Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Traditions and Animals

It used to be a familiar sight at Christmas in this country: the nativity scene, presided over by sheep, goats, often a donkey  and maybe a cow. I have seen some with dogs and cats as well. It is the mainstay of the traditional children's church Christmas pageant. The shyer children are often selected to play the animals. You may remember playing a sheep or a donkey in one as a child.

Nativity scene 
There are a lot of less familiar Christmas traditions around the world that involve animals. You may be surprised how many.

There is a Ukrainian tradition of decorating the Christmas tree with spider webs made from various materials—including crystal, paper, metal, and plastic—that is based on a cultural legend. It is said that a poor widow and her children couldn't decorate their Christmas tree, so it was bare. This made the children very sad so they started crying. Hearing the children's sobs, spiders that were in the house spun intricate webs on the tree to try to console the kids. When the family awoke the next morning, the sun’s rays turned the web - and the tree - silver and gold.

Also in Ukraine, Sviata Vecheria (the Christmas Eve Supper) features a humble and reverent 12-dish meal in honour of the twelve apostles spreading food for the soul throughout the world. The dishes contain no meat or dairy products to show respect for the animals that shared their place of shelter and were present for the birth of Christ.

In Latvia, during the yuletide season, Latvian "mummers," or people who dress up as entertainers during certain events, would dress up as animals such as bears or horses and parade from house to house in villages singing and dancing to ward off evil.

In Poland, families gather together on Christmas Eve (called Wigilia) and decorate their homes. They share sacred wafers similar to those used in communion to celebrate the season and also remember family members who are no longer with them.  Legend has it that if animals eat oplatek (a wafer) on Christmas Eve, they will be able to speak in human voices at midnight, but only those who are pure of spirit will be able to hear them.

One of the most famous Christmas songs in Norway is "Musevisa," or "The Mouse Song." The lyrics for this song were written in 1946 by Alf Prøysen. The song is about a mouse family getting ready for Christmas. The mother and father mice are warning their kids to be careful because of mouse traps.
In Finland, southern Germany and parts of Hungary,  wild birds are offered a special meal during the holidays. And in Sweden, on Christmas Eve, the cattle are given the best forage the house can afford, and afterwards a mess of all the celebratory food of which their masters have partaken; the horses are given the choicest hay and, later on, ale. 

In Sweden, on Christmas Eve, the cattle are given the best forage the house can afford
A common tradition is the "belief" that animals talk on Christmas Eve. According to an old tradition some farmers in Denmark feed their animals especially well, because since on the Christmas Eve animals can talk, and it would not be nice to hear bad words on this special night. Similar tradition includes placing gifts of food in forests and parks for the animals. In Romania there is a tradition of listening to hear if the farm animals talk on New Year's Day.

These traditions are delightful.  They come from a time where people recognized that their fates were tied to those of the animals.  Gratitude for animals and help in their welfare would have been understood in a very different way than today.  Now, our mostly urban lifestyles are disconnected both from nature and our sources of food. We may see the welfare of animals as a moral imperative, but seldom as connected to our own survival in the way our ancestors did.   

Have you created a modern version of animal holiday traditions? Do you buy your pet a Christmas present?  Was your pet included in your family's holiday portrait? Are your pet's names included on your Christmas cards?

Tell us on Facebook how you include animals in your holiday traditions.

Bruce Roney
Executive Director

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