Talking Animals and Other Wonders of Christmas Eve

By Clement A. Miles

This article is excerpted from Miles’ 1912 book ”Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan.” Miles was a folklorist and translator. [1] Amos Staff has adapted, annotated, modernized, and illustrated this excerpt. You can read the original book on Project Gutenberg. Please note that the original footnotes are maintained with hyperlinks. These are bracketed with { }. We have not transcribed them in our footnotes.

No time in all the Twelve Nights and Days is so charged with the supernatural as Christmas Eve. Doubtless this is due to the fact that the Church has hallowed the night of December 24-5 above all others in the year. It was to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night that, according to the Third Evangelist [2], came the angelic message of the Birth, and in harmony with this is the unique Midnight Mass of the Roman Church, lending a peculiar sanctity to the hour of its celebration. And yet many of the beliefs associated with this night show a large admixture of paganism.

First, there is the idea that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals have the power of speech. This superstition exists in various parts of Europe, and no one can hear the beasts talk with impunity. The idea has given rise to some curious and rather grim tales.

Here is one from Brittany:—

“Once upon a time there was a woman who starved her cat and dog. At midnight on Christmas Eve she heard the dog say to the cat, ‘It is quite time we lost our mistress; she is a regular miser. To-night burglars are coming to steal her money; and if she cries out they will break her head.’ ‘’Twill be a good deed,’ the cat replied. The woman in terror got up to go to a neighbour’s house; as she went out the burglars opened the door, and when she shouted for help they broke her head.”{13}

Again a story is told of a farm servant in the German Alps who did not believe that the beasts could speak, and hid in a stable on Christmas Eve to learn what went on. At midnight he heard surprising things. “We shall have hard work to do this day week,” said one horse. “Yes, the farmer’s servant is heavy,” answered the other. “And the way to the churchyard is long and steep,” said the first. The servant was buried that day week.{14}

It may well have been the traditional association of the ox and ass with the Nativity [3] that fixed this superstition to Christmas Eve, but the conception of the talking animals is probably pagan [4].

(Detail) The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. Duccio de Buoninsengna (Sienese). 1308-1311. Tempera on poplar wood. National Gallery of Art. Note the prominence of the ox and donkey next the child and Madonna. (For more about this work, click here.)

Related to this idea, but more Christian in form, is the belief that at midnight all cattle rise in their stalls or kneel and adore the new-born King. Readers of Mr. Hardy’s “Tess” [5] will remember how this is brought into a delightful story told by a Wessex peasant. The idea is widespread in England and on the Continent,{15} and has reached even the North American Indians. [6] Howison, in his “Sketches of Upper Canada,” relates that an Indian told him that “on Christmas night all deer kneel and look up to Great Spirit.”{16} A somewhat similar belief about bees was held in the north of England: they were said to assemble on Christmas Eve and hum a Christmas hymn.{17} Bees seem in folk-lore in general to be specially near to humanity in their feelings [7].

It is a widespread idea that at midnight on Christmas Eve all water turns to wine. A Guernsey woman once determined to test this; at midnight she drew a bucket from the well. Then came a voice:—“Toute l’eau se tourne en vin, Et tu es proche de ta fin.” [8]

She fell down with a mortal disease, and died before the end of the year. In Sark the superstition is that the water in streams and wells turns into blood, and if you go to look you will die within the year.{18}

There is also a French belief that on Christmas Eve, while the genealogy of Christ is being chanted at the Midnight Mass, hidden treasures are revealed.{19} In Russia all sorts of buried treasures are supposed to be revealed on the evenings between Christmas and the Epiphany, and on the eves of these festivals the heavens are opened, and the waters of springs and rivers turn into wine.{20}

Another instance of the supernatural character of the night is found in a Breton story of a blacksmith who went on working after the sacring bell had rung at the Midnight Mass. To him 235 came a tall, stooping man with a scythe, who begged him to put in a nail. He did so; and the visitor in return bade him send for a priest, for this work would be his last. The figure disappeared, the blacksmith felt his limbs fail him, and at cock-crow he died. He had mended the scythe of the Ankou—Death the reaper.{21}

In the Scandinavian countries, simple folk have a vivid sense of the nearness of the supernatural on Christmas Eve. On Yule night no one should go out, for he may meet uncanny beings of all kinds. In Sweden, the Trolls are believed to celebrate Christmas Eve with dancing and revelry. “On the heaths witches and little Trolls ride, one on a wolf, another on a broom or a shovel, to their assemblies, where they dance under their stones…. In the mount are then to be heard mirth and music, dancing and drinking. On Christmas morn, during the time between cock-crowing and daybreak, it is highly dangerous to be abroad.”{22} [9]

NisseRien Poortvliet, illustrator for Wil Huygen’s book ”Gnomes.” These Nisse were an inspiration for the original Sinterklaas and Santa Claus imagery. While tied to garden gnomes, they may have more in common with fairy/elf/gnome and Green Man ideology. Note that modern depictions of Christmas elves are very similar.

Christmas Eve is also in Scandinavian folk-belief the time when the dead revisit their old homes, [10] as on All Souls’ Eve in Roman Catholic lands. The living prepare for their coming with mingled dread and desire to make them welcome. When the Christmas Eve festivities are over, and everyone has gone to rest, the parlour is left tidy and adorned, with a great fire burning, candles lighted, the table covered with a festive cloth and plentifully spread with food, and a jug of Yule ale ready. Sometimes before going to bed people wipe the chairs with a clean white towel; in the morning they are wiped again, and, if earth is found, some kinsman, fresh from the grave, has sat there. Consideration for the dead even leads people to prepare a warm bath in the belief that, like living folks, the kinsmen will want a wash before their festal meal.[96] Or again beds were made ready for them while the living slept on straw. Not always is it consciously the dead for whom these preparations are made, sometimes they are said to be for the Trolls and sometimes even for 236 the Saviour and His angels.{24} (We may compare with this Christian idea the Tyrolese custom of leaving some milk for the Christ Child and His Mother{25} at the hour of Midnight Mass, and a Breton practice of leaving food all through Christmas night in case the Virgin should come.{26} ) [11]

The custom of the yule log is still remembered today in cake. Photo: Harry and David/crozetgazette

It is difficult to say how far the other supernatural beings—their name is legion—who in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland are believed to come out of their underground hiding-places during the long dark Christmas nights, were originally ghosts of the dead. Twenty years ago many students would have accounted for them all in this way, but the tendency now is strongly against the derivation of all supernatural beings from ancestor-worship. Elves, trolls, dwarfs, witches, and other uncanny folk—the beliefs about their Christmas doings are too many to be treated here; readers of Danish will find a long and very interesting chapter on this subject in Dr. Feilberg’s “Jul.”{27} I may mention just one familiar figure of the Scandinavian Yule, Tomte Gubbe [12], a sort of genius of the house corresponding very much to the “drudging goblin” of Milton’s “L’Allegro,” for whom the cream-bowl must be duly set. He may perhaps be the spirit of the founder of the family. At all events on Christmas Eve, Yule porridge and new milk are set out for him, sometimes with other things, such as a suit of small clothes, spirits, or even tobacco. Thus must his goodwill be won for the coming year.{28}

In one part of Norway it used to be believed that on Christmas Eve, at rare intervals, the old Norse gods made war on Christians, coming down from the mountains with great blasts of wind and wild shouts, and carrying off any human being who might be about. In one place the memory of such a visitation was preserved in the nineteenth century. The people were preparing for their festivities, when suddenly from the mountains came the warning sounds. “In a second the air became black, peals of thunder echoed among the hills, lightning danced about the buildings, and the inhabitants in the darkened rooms heard the clatter of hoofs and the weird shrieks of the hosts of the gods.”{29}

237The Scandinavian countries, Protestant though they are, have retained many of the outward forms of Catholicism, and the sign of the cross is often used as a protection against uncanny visitors. The cross—perhaps the symbol was originally Thor’s hammer [13] —is marked with chalk or tar or fire upon doors and gates, is formed of straw or other material and put in stables and cowhouses, or is smeared with the remains of the Yule candle on the udders of the beasts—it is in fact displayed at every point open to attack by a spirit of darkness.{30}

Christmas Eve is in Germany a time for auguries. Some of the methods already noted on other days are practised upon it—for instance the pouring of molten lead into water, the flinging of shoes, the pulling out of pieces of wood, and the floating of nutshells—and there are various others which it might be tedious to describe.{31}

Among the southern Slavs, if a girl wants to know what sort of husband she will get, she covers the table on Christmas Eve, puts on it a white loaf, a plate, and a knife, spoon, and fork, and goes to bed. At midnight the spirit of her future husband will appear and fling the knife at her. If it falls without injuring her she will get a good husband and be happy but if she is hurt, she will die early. There is a similar mode of divination for a young fellow. On Christmas Eve, when everybody else has gone to church, he must, naked and in darkness, sift ashes through a sieve. His future bride will then appear, pull him thrice by the nose, and go away.{32}

In Eastern Europe, Christmas, and especially Christmas Eve, is the time for the singing of carols called in Russian Kolyádki, and in other Slav countries by similar names derived from Kalendae.{33} More often than not these are without connection with the Nativity; sometimes they have a Christian form and tell of the doings of God, the Virgin and the saints, but frequently they are of an entirely secular or even pagan character. Into some the sun, moon, and stars and other natural objects are introduced, and they seem to be based on myths to which a Christian appearance has been given by a sprinkling of names of holy persons of the Church. Here for instance is a fragment from a Carpathian song:—“A golden plough goes ploughing, And behind that plough is the Lord Himself. The holy Peter helps Him to drive, And the Mother of God carries the seed corn, Carries the seed corn, prays to the Lord God, ‘Make, O Lord, the strong wheat to grow, The strong wheat and the vigorous corn! The stalks then shall be like reeds!’”{34}

Often they contain wishes for the prosperity of the household and end with the words, “for many years, for many years.” The Romanian songs are frequently very long, and a typical, oft-recurring refrain is:—“This evening is a great evening, White flowers; Great evening of Christmas, White flowers.”{35} [14]

White flowers. In this case, “Christmas Roses,” also known as Helleborus niger. This photo was taken in the Alps but these flowers bloom in winter throughout Europe. Maybe this was the flower in the Romanian carol. (Photo: Robert Hundsdorfer, Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes they are ballads of the national life.

In Russia a carol beginning “Glory be to God in heaven, Glory!” and calling down blessings on the Tsar and his people, is one of the most prominent among the Kolyádki, and opens the singing of the songs called Podblyudnuiya. “At the Christmas festival a table is covered with a cloth, and on it is set a dish or bowl (blyudo) containing water. The young people drop rings or other trinkets into the dish, which is afterwards covered with a cloth, and then the Podblyudnuiya Songs commence. At the end of each song one of the trinkets is drawn at random, and its owner deduces an omen from the nature of the words which have just been sung.”{36}

Votives, requests, and prayers thrown into water is a long-standing tradition. We revisit it any time we throw a coin in a pond to make a wish. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


[1] Clement Arthur Miles died on 2 February 1918. A short obituary can be found here.

[2] Luke

[3] See ”The Ass and The Ox in The Nativity Icon”, Jonathan Pageau. 2012. The Orthodox Arts Journal. Also: a broad web search on ”the ass and ox in Nativity” will pull up a superabundance of interesting articles on the topic.

[4] Searching for ”talking animals in pagan folklore” is also a rewarding little rabbit-hole (no pun intended) in which to spend some time.

[5] Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Thomas Hardy, 1891. Also on Project Gutenberg.

[6] Native and Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Miles writes with the terminology and limitations of his age.

[7] Bees in Celtic folklore were said to be messengers between the spirit and physical worlds. “Telling the bees” was a Europe-wide legend, casting bees as messengers to humans. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752, it was said that the bees did not, as usual, hum at midnight on Christmas Day, denoting their displeasure at the change in calendar.

[8] ”All the water turns into wine. And you are near your end.” (Amos-Cola translation).

[9] See nisse.

[10] Christmas Eve as a time when the veil between worlds becomes porous is a popular belief over time. This may be connected to its proximity to the solstice. The Nordic and the folkloric combine, for example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Hamlet’s father, the former (Nordic/Danish) king’s ghost appears on Christmas Eve.

[11] One could argue that leaving milk and cookies for Santa, a supernatural gift giver (like the Christ-kindl), is an echo of this tradition.

[12] Also tomte nisse (see note 9: nisse). Note too, the similarities of white beard and pointed cap, red nose.

[13] See also: “Thor’s Hammers Disguised as Crucifixes

[14] See Marcu Beza: Paganism in Roumanian Folklore, ”Chapter 1: Christmas and New Year.” 1928. Also, the white flower carol is known as Florile Dalbe.

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