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.
Moreover, 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?................