History

The Forgotten Animals of Christmas Past

Quick: Name an animal that reminds you of Christmas. Did you name a reindeer? Most people do. Or perhaps a donkey or ox? Maybe not everyone’s first choice, but still deserving of honorable mention. Well, how about a stork? A robin? A horse or a goat?

Animals don’t play heavily in our modern American Christmas celebration. But here are 10 legends, superstitions, and traditions of Christmas Past that would’ve made Old MacDonald proud.

  1. Legend has it that the stork plucked out its own feathers to line the manger. This is why storks became the patrons of babies
  2. It’s said that the robin gets its red breast after flapping its wings too close to a flame in an attempt to keep the manger warm
  3. In Norway, the julenek is a sheaf of grain set on a pole for the birds on Christmas Eve
  4. Slesian farmers believed that keeping grain in one’s pocket during Christmas service could later be fed to poultry to make them lay more eggs
  5. In England, cattle were often wassailed and anointed with cider at Christmas
  6. Polish farmers gave their cattle an oplatek wafter on Christmas Even and bless them with a sign of the cross
  7. On Christmas Eve it’s said that the bees hum the 100th Psalm, but only the pure of heart can hear
  8. Another Polish superstition says that if a man without sin speaks to an animal at midnight on Christmas Eve, it will speak back in a human voice.
  9. It’s said that the only animal that sleeps on Christmas Eve is the serpent
  10. Before he had reindeer, Saint Nicholas was often pictured riding a white horse. This was probably inspired by the Norse god, Odin, who rode across the night sky on a horse. Children would leave out carrots and hay for Odin’s horse. Sound familiar?