The Animals of Christmas

Updated on November 9, 2017

Animals are an important part of Christmas symbolism. This article describes the types of animals featured in Christmas tales--and the historical, mythological and Biblical basis for this association. Christmas is also a traditional time to show acts of kindness to animals--such as sharing the holiday feast with them.

Animals

Camels and the Donkey

The three Kings or "Magi" who predicted the birth of Jesus are depicted as arriving on the backs of camels. It is also widely believed that Mary arrived in Bethlehem on the back of a donkey, and that a donkey carried Jesus into Jerusalem (for which reason the Jerusalem donkey is said to have a cross-shaped marked on its back). In fact, until the 19th century Saint Nicholas was also typically shown riding a donkey or in a horse-drawn sleigh, reindeer being a later Scandinavian modification.

The Bible does not actually specify how Mary or the wise men arrived at their destinations. So the involvement of these animals represents some embellishment of he stories, based on modes of transport that were common at the time.

"The Journey of the Magi" (1894) James Jacques Joseph Tissot
"The Journey of the Magi" (1894) James Jacques Joseph Tissot

Reindeer

The accounts of Santa Claus being pulled by reindeer stem from the poetry. In 1821 William Gilley published a short anthology of poems included an anonymous verse that included the line "Old Santeclaus with much delight, his reindeer drives this frosty night." And Clement Moore's A Visit From Saint Nicholas provides the names the reindeer are still commonly known by, from Dasher to Blitzen.

Santa and reindeer, Macy's parade 2007
Santa and reindeer, Macy's parade 2007 | Source

Ox and Ass (and Sheep)

The ox and the ass/donkey are the most frequently mentioned animals of the nativity, said to have been present in the manger at the birth of Christ. These animals are almost always included in a nativity scene. This may be partly inspired by Isaiah 1:3 which states: "The ox knows its owner, And the donkey its master's crib; But Israel does not know, My people do not consider." (KJB). These animal may also have served to symbolize Jesus' role as a Messiah for both the Jewish (ox) and gentile (ass) peoples.

Sheep are also often included in a nativity scene because the birth of Jesus is reported to have been reveal to shepherds by angels. However it seems unlikely that they would have taken their flocks with them to view the baby.

Mouse

The mouse often makes a small appearance due to the opening lines of the poem "The Night Before Christmas": "Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."

A Christmas Tree Decoration in the Shape of a Goat
A Christmas Tree Decoration in the Shape of a Goat

Animals of Yule

The Yule Goat

You may notice that many Scandinavian Xmas decorations feature stylized goat. This is the Yule Goat which is often made of straw and represents a goat that would once have been slaughtered for the feast.

Some Swedish towns display a large straw goat during the Christmas season. Although it is sometimes a struggle to keep it from being set alight.

Other animals associated with Christmas for similar reasons (as part of the feast) include the turkey and the goose.

The Yule Oath Boar

In the Norse tradition the family would make an oath for the coming year over the pig to be prepared for the holiday feast. This would occur on the twelfth night of Yule(January 1st). This can be seen as a precursor of the current tradition of making new year's resolutions.

Birds

Dove

The dove often appears in Christmas decorations, often with an olive branch in its beak as a symbol of peace and forgiveness. The turtledove, specifically is a symbol of love and sacrificial animal mentioned in the Bible, which may explain its appearance it the tune "The Twelve Days of Christmas".

Penguins

The frequent appearance penguins as a modern Christmas motif relates only to their association with snow and the wintery conditions of the season (as inhabitants of the South Pole). And they are rather adorable, so where's the harm in that....?

The same is true for other animals associated with snowing environments, such as polar bears. But in real life the two species are from different poles (polar bears from the north pole, or at least the arctic circle) and would never meet as they do in some Christmas cards. Yes, I am a bit of a pendant and that really bothers me. I mean, if polar bears were wandering around, there wouldn't be very many penguins.

The British Robin
The British Robin

Robin (British)

In winter around the Christmas season robin are active foraging for scarce food, their brilliant red plumage bright against the snow.

In Christian symbolism red breast was considered symbolic of the blood and sacrifice of Christ.

The connection may also relate to the delivery of Christmas mail as British mail carriers were sometimes refer to as 'redbreasts' during the Victorian period due to their red uniforms.

Robins are also involved in the stories of several saints, one was resurrected from death by St Kentigern.

Wren

The wren was traditionally hunted or sacrificed late in December as a ceremony for ushering out the old year. In Ireland the 26th of December is "Wren Day" and may be celebrated by "hunting" and displaying a fake wren.

Your Animal

And of course any animal can get in the Christmas spirit. Just remember that your pet might not enjoy dressing in costumes as much as you do. And keep an eye on the critters around potential hazards such ribbons and poinsettia.

Photo credit: @Doug88888 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Conclusion

St Francis of Assisi said that we should not forget animal on Christmas, and that they should be given rest and good food.

Animals participate in Christmas in many different cultures. And animal are one of the things that we should be remember and appreciated during our celebrations and observances.

Bibliography

  • Barth, E. (1971). Holly, reindeer, and colored lights: the story of the Christmas symbols. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Lawrence, E. A. (1997). Hunting the wren: transformation of bird to symbol: a study in human-animal relationships. Univ. of Tennessee Press.
  • Weiser, F. X., & Frankenberg, R. (1952). The Christmas Book. Harcourt, Brace.

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