THERE is a folk tradition, widespread across northern Europe, that at midnight on Christmas Eve all animals are given the gift of human speech for a few minutes.
There’s no consensus about the origin of the tradition but in most countries it’s connected to Christ’s birth place in a stable containing animals — there is another tradition, which doesn’t appear to have any origin in scripture, that the birth took place precisely at midnight.
When I was very young my father convinced me this happened. I had a burning desire to have a conversation with the dog and my pet hamster, so every Christmas Eve I tried to stay awake until midnight, and every time I failed. While I was trying to keep my eyes open I rehearsed the questions. Why did the dog like peeing against lamp posts and chasing cats? Why did the hamster store food in its cheeks and spend so much time running to nowhere in that wheel thing?
If the opportunity arose today the questions would be rather different but I think the burning curiosity about what happens across the gulf that divides us from other species remains as strong.
This curiosity is based partly on the fact that increasing knowledge about the behaviour of other living creatures also increases knowledge about human behaviour. The gulf between us is really not as great as we once thought. I think this is the motive behind the folk tradition —- it’s to remind us that the animals in the stable were just as much God’s creation as the shepherds who arrived shortly afterwards and made them stop talking.
When I started getting interested in animals I was cautioned against indulging in anthropomorphism —- in attributing human traits and motives to other creatures. It was a wise caution but it happened a long time ago. At that time we had no notion of the cognitive capacity and emotional complexity of African elephants, no idea that dolphins were intelligent or, even more surprisingly, parrots and crows.
Today a little anthropomorphism may help us to get closer to the truth. Because today we see the pedestal we have placed ourselves on as a species may be a little too elevated. I also now realise that when the animals started to talk I’d have some pretty hard questions to answer. Why do we tolerate the fact that we are responsible for starting the greatest mass extinction of species since life began? Why do we treat the planet so badly? It’s probably a good thing it’s only a superstition.
ROBIN (Erithacus rubecula)
The robin is probably Ireland’s best-known and most popular bird. Everyone is familiar with what they look like, though many people are baffled by juvenile robins, which have plumage more like that of a thrush and no orange breast. Part of their popularity comes from the fact that they’re often very tame and can sometimes be hand fed. Interestingly this is only a characteristic of Irish and British robins.
They were originally called ‘redbreasts’, although the breast is orange, not red. Then because of their friendliness they acquired a Christian name and became ‘robin redbreasts’ before becoming simply robins.
The association with Christmas dates back to the establishment of the Royal Mail. Postmen wore a uniform with a scarlet waistcoat, a colour that’s retained today on British pillar boxes and Royal Mail vehicles, and were nicknamed ‘robins’.
They also delivered post, even on Christmas Day, bringing gifts and the newly fashionable Christmas greeting cards.
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