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.
Have a great Christmas! See you next year.
CC BY 2.0 licence)
Speaking of the Twelve Days of Christmas, the "Five Golden Rings" are ring necked pheasants. In fact the whole song is most certainly about birds. The "Drummers drumming" are grouse, "Lords a leaping" are male cock pheasants. I've never figured out what birds "maids a milking" and "ladies dancing" refer to, but I'm convinced it is referring to birds.ReplyDelete
Wonderful! Thak you for these stories Dr. Shuker, one or more of them my even find their way into a Christmas Sermon or two.ReplyDelete
Peace and Blessings for this great feast.
"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,"ReplyDelete
There was I thinking I had gone crackers or tasted too much sherry last Christmas eve. I was sure my dog asked if Santa had been yet.
Hi everyone, Thanks for your comments, I'm delighted that you have enjoyed my article so much! I was very interested, Chris, in yout theory that the whole of The Twelve Days of Christmas song may well be about birds, as I hadn't read anything about that before. However, after giving it some thought, who knows, if so then perhaps the nightjar may explain the maids-a-milking line, as its alternative name is the goatsucker, due to the folk belief that it sucks the milk from nanny goats. And in the past (and now once again), Britain was home to the crane as a breeding species, a bird well known for its mating dances and elegant appearance. Indeed, one European species is so maiden-like that it is called the demoiselle crane, so perhaps the crane could explain the ladies dancing? All the best, and Happy Christmas! KarlReplyDelete
This was my first visit to your blog, and I was delighted to read this article and the comments. I'm a theology professor and take great pleasure in examining the origin of religious customs. I'll certainly be visiting again.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much, and have a blessed Christmas and a New Year filled with God's peace!
Great article I do have a comment though isnt the original version of twelve days, French ? Why couldnt calling birds refer to Call Ducks?ReplyDelete
I remember one Christmas eve,I had just finished the tree,every one else was asleep my dog Agatha looked at me and said nice job.ReplyDelete
Well needless to say I was stunned,then she asked for a gin and tonic like the ones I had been drinking all day.
Well it was quite a night,we talked about a lot of different things but mostly she complained about not having thumbs, how she couldn't open bottles and how, if she saw a coin on the ground she couldn't pick it up .
I reminded her that even if she could pick it up she had place to put it..I mean you have no pockets your not a kangaroo.
Yup,Quite a night
A great christmas special for animal lovers, which is seldom shown is Nestor the long eared donkey'. look for it. peace!ReplyDelete
sorry, but i have a slight problem with the first one...isn't christmas, the date, added later? i mean, we don't really know when the birthdate was...and didn't this date come from pagan holiday to begin with? it would seem then that the animals, getting the ability to talk, would be doing so originally from a pagan celebration...just wondering...ReplyDelete
thanks - jim
very nice and interesting information but i wish you could say more about christmas creatures generally,not only about animals...anyway...i enjoyed your article a lot!!ReplyDelete
Thanks for all the encouraging comments, and hoping that you all have a great 2010 !!ReplyDelete
An Australian Christmas tradition I remember from a young age, was that on television, they used to broadcast an "australianised" version of the 12 days of Christmas. All of the verses were replaced by various Australian animals, what fun.ReplyDelete
Also, animals of Christmas as far as Australia goes should mention that, being in summer, a popular Christmas lunch or dinner is lobster and prawns.
The Australianised version of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' sounds wonderful! If you could post it here, we'd all love to read it!!
All the best, Karl
Hi everyone, On BBC1's 'Songs of Praise' Christmas special today, Boxing Day (26 December) 2010, British composer Howard Goodall claimed that 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' was indeed originally concerned exclusively with birds, thus supporting Chris A's suggestion. However, whereas Chris A claimed that 'Five Gold Rings' referred to ring-necked pheasants, Goodall stated that it was probably a corruption of a similar-sounding French word for the goldfinch. If so, the line would thus have originally read 'Five Goldfinches'.ReplyDelete
The fifth-century Christian poet, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, is credited with the idea of giving animals human voices, enabling them to join angels in adoration on the arrival of the Messiah.In 1223 St Francis of Assisi received Papal permission to use live animals to recreate the nativity of Jesus for the benefit of the inhabitants of Grecio. As the popularity of nativity plays spread across Europe, folklore credited God with granting animals of the stable the ability to speak for an hour at midnight on Christmas Eve. In Eastern European countries it is considered very bad luck to catch them at it, as they often predict the death of their masters.ReplyDelete
Christian tradition differs over whether the previously unmarked hide of the donkey received its dark, cross-shaped stripes for providing the transport that got a heavily pregnant Mary as far as Bethlehem or for carrying Jesus into Jerusalem.
Nomadic Sami tribesmen had a tradition of gathering the hallucinogenic fly agaric toadstool and feeding it to their reindeer. The reindeer's digestive system removed any poisons, leaving hallucinogens intact in urine. Drinking the urine induced an effect similar to LSD, so not only the reindeer were flying high!
Thanks very much, Jerry, for posting the above info - the fly agaric/reindeer info in particular was fascinating, and totally new to me. All the best, and Happy Christmas!ReplyDelete
Krampus is a demonic figure from Alpine Christmas folklore as opposed to a creature linked to Christmas folklore.ReplyDelete