The Cardinal Rule of Christmas
In a landmark scientific study released this year, it was determined that 34% of the birds featured on Christmas cards are cardinals.
OK, the landmark study was actually my daughter and me in the card aisle at the local Wal-Mart. But the stats don’t lie. As you pull out your Christmas decorations this year, watch for it; there’s probably a cardinal in there somewhere, on some ornament, festive mug, or random holiday napkin.
So how did the cardinal score such a lucrative endorsement deal?
Granted, the Northern Cardinal was already an impressively popular bird before it ever crashed Christmas. It has been dubbed the official bird of a record seven U.S. states (including my home state of North Carolina), and grandstands as a mascot in Major League Baseball, pro football, and two Division 1 colleges (No, the Stanford Cardinal is not a cardinal, nor are there cardinals in California, but Louisville and Ball State sport the bird proudly). Cardinals are automatic attention-getters, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology even suggests, “The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off.”
But none of this explains the Christmas allure of the cardinal. Yes, the cardinal’s name was sort of Christian from the start, chosen in honor of the bright red vestments of cardinal robes in the Catholic Church, including that feathered crest that’s reminiscent of the cleric’s pointed hat. But that explains name origins, not Hallmark prevalence.
In short, I’d like to suggest that there are three great reasons to incorporate the Northern Cardinal into our Christmas celebrations, the last of which —as far as I can tell — is entirely overlooked.
The cardinal is a picture of faithful constancy. It stays when others leave, sticking it out through the bleak midwinter. In the Fall when the majority of birds make the trip south, the cardinal happily remains as a year-round resident. The poet Orrick Johns beautifully wrote,
The summer goes away With the white leaf of a dusty day; With the yellow leaf of beech And the red leaf of the maple; The summer has no mind to stay With the shrunk brown leaf of the apple, The shrivelled hang-stone on the peach. But it matters little how branches bleach, The cardinal bird remains.
That year-round constancy is a fitting picture of the never-giving-up faithfulness of God, who is not seasonal in his affection, but continues steadfast in his new-morning mercies (Lamentations 3:22-23). The cardinal remains in the bleaker days, a 365-day commitment, at least if you’re in the Eastern two-thirds of the United States. It is indeed the “perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style,” bringing visible constancy to all the highs and lows of our year.
We need this reminder in the wintery moments of life. We remember that God fulfilled his promise in a desperate season of history: a Roman occupation, a dictator-decreed census, the oppressive wheels of the world churning on. Christmas reminds us of God’s faithful constancy at the least obvious of times: a God who says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5) and a Bethlehem manger that proclaims, “He is with us! He has not abandoned us!”
The Gospel in Two-Tone
The cardinal doesn’t just remain in winter; his vivid color remains too. Unlike many birds that molt to a duller plumage in the colder months, the cardinal remains vibrantly red, refusing to compromise his brilliance. And it’s that color that makes him so Christmas-card-worthy; there is a message of hope in the red.
That dash of crimson anticipates a coming cross — red blood shed for the accomplishment of our forgiveness. That red-colored hope is still ours today, persisting through the grey gloom of the world’s winter.
Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all. (Emily Dickinson)
Hope, in the Biblical use of the term, is something far more than positive attitudes or wishful thinking. Biblical hope is a settled confidence, an anchor, an insured care with an assured destination. It is the reality of stark red beauty on a cold grey day. The Lord has not abandoned us. He is still here. Hope never stops singing.
And when it snows, this image of hope is even more clear. The wreckage of the world is covered in a blanket of pure white. All the unseemly wilted brown of my lawn, all the scattered debris along the sidewalks of our streets, all the overgrown rot of winter — all of it is mercifully covered over, forgotten, made uniformly beautiful. Our sins are made white as December snow. And the cardinal flits above it all, reminding us by his vibrant red that this grace-declaring purity comes by the blood of Christ. Red-on-white is the gospel in two-tone.
My Soul Magnifies the Lord
But I want to offer up one more reason why the cardinal is an outstanding Christmas bird. I’m not suggesting that this is an origin story; I’m simply sharing a fitting fact. In most bird species, only the male sings, filling the airwaves with territory-claiming song while the female is relegated to simple chirps and flat call notes. Not so with the cardinal. Yes, the female sports a duller plumage (though still with warm red accents and that wonderfully confident crest) but she refuses to relinquish her vocal cords to the male of the species. Both sexes share the richly melodic birdee-birdee-birdee song, and some say the female is actually better at it, longer and more complex.
When God announced his Son into the world, he chose the most unlikely of confidants for revealing his plan. In this first-Century Middle-Eastern context, only men could give credible testimony; on top of this, Mary was unwed, young, and impoverished—and her story of a Spirit-initiated pregnancy would have been entirely unconvincing to her neighbors. As the townspeople whispered their suspicions with side-glancing disapprovals, Mary sang her song:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49)
She sings of her Lord’s great constancy to her, and reminds the listener of the personal care she’s received. Set within the tenor and bass of men like Zechariah and Simeon, whose Christmas songs are also recorded, Mary’s teenage soprano reminds us that the good news of a coming savior isn’t reserved for just half the church. The Lord will call me blessed too, she sings. Humble, marginalized me. The Lord’s care is for me.
As she continues her song, that constancy extends further and further:
“His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:50-53)
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, longing for God’s constancy to reveal itself in the faithful feathers of red-flashing hope. God’s care is four-seasons-faithful, refusing to migrate south, ever-present from generation to generation.
“He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:54-55)
Truly, hope is far more than wishful thinking. Hope is the joy of trusting our God to make good on his promises. His mercy doesn’t fade with the forgetfulness of passing years. Mary the songstress is about to see God’s centuries-long commitments wrapped in a bundle and placed in her arms: “veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity.”
So the next time you pour cocoa in that holiday bird mug, or don your flannel Christmas-cardinal pajamas (you know who you are…), consider the cardinal as a fitting mascot for our Christmas hope. The Lord remains through all our seasons. The Lord brings the hope of red and the mercy of white to all our sin and sorrow. And the constancy of Jesus Christ is reason for every voice—young and old, male and female—to magnify his mercy.