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The Christmastime Myth Of Talking Animals: WYSO Investigates

Community producer Renee Wilde investigates the holiday legend of animals talking on Christmas Eve.
Renee Wilde
Community producer Renee Wilde investigates the holiday legend of animals talking on Christmas Eve.

For many of us, the holiday season is a time for sharing stories and traditions. In keeping with the holiday spirit, Community Voices Producer Renee Wilde traces the roots of her own holiday tradition, celebrating the Christmas legend that on Christmas Eve animals can suddenly talk.

Curious how widely known this talking-animals holiday legend is, Wilde heads to Clark County. 

Renee writes:

On December 24 at the stroke of midnight you’ll find me sitting out in the barn with my dogs, listening intently to the gentle cooing of the chickens and the soft exhales of the horses' breath.

I’m not sure exactly where I first heard about the holiday legend of animals talking on Christmas Eve.

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet
Credit Themadchopper, Antoine-François Callet / Creative Commons
Creative Commons
Saturnalia by Antoine Callet.

The supernatural myth has strong European roots, and variations on the legend have grown and evolved through different cultures: from vengeful pets plotting against their owners in Clement Miles' The Christmas Troll and Other Yuletide Stories," to the bickering animals in the 1970’s cartoon,The Night the Animals Talked.”

Some traditions tie the myth to the birth of the baby Jesus, when, as the story goes, at the stroke of midnight, the ox and the donkey in the manger bowed their heads at his arrival.

In the Christmas carol, "The Friendly Beasts,” the talking animals each sing about their role in the birth of the baby Jesus. 

“I, said the donkey, shaggy and brown, I carried His mother uphill and down. I carried His mother all over town. I, said the donkey, shaggy and brown,” the song continues. 

My search for more information about the holiday legend leads me to Springfield’s annual Holiday in the City festival.

I find several people who have brought their pets along to the watch the parade and fireworks. I conduct an unscientific poll. 

“Have you ever heard that myth that on Christmas Eve at midnight, you can go out and the animals will talk?”

“Never. Ever,” one man says.  

“Well, let me ask you, if you did happen to go out at midnight on Christmas eve, what do you think your dog would be saying?”

“He’d probably be snoring. But he wouldn’t be saying nothing”

Another person speculates, if the family dog "talks," it's probably about snacks. 

OK, so maybe this isn’t a popular legend among city slickers.

How commonly known is the myth of the talking animals? Community producer heads to Clark County to investigate.
Credit Renee Wilde / WYSO
How commonly known is the myth of the talking animals? Community producer heads to Clark County to investigate.

Hoping for better luck with a more rural crowd, I head to Young’s Jersey Dairy on a sunny afternoon.

The Young’s parking lot is filled with people who have come to cut their own Christmas trees, and to commune with the resident cows and goats.

I continue my poll.

“Have you ever heard the Christmas tradition that if you go down to the barn at midnight at Christmas Eve the animals will talk?”

“I have not heard that and we have been around animals on Christmas Eve a long time. I’ll try it this year and get back to you,” one person says.  

One person tells me he's Jewish and doesn't observe Christmas traditions.

It’s unclear whether the myth of the talking animals even originated with Judeo-Christian history.

Some have postulated, the story of a special night where animals talk might have originated from the Roman holiday Saturnalia. This winter-solstice feast celebrated a world turned upside down where roles were reversed.

And there are other cultures with similar supernatural animal legends that don’t center around Christianity at all. Like one Native American tradition where the deer fall to their knees to the Great Spirit.

“I saw a great big snapping turtle once, but he didn’t have much to say,” one person at Young's jokes.

I didn’t find any legends that specifically mention snapping turtles. But in an 1879 book by William Henderson called “Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and their Borders,” the author recounts a European legend about bees swarming to hum Christmas Carols at midnight.

Community Voices producer Renee Wilde reflects on a holiday myth.
Credit Renee Wilde / WYSO
Community Voices producer Renee Wilde reflects on a holiday myth.

Personally, I believe that animals are talking to us all the time. But perhaps there is something special about the holiday season that opens our hearts and minds to both the secular, and the sacred worlds.

In the Christmas episode from season three of the 1990’s television show Northern Exposure, the local radio DJ Chris, played by John Corbett, sums this legend up best: 

"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,” his character says. 

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.