas Cards?

One of the more curious recurring images on 19th-century Christmas cards is the dead bird, which may symbolize mortality or something more ritualistic.

“May yours be a Joyful Christmas” (via Tea Tree Gully Library)

As we’ve previously explored on Hyperallergic, Victorian Christmas cards could be quite creepy, with their murderous frogs and mobs of torch wielding birds. But one repeating image is especially strange: the dead bird. What’s the deal with that?

To understand why you might send a friend or family member this morbid missive, we must mentally journey back to the 19th century. And no, it was not madness from the arsenic laced wallpaper or tightly cinched corsets. According to Rebecca Baumann at Indiana University, the cards were particularly prominent in 1880s Britain. With the popularity of mourning rituals and posthumous portraits, death was visually present in daily life.

“A Loving Christmas Greeting” (via Tea Tree Gully Library)

The image of a dead bird in the snow is similar to the popular “Babe in the Woods” motif of children who are in their mortal sleep in the forest, and may have likewise been a call to empathy for the less fortunate. John Grossman, author of Christmas Curiosities, told Tea Tree Library that the cards were “bound to elicit Victorian sympathy and may reference common stories of poor children freezing to death at Christmas.” It’s worth noting that these cards also have imagery akin to the depictions of the 18th-century English rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin,” that includes the funeral of the slain bird.

However, it wasn’t necessarily such a tempus fugit symbol. Hunter Oatman-Stanford at Collectors Weekly noted that the birds are often robins and wrens, and that “killing a wren or robin was once a good-luck ritual performed in late December.” Specifically, the Irish St. Stephen’s Day on December 26 is known as “Wren Day,” with a traditional hunt of the bird (albeit now a fake one on a pole, although that wasn’t always the case).  So receiving a card with the little prone bird, feet curled in rigor mortis, could be meant to wish nothing more than good cheer on the new year.

“A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” (1876) (via National Library of Ireland/Flickr)

View more curious Victorian Christmas cards in our “Have a Creepy Little Christmas” post.

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