The winter solstice is celebrated in many guises and we are able to embrace the traditions of other faiths and cultures along with the favourite customs and legends of Christmas. Indeed, many families have their own, handed down through the generations, remaking them and introducing new ones.
A number of beasts and small creatures are associated with longheld Christmas folklore and it is surprising how many people do not know of them. For example, many believe that the robin, so prominent on Christmas cards, dates back to Victorian times when postmen were nicknamed “robins” because they wore red uniforms. However, robins’ associations with Christmas go back much further.
A fable tells of the robin’s presence in the Bethlehem stable. A fire had been lit and was blazing fiercely but Mary had been distracted. The robin, fearing the baby’s face might be burned, stationed himself between the fire and the child and puffed up its feathers to protect the infant. But, the robin was too close to the fire and its chest was scorched and reddened. This redness stayed with all future generations of robins. In yet another fable, the robin kept a low fire alight by fetching twigs. Again, it is said, he scorched his chest when the flames leapt up.
Mary thanked and praised the robin for all it had done. She looked tenderly at its red breast, burned by the flame, and said, “From now on, let your red breast be a reminder of your thoughtful deed.”
Another story tells of the owl who was woken up to be told that Jesus had been born and that all the birds and creatures were going to the stable to welcome him. “I’ll come later,” the owl said and went back to sleep. When he woke he was alone, there was no one to tell him where to go. “Who will take me to the stable?” he kept asking. And now we still hear him asking, “Who? Who? Who?”
The stork is the subject of another bird fable. Baby Jesus was surrounded by many birds and beasts that had come to greet him including a stork. It saw the baby lying in the straw with no pillow, so it plucked feathers from its plumage to make a soft pillow. From that day on storks have been a symbol of births and feature on cards and presents for new arrivals. It is said if someone spots a stork flying, or on the roof of a house, it is a lucky omen as storks are the patrons of babies. And, as children, remember how we were told that the stork had brought our new brother or sister.
There are two seasonal stories about cats — tabbies in particular. The first tells of how the baby was cold and uncomfortable in his makeshift bed. A tom tabby cat heard the child’s distressing cries, jumped into the manger and curled itself around the infant to keep him warm. Mary was so grateful to the cat and she gently stroked its forehead. Look carefully and you will see the mark of Mary on the head of tabby cats. It is said the letter M would forever be a token of Mary’s love.
The second fable tells how Mary and a tabby both gave birth in the stable. Mary bent over
the cat sharing her birth pangs. She placed her hand on the cat’s head in sympathy saying that they were both new mothers. To this day the mark M is prominent on the cats’ heads.
It is unclear how these legends began as there seems to be no mention of cats anywhere in the Bible.
Christmas trees are nearly always festooned with tinsel and it is interesting to know that, in folklore, spiders are responsible for this tradition. Again, there are a number of explanations.
The first tells us that on Christmas Eve, a housewife was determined to clean her home from top to bottom, banishing spiders to the attic. When the family were asleep, the spiders decided to see what the fuss was about. They were curious about the Christmas tree and scrambled all over it. Their activities caused their silk to be woven in and out of the branches. Next morning the family were enchanted to see such fine threads decorating the tree.
A similar story tells of a poor family unable to decorate their tree. The spiders took pity on them and covered the tree overnight with their webs. In the morning, the sun shone on the fine silk threads making them sparkle to the delight of the children.
A third story suggests that when Herod’s soldiers were looking for the family, they hid in a cave. They were tired and afraid of being found.
A spider overheard their worries and set about weaving its silken thread over the mouth of the cave. When the soldiers came across the cave, they decided that no one could be inside as the dense web across the entrance would have been broken. The humble spider had saved the family. Tinsel, it is said, on Christmas trees replicates spiders’ silken threads. Incidentally, the garden spider is identified by the cross on its back.
Have you ever wondered why moths are attracted to light? A Christmas legend gives an explanation. All the creatures and birds were hurrying to go and see the new baby. The moth was busy cleaning her home and noticed how excited they all seemed and asked where were they going? They told her and said, “Come with us.”
“I’m too busy right now,” she replied. “But as soon as I have finished I shall come. How do I find the baby?”
“You will see a star giving out a bright light shining over the stable where he is resting.”
When the moth started out on her journey there was no one to ask the way — she was too late. So now you will see her flying round and round in any bright light in the dark trying to find the baby.
Such enchanting tales, long may they be told.
Tabby cats are also said to have played a part in the Christmas story.
A festive favourite, the robin has traditional links with Christmas.
Legend says the sound of an owl hooting has connections with the birth of Baby Jesus.