As the Christmas season draws nearer, here is a survey of some of the many fascinating animal associations with this very special time of year that occur in Yuletide legend and tradition.
THE NIGHT WHEN ANIMALS SPEAK
In many lands, there is an age-old folk belief that from midnight on Christmas Eve until dawn breaks on Christmas Day morning, animals are blessed with the gift of human speech, in memory of the lowly stable creatures that surrounded the Holy Family in the manger. During that magical period, they are able to converse with one another, enabling them to voice their adoration of the newborn Jesus, and also to discuss how well (or otherwise) they are cared for by their human masters.
This belief formed the basis of a wonderful Gamma Films cartoon special entitled 'The Night The Animals Talked' (1970), which was regularly shown on television at Christmas in the UK when I was a child, but which, sadly, has not made an appearance now for many years. Bring it back, please!! (Happily, it can be viewed on YouTube.)
A still from 'The Night The Animals Talked'
Moreover, according to the same folk belief the farmyard cattle and horses kneel in prayer, turning to the east as they recall how they knelt in humble homage before the divine infant on that first Christmas of all, in a stable far away at Bethlehem. After being converted to Christianity by European missionaries, many native American Indians adopted a similar tradition to their Old World teachers, claiming that the wild deer kneel in the forests at midnight on Christmas Eve, in respect for the Great Spirit.
Even today, according to rural superstition in parts of Britain it is said to be extremely unlucky to observe farm animals in their stables and stalls during the early hours of Christmas morning. Not only will the animals not carry out their homage, but misfortune will plague those whose prying behaviour has prevented the creatures from doing so. By the same token, because farm animals were present at the birth of Jesus, it is a longstanding farming tradition to give their livestock extra food at Christmas - a gift in recognition of their ancestors' sacred status as witnesses during that first Christmas. Of course, in modern times this custom has been extended to pet animals too, especially dogs.
THE BEES AND THE BIRDS
According to a very charming folk tradition, bees awaken from sleep in Missouri at midnight on Christmas Eve and, in loud buzzing resonance, hum the Old Hundredth Psalm. In Eastern Europe, birds are said to sing throughout the night before Christmas, and even the least musical species are temporarily blessed with dulcet voices as sweet as those of the melodious nightingale, so that they can offer their own paean of praise and thanks for the birth of Jesus. Similarly, cockerels crow joyfully all night, to announce the Holy Child's arrival.
CALLING BIRDS, OR COLLY BIRDS?
Speaking of singing birds: one of the most familiar Christmas songs is 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'. Everyone has sung it, but how many people can confidently identify the species to which the four birds given on the fourth day of Christmas belong? In some modern-day versions, they are referred to, very vaguely, as calling birds. In the more popular, original version, however, they are described as colly birds - but what are colly birds?
In fact, 'colly' (also spelled 'colley') is a rural name, particularly prevalent in Somerset and Gloucestershire, for the blackbird, and translates literally as coal-black.
Incidentally, this should not be confused with the real colly birds or colies, which constitute an exclusively-African taxonomic order of birds also known as mousebirds, on account of their rodent-like scurrying movements and predominantly grey plumage.
An African colly bird, wholly unrelated to its Christmastime namesake.
THE CHRISTMAS ROBIN
Closely related to the blackbird is the robin, whose small, cheery, red-breasted form is nowadays synonymous with Christmas and appears on millions of Christmas cards each year. Its links with Christmas, however, like so many other current Yuletide symbols and customs, actually stem from beliefs dating back to cultures prevalent long before Christianity.
The robin's fiery-plumaged breast readily inspires images of flames. Accordingly, in ancient times it was deemed to be responsible for bringing fire to mankind. In Norse mythology, it was also associated with Thor, god of thunder and lightning. This symbolism was perpetuated but subtly transformed in an early Christian fable, which tells of how the small fire warming the Holy Family in the stable began to die out, until a flock of robins succeeded in rekindling it by fanning its embers with their wings. In so doing, however, their breast feathers were scorched black, but in thanks for their act of kindness the Virgin Mary rewarded them by bestowing upon their singed feathers a bright scarlet hue that would be perpetuated by their descendants forever.
NOT FROM TURKEY, BUT FROM MEXICO
Another bird closely associated with Christmas, but for a very different reason, is the turkey. As this species is native to the New World, however, it only became known in Europe following the first great Western voyages to the Americas, particularly the expedition to Mexico led by Cortes. Until then, the most popular bird consumed at Christmas in Europe was the goose, plus, for those wealthy enough to afford them, the swan and the peacock - but the turkey's succulent flesh helped it to usurp all of these as the favourite bird for Christmas feasting. Although today's domestic version is popularly believed to derive from the wild turkeys of North America, in reality it is descended from counterparts that had already been domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico, as discovered by Cortes.
The reason why it is called the turkey seems to stem from an unfortunate confusion of names. When the first turkeys reached Europe, they were mistaken by some for the African guineafowl, which at that time was known as the turkey (because it was exported from Turkey). Consequently, they acquired this same name - to the extent that, today, most people have long forgotten that the 'original' turkey was actually a species of guineafowl.
HOW SANTA CLAUS GAINED HIS REINDEER - AND HIS KANGAROOS!
Perhaps the most popular of all animals in Christmas tradition are the reindeer that draw the presents-loaded sleigh of Father Christmas, alias Santa Claus. In fact, this is quite a recent addition to Yuletide lore, stemming for the most part from the fertile imagination of a languages professor from New York called Clement Moore - best-remembered today, however, for his delightful poem 'A Visit From St Nicholas'. Penned in 1822, its opening lines famously read: "'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;".
It was here that Santa's eight trusty reindeer, each with its own name, made their debut, but just as Santa supposedly derives from Lapland, so too, most probably, did Moore's inspiration for his antlered steeds. For according to Lapp mythology, the snow and freezing cold weather typical of northern Finland at this time of year is brought down from the mountains to the plains each winter by a herd of reindeer, driven by a suitably chilly figure known as Old Man Winter. Prior to Moore's poem, Santa was normally depicted as riding a white horse, and sometimes even a goat!
Last, but certainly not least, in our zoological Christmas is its most unlikely member - the kangaroo! However, in modern times it has indeed gained Yuletide associations, at least in Australia, where modern fables tell of how Santa's sleigh is drawn through the sky here not by reindeer but instead by a team of burly bull kangaroos, or boomers (as immortalised in a Rolf Harris song entitled 'Six White Boomers'). Wonderful!
Rolf Harris's hit record, 'Six White Boomers'
Have a great Christmas! See you next year.