Dec 17, 2013

Not Even A Mouse - Animals Appearing at Christmas

When you think of animals associated with the holiday season, flying antlered deer most often come to mind. Although the legend of reindeer powering St. Nicholas' yearly excursion has been around since the 1800's, (pre-dated by St. Nicholas appearing on a white horse,) there are other beasts that are connected to Yule and Christmas.

I, said the cow, all white and red,
I gave Him my manger for His bed,
I gave Him hay to pillow His head;
I, said the cow, all white and red.

The nativity story wouldn't be quite what it is without the donkey that carried Mary or the co-habitants of the stable where her son would be born.  The song "The Friendly Beasts" or "The Gift of the Animals" allows the animals themselves to sing their praises, or more accurately, report of their gifts to the newborn king.

The idea of the animals acknowledging the Christ child is echoed in the later tale that tells of how animals might kneel down to pray at Christmas.

"My mother told us that at Christmas, at the hour when baby Jesus was born, that the ox and the donkey beside the manger began to speak.  She also said that if you went to the barn at that very moment you would hear the animals talking."

And a derivative of that story, with a less happy ending:

"An old woman told me about a man who didn't believe in anything. They say that at midnight, when the good Lord came into the world, the animals kneel down. 'I'll go and see for myself,' he said. When he went out to the barn, all the animals were on their knees.  He thought that was silly so he said to them: 'What are you doing?'  'God was born this night,' one of the oxen replied, 'and tomorrow we'll take our master to be buried.'  The man was so frightened that he dropped dead."

~ from Acadian Christmas Traditions, Georges Arsenault

In Sweden (and in a similar way in Norway, Finland, and Denmark,) small bearded men called tomte or nisse bring the holiday gifts, entrusting goats and sometimes pigs to help haul the goods.  In older times, the tomte (or tomtar) were more farm-hand type fellows who helped with daily chores and animal care.  Their identity as holiday visitors developed over the years and more modern tomte have begun to look like Santa Claus.

The Yule Goat, the figure that visited households before the tomte gained popularity, was the helpful spirit of the last harvest, who might bless (or at least keep an eye on) the progression of the Yule celebration.  This goat was symbolized by a straw or corn dolly and kept in the house, and now appears more often as a traditional tree ornament.

I can't seem to track down much about mice having a role in the holiday festivities, but in my family a pair of Christmas mice have always made an appearance and are still hung each year at my parents' home.  Aside from "not a creature was stirring..." and this charming mouse song from Norway, the only other mention I can find of a tradition is the sugar mice that are so common in the UK as a holiday treat.  

"There never was such a goose," says Dickens as he describes the Cratchit family's Christmas meal.  Although we gravitate to turkey these days, the goose was traditionally the more common and affordable meal option.  I went out searching for a goose last month for Thanksgiving.  The most reasonable one I could find was $60.00.  The 20lb turkey beside it was $11.00.  Times have changed.

As we sing the final praises of animals at Christmastide, don't forget that a full 23 of the items listed in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are animals (all birds) and that's before taking into account what the "eight maids a milking" were working with.  It seems that the holidays would be considerably less cheerful (and tasty) if our celebrations excluded the animal kingdom.

Do you include any animals or animal stories in your holiday celebrations? I'd love to hear!

* all photos from creative commons and linked back
* sources include:
Ingebretsen's (Scandinavian folklore and culture)
Acadian Christmas Traditions by Georges Arsenault
Wikipedia "Tomte" 


Debra She Who Seeks said...

Don't forget those singing Jingle Cats!

Sarah said...

My cats are always in at least one Christmas picture because they believe the tree skirt was placed for their convenience. We also usually make bird feeders sometime during the month of December.

Rue said...

I agree - it wouldn't be Christmas without our crazy cats!

Anonymous said...

No animals in this household, but when you spoke of Christmas mice, I thought about a Wisconsin company's mouse logo (I think it's called the Swiss Colony or something like that). The first time I saw it, I thought who in the world would associate a mouse with Christmas cakes and cheese? That's the last thing I want to see around my Christmas goodies! But now I think it's cute. Maybe the company took its cue from Scandinavian lore.

Betty W said...

I have never heard some of the stories in the post. Very interesting. I hope You have a Very Happy Winter Solstice.

Jen @ Muddy Boot Dreams said...

It's interesting how all of the different cultures all somehow have the same theme running through them despite their differences.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas!


Birgit said...

My nativity scene includes an ox, a donkey, a camel (from the Three Wise Men), and sheep. So, yes, animals have always been part of the holidays for me. This year you can also count in our neighbor's cat who happens to come around for cuddles and treats nearly every day. :)

Jen, thanks for a year of wonderful blog posts -- you wouldn't believe how often I have nodded while reading your lines. I admire how honest and frank you talk about everything. I am looking forward to your blog posts next year -- here's to a really wonderful and magical 2014!

Love and light always,