By Jeff Westover
The Bible records a natural wonder -- a sign in the form of a miraculous star -- that was visible in the heavens at the birth of Jesus Christ. But beyond that singular miracle, the scriptures are silent on the other elements of nature participating in the Nativity.
Nevertheless, fantastic tales abound of animals speaking, of plants miraculously blooming and of rivers flowing with wine as signs of the arrival of the Messiah. Even modern popular culture has kept some of these tales of folklore alive through movies and music.
One legend speaks of a rooster who from the stable rooftop declared, in Latin no less, Christus natus est, or, "Christ is born". Supposedly a raven heard this and then asked, again in Latin, When? The rook replied This night! The ox asked Where? The sheep chimed in Bethlehem! and the ass cried out Let’s go! This story is especially beloved in some cultures because the Latin phrasing for each statement mimics the sound each animal naturally makes.
European folklore teaches that the animals respond as humans on the night of Jesus’ birth. The oxen kneel down in their stables each Christmas in commemoration of the event. Many are said to speak only on Christmas Eve. It is said that humans do not want to actually hear what the animals are saying because, even though they have the gift of speech just one day a year, they usually don’t have many kind things to say about their human masters. For others, even the beehives participate in the celebration of Christmas through their buzzing carols of praise and adoration for the Christ Child.
The robin and cardinal have long been associated with Christmas. This could be tied to folklore stories about the robin that stayed near the flames of the fire made to keep the Baby Jesus warm by beating its wings all night so that the fire might burn brightly. So devoted was the bird to the cause that it singed her breast red by being so close to the flames.
The stork is widely held as associated with new births. This happy tradition began as a story of a stork plucking feathers from its own breast to make a down feather bed for the Baby Jesus.
Plants are also famed in folklore for their animated qualities and worshipful behavior on Christmas Eve. Christians living in Eastern Europe share tales of plants and trees growing along the banks of the Jordan River bowing in the direction of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. There are tales of the Christmas rose or other vegetation that miraculously blooms only at Christmas time. And in Russia a folktale speaks of the river water turning to wine briefly at Christmas to mark the occasion.
From France, Germany, Italy and Greece tales are told of mountains bursting open on Christmas to reveal rich veins of gold and diamonds. Some stories tell of buried bells, long since silenced, miraculously tolling on Christmas Day.
Each of these tales began as a means of teaching the importance of the birth of Jesus Christ. It must be remembered that for centuries the only access to the story of the Nativity was through church. People did not own copies of the scriptures and, if they did, they likely did not have the ability to read them. The story of Christmas then was passed from person to person, generation to generation. It is easy to see how stories could become more fantastic in time.