Animals play a prominent role a Christmas, regardless of whether or not religious beliefs are behind it. The story of Rudolph, the red nosed reinder, is probably the most popular example of an animal that has become a Christmas icon. However, there are many animals are central to the story of Christmas and, as with all things Christmas we turn back to ancient history to find out the tradition behind it.
According to Viking tradition, the northern Germans and Scandinavians celebrated Yule, a pagan religious festival heralding the arrival of the winter solstice from mid-December to early January. During this time, many believed that Odin, disguised in a long blue-hooded cloak, would travel to earth on his eight-legged horse, to observe homesteaders gathered around the campfires to see how merry the people were while, for those in need of food, he left gifts of bread and disappeared.
As traditions grew over time, the children of these lands would anticipate the arrival of gift-bearing Odin, filling their boots with straw, carrots or sugar and place them near the fireplace so that the horse could come down to eat during his midnight rides. Odin would then reward these kind children by replacing the food with gifts and candy treats inside the boots. Another version of the story that could be connected to the socks hanging above the fireplace, with legendary origins.
But, in any case, the connection of animals to Christmas have long focused on children, and they have been used in teaching the story of Christ’s birth to them for nearly 1000 years.
This probably comes from the legendary tales of St. Francis of Assissi, who obtained permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manager with hay and two live animals in a cave in a village in central Italy. From that stage he preached to the villagers about the Babe of Bethlehem, engaging adult and children alike with his visual explanation.
The idea of telling the Christmas story in this way was not casual, as there was a popular practice at the time known as mystery or miracle plays.
The Bible was largely available only in Latin at the time, thus priests had to do more to get its stories out there in the common language of the regular people. So the little nativity scene St. Francis put together caught on as a trend and for the centuries since the Nativity has been depicted in scenes large and small ever since, in places all over the world.
And, back to our title, animals have always had a central part in telling that story.
Lot of animals have long been associated with the Christmas story but, curious fact, the story in scripture mentions none of these. A little bit like other elements of a traditional nativity scene that are also absent from scripture. The New Testament, for istance, gives a brief accounting of the Magi but if you read closely you know that the Magi were not present at the birth of Christ, but came much much later when the Christchild was more than two years old. And whether or not they came by camel is another fact more born of folklore than of scripture.
Folklore also gives the animals a part to play each Christmas, with the story in some ancient European traditions that they are blessed with the gift of speech every Christmas eve, able in their own way to articulate praise to God and the Baby of Bethlehem.
But there are other animals associated with Christmas, as the Christmas Spider, a celebrated tradition in Germany and Ukraine. It is from this Germanic folk tale that the tradition of tinsel is explained.
Reindeer have become closely associated with Christmas since the early nineteenth century. In the traditional festive legend, Santa Claus’s sleigh is pulled by a team of nine reindeer: Blitzen, Comet, Cupid, Dancer, Dasher, Donner, Prancer, Vixen, and Rudolph, the already mentioned “red-nosed reindeer”.
Donkeys were first domesticated around 3,000 years ago, and continue to be used as pack animals in many parts of the world today. They are one of the animals most strongly associated with Christmas and, in fact, Mary rode a donkey as she traveled to Bethlehem.
Also the robin is associated with Christmas because it is one of the most frequently-seen garden birds during the winter months. Do you know his legend?
The partridge has become associated with Christmas due to its appearance in the English carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, in which a “partridge in a pear tree” is one of the twelve gifts sent to the singer by their true love. In the Gospel of Luke, angels announce the birth of Jesus to a group of shepherds who are tending to their flock. As a result, sheep are a traditional part of the Nativity scene while In Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, the Yule Goat plays a part in traditional Christmas celebrations. Yule goat ornaments are placed under the Christmas tree, and larger Yule goats may be seen as part of a town’s decorations.
A boar was also traditionally part of the Yuletide feast in Nordic countries. Norsemen would place their hands on the Yule Boar and make oaths which they would have to fulfil and today, pork is still a traditional dish during the Christmas period in Norway….
Images from web – Google Research