The Christmastime Myth Of Talking Animals: WYSO Investigates
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.