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Robin Hood at Xmas: Some surprising seasonal links with the Sherwood legend

ROBIN HOOD’S LINKS WITH CHRISTMAS!  So what on earth has Robin Hood got to do with Christmas? BOB WHITE, Chairman of the World Wide Robin Hood Society looks at some of the ways in which the outlaw hero’s legendary status in global popular culture has developed links with the traditional festive season.

So what on earth has Robin Hood got to do with Christmas? BOB WHITE, Chairman of the World Wide Robin Hood Society looks at some of the ways in which the outlaw hero’s legendary status in global popular culture has developed links with the traditional festive season.

Of course, Christmas is also the time for the traditional British pantomime and it was way back in 1867 that the storyline of the popular panto, “Babes in the Wood” first introduced the character of Robin Hood and Victorian audiences and critics were somewhat bemused by his sudden appearance! Based on an old English ballad of 1595, the story of two children abandoned deep in the forest by their wicked uncle, was originally first staged as an opera at the Haymarket Theatre in 1798 and called “The Children in the Wood”. However, it would be over 30 years later, in 1827 before the first ”pantomime” version of the story was presented at Drury Lane under the title of “The Babes in the Wood”.

A glance at Robin Hood’s historical timeline clearly shows that he reputedly lived well over 200 years before the story of the Babes in the Wood was created but after he first appeared in the 1867 production at Covent Garden, Robin quickly became established into the pantomime version along with his Merry Men (who were all played by women) and Maid Marian, who became the nurse to the babes. Literary historians believe that introducing Robin Hood and his companions into the drama was a significant and successful move, as this second story line was one already known to children and helped expand the somewhat weak main plot to help guarantee its popularity with family audiences, often resulting in Robin getting headline billing with productions being frequently called “Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood”. Ironically, Robin had already been the subject of his “own” pantomime, since “Merry Sherwood” in the 1790’s, so his unexpected and unlikely appearance in the Babes in the Wood proved to be somewhat baffling. In fact, as late as 1888, the Times newspaper continued to express surprise at Robin Hood’s association with the production stating that “the babes were mixed up with the proceedings of Robin Hood and his Merry Men in Sherwood Forest owing to the accidental circumstance, as it would seem, of Maid Marian having been engaged as their governess.”

Aspects of the traditional Robin Hood legend soon made their mark on various versions of the “Babes in the Wood” pantomime and in Act Two, the children are guided to Robin Hood’s encampment in Sherwood Forest and the storyline also often includes a scene at Nottingham Goose Fair and an archery contest. The pantomime’s conclusion sees the babes return to Nottingham Castle and the villainous Sheriff/Wicked Uncle defeated. The children claim their rightful inheritance and are subsequently looked after by Robin and Marian, who usually marry at the end of the Act, prompting lots of emotional sighs from the audience!  

Some historians hold the view that Robin Hood’s real roots are entwined with the mystical beliefs of ancient English folklore, so it perhaps comes as no surprise to learn that one theory suggests that, in a similar way to how he is often connected to the Green Man, Nottingham’s famous outlaw may have also evolved through traditional links to the robin, the friendly, red-breasted garden bird whose image features so prominently on thousands of seasonal greetings cards. In 2012, author, journalist and etymologist Steve Moxon focussed on the close relationship between the two Robins (Hood and Redbreast) and stated “Given that we have more of a concrete handle on the bird robin than on Robin Hood, then this seems like a good starting point to attack the mystery but the problem is that there isn’t an etymology (how the word was derived) even for the bird!” However, to avoid taking readers through the complexity of the various viewpoints and their often relatively inconclusive findings I will sum up the issue in the following simple terms. The robin is referred to in folklore as “the oak king” and in the context of the traditional year-end (St Stephen’s Day – Boxing Day) the processional ritual of “hunting the wren” takes place and uses the sympathetic magic of regeneration mythology to ensure the resumption of life and fertility, which are seemingly gone forever with the onset of Winter. It is a supposed battle between “the oak king” of the new year (the robin) and “the holly king” of the old year (the wren) that gave rise to the barbaric practised custom where a group of men take up on behalf of the robin to seek and kill a wren and parade the body about the village. Not surprisingly, Steve Moxon comments “The curious aspect of this is that although in context the two birds were considered “kings” – so both were considered as male – they were also imagined as husband and wife, the robin as male and the wren female!” Apparently, this is how we got the terms “cock robin” and “jenny wren”! How confusing is that!

Of course we are all familiar with seeing images of the robin on our Christmas cards but in recent years I have noticed that one or two designs have sometimes shown the robin wearing a jaunty green Robin Hood hat and even carrying a bow, so that loose word association with the two robins (bird and outlaw) still exists!

Christmas is also a time for great feasting and merry making so one might have expected to find a more specific reference in the Robin Hood ballads and traditional stories to the events of the festive season but there is hardly anything of significance. Perhaps it’s because Robin and his band were generally well provided for in their Sherwood Forest encampment and regularly used any excuse to break out the food and drink for a celebration whenever they had a “guest” or had completed a successful adventure. No doubt the troubadours and players who travelled around the country would also regularly embellish their stories from the Robin Hood legend with topical, seasonal references for their performances in castles, manor houses, taverns and market places etc. but it appears that these variations were never significant enough to become permanently adapted into any of the traditional Robin Hood tales.

However, it was probably a more recent contemporary dramatisation of the Robin Hood legend that brought Christmas back into the story when, in Kevin Costner’s blockbuster movie, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”, actor Alan Rickman’s scene-stealing performance, playing the evil Sheriff of Nottingham in a fit of rage because things were not going his way, delivered the classic line “That’s it then! Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings and Call off Christmas!” – creating a phrase which ultimately found its way into movie history’s popular culture!