Pack up those tiny oxen. In his latest book on the life of Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI writes that there were no animals present at the birth of Jesus.
There are other surprises in the Pope’s new book — apparently we’ve miscalculated the actual date of the birth of Christ, for one. But in the media, this paled in comparison to the Pope’s revelation that no horses or lambs were watching over the baby Jesus.
As The Christian Post reports, “contrary to what millions across the globe are doing by decorating their nativity scenes with popular animals, Jesus’ birth was not surrounded by oxen, horses, sheep and other such animals.” According to Pope Joseph Ratzinger, “there is no mention of animals in the gospels.”
(No word on whom the manger was for, if the stable in question was, indeed, empty.)
What is it about the presence of those animals that draws worshippers all over the world into the scene of Jesus’s birth? Why do they love to imagine Mary, Joseph and the babe in a warm and placid ring of sheep, camels and cows?
We’d be hard-pressed to find a Christmas hymn without a verse that references sheep, cattle or oxen. And what artist presents the Three Wise Men without their camels?
Animals abound in Christmas lore
Animals are a fixture of our favorite Christmas songs, poems and stories.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.What’s the holiday season without singing about that one-horse-open sleigh? And who celebrates the Twelve Days of Christmas without dozens of swans-a-swimming, geese-a-laying, colly birds, French hens, turtle doves and partridges? (It doesn’t end there: apparently the “five gold rings” are long-mistaken references to ring-necked pheasants.)
Ebenezer Scrooge understood the importance of birds (ornamental or nutritious) in the celebrations as well: Upon his Christmastide awakening, the first thing he does is buy a goose.
And what is Santa without his reindeer? In 1939, Chicago-based Montgomery Ward copywriter Robert May, tasked with writing a Christmas pamphlet the store could pass out to customers as a promotional stunt, dreamed up an underdog reindeer with a glowing red nose.
I love Rudolph and the 1964 stop-motion film, but as a child, privately I found the 1979 song “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” a Christmas standard on the family record-player, somewhat disturbing: The family matriarch drinks too much spiked eggnog, forgets her meds, sets off into a snowstorm, and is found dead the following morning with “hoofprints on her forehead.”
There was one other animal-themed Christmas album that rocked the household. “A Meowy Christmas” consisted entirely of cat meows synthesized into carols, and the tape was immediately and permanently banned by Dad.
My mother has over 100 nativity sets from all over the world, full of cattle, donkeys, camels, sheep and even a llama and zebra or two. I once showed her a set composed entirely of dogs, but she found it sacrilegious.
A special time for pets, too
This is no reflection on how she views her pets’ role in the holiday. December was a thrilling time for the family cat (may she rest in peace), as she ignored her water bowl for weeks in favor of the Christmas tree’s watering stand and took to the piney branches like a tiny, manic puma. The dogs were as happy at Christmas as they were any time of year — we learned early on to put the glass ornaments out of reach of their whipping tails.
Last year, the Huffington Post reported that 51 percent of Americans polled planned to purchase Christmas presents for their pets, with an average budget for pet gifts of just under $50.
As long as I can remember, our family dogs’ and cat’s own Christmas stockings hung alongside ours. One year, my brother and I worried because the pets weren’t joining us for Christmas at Granny and Papa’s. We conspired secretly, and the night before the dogs were bundled off to the boarding kennel, we got up in the dark and filled their stockings with toys and treats, figuring an early Christmas was better than none.
Those dogs went to their reward many years ago, but the tradition continues with Cuda, my mom’s poodle mix, who after 12 Christmases has developed an uncanny ability to locate his own stocking every year in the family line-up, and knows he cannot open it until after breakfast.
Cruzer, my parents’ six-month-old Spanish Water Dog, will have his first Christmas this year. As we were shopping for his presents last weekend, Mom confided that she is repurposing a stocking that belonged to my brother’s ex-girlfriend — she is almost finished sewing Cruzer’s name on instead.
So woe betide anyone who attempts to take the animals out of Christmas. Fortunately, the Pope himself realizes the futility of promoting a humans-only vision of Christians’ most hallowed story: “No one will give up the oxen and the donkeys in their nativity scenes.”