There are many myths and legends associated with Christmas. For some Christmas itself is a legend (or even a myth). One of the stranger myths of this holiday is that at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve animals of all sorts are endowed with the power of human speech. What they have to say is largely based on variations of the legend and, of course, the animal itself.

Nativity Scene
Nativity Scene

Image via Wikimedia

This tale seems to have originated in Europe and is based in the belief that Jesus was born precisely at midnight as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day. This timing is supposed to have created a number of supernatural events, including the animals speaking. While some speculate that this legend has pagan roots, like many of the trappings of the season, it may have also come from the belief that the ox and the donkey bowed down when Jesus was born. Whatever the origins of the tale, it has grown over the centuries and developed variations based on locale.

To be sure there were many animals supposedly present at that first Christmas the way we tell the story today. Those shepherds did not come alone. Their sheep would have come along with them. The wise men came with a retinue of camels. Of course there was the donkey that Joseph and Mary had ridden into Bethlehem on. Then there would have been whatever animals routinely called the stable home, including such creatures as mice and spiders. Other legends also place a dog and a cat in there as well. That would mean that there could have been quite a lot of conversation going on.

Nativity Scene
Nativity Scene

Image via Wikimedia

One such tale from Brittany has the household animals plotting against their masters. Another tale, from the German Alps, has the animals foretelling the death of one of the farmhands. Coincidentally it is the same farmhand that had hidden in the stable just to hear them speak. He died within the week. A made-for-television animated short film entitled "The Night the Animals Talked," finds the animals in the stable given the power of speech only to start bickering and insulting one another. They finally realize that they had been given this gift so that they could spread the word of Jesus' birth. Too late. They lose the power just as they are trying to tell the people of Bethlehem.

 

A lighter version of the tale in a hymn, The Friendly Beasts (see video above), that has each animal telling of the gift each of them brought this special child. In a Native American variation from Canada that says that on Christmas Eve all of the deer in the forest fall to their knees to honor the Great Spirit. Still another legend from England says that all of the bees gather to sing a special hymn on Christmas Eve.

Obviously this power of speech should last for some period of time beyond midnight. The only reference to this that I could find was attributed to a story by Marguerite Cunliffe-Owen, The Tribulations of a Princess. In this tale the time period for the ability of human speech was limited to being from midnight to dawn on Christmas.

My favorite reference to this legend comes from the television show "Northern Exposure." In the Christmas episode from season 3 the character Chris Stevens, the local radio and oddly philosophical disc-jockey of the fictional Cicely, Alaska, has this to say:

“It’s an old legend that on Christmas Eve at midnight all of the animals fall to their knees and speak, praising the newborn Jesus. Back in the winter of ’69, my dad was serving a short time for a DUI and I don’t know where my Mom was. Anyway I was home alone on Christmas Eve and I stayed up extra kinda late to see if my dog, Buddy, would talk. And he did. I don’t remember his exact words, but that’s not important. But what matters is that a seven-year-old boy experienced his own personal epiphany. What’s my point? Well . . . it’s that Christmas reveals itself to us each in a personal way, be it secular or sacred. Whatever Christmas is, and it’s many things to many people, we all own a piece of it. It’s like, well, it’s kinda like Santa’s bag. Inside there’s a gift for everybody. My Christmas wish for you tonight – may your dog talk. Goodnight Cicely, Merry Christmas.”

My Cat
My Cat

Photo by Jyoti Wind, Image via Laurie Kay Olson

That sums things up pretty well to me. This Christmas Eve I shall be listening at midnight for my cat to speak. She rarely says anything profound with or without human speech, but she also sums it all up pretty well with "I love you." Of course at a time like midnight that is usually followed up with "May I curl up on your head?" And that is all I need to hear.

My Christmas wish for you this year? May your pet talk. Merry Christmas animal lovers!

Sources: Mental Floss, Language Log

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