The holidays are upon us. With our family and friends in mind, we plan, shop, and prepare, but how often do we reflect upon the symbolism of the season? The most iconic symbol of the season is the Nativity, in which animals are a prominent part.
In the Nativity, the animal kingdom is represented by the classic trio of an ox/cow, a sheep/ lamb, and a donkey. This iteration of the Nativity is seen in most displays, from homes, to yards and municipal complexes, to the spectacular “Living Nativity” productions of churches small and mega. The videos on You Tube show spectacular productions that include camels, horses, various bird, and practically any animal the producers are able to round up and get into the building. I was even in a Nativity scene as a kid. The animals were plastic and glowed from the light bulb inside them, but I digress.
The presence of animals at the Nativity is in fact a myth. How can this be? We all know from our earliest childhood memories “the ox and lamb kept time, purr rum pa pum pum.” That noted, research shows though the Christ child was born in a stable, bible scholars and historians concur animals were not present. The Gospels present the narrative of the birth of Christ with no mention of animals being present. Even Pope Benedict XVI confirms this in his book of 2012. Before you accuse me of being a blasphemous Grinch, let me explain how animals came to be depicted in the Nativity.
The addition of animals to the Nativity is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. Many theologians acknowledged him for introducing the concept of the crèche or manger as a crib to the Nativity. A manger is defined as a trough or box from which animals are fed. Hence if there is a manger in the stable there must be animals present, thus subjecting the Nativity scene to over 2000 years of interpretation and elaboration. The tradition of showing animals present around the manger is so culturally entrenched, even the Nativity scene at the Vatican features the familiar animal trio and camels despite Pope Benedict’s assertion. Animals are inherently tied to our history and culture. How could they not have been present at the most important event in the history of mankind?
There are more than 150 mentions of animals in the Bible. Animals are featured in many of our holiday trappings, form TV movies about a grumpy cat, to the song celebrating the ruminant who radiates light from his rubicund proboscis, more commonly known as a reindeer with a very shiny red nose. I find their inclusion in the Nativity and our other holiday traditions best explained by the often used Christmas exclamation: Comfort and Joy. Comfort and Joy.
Dr. Pierre Bland is the owner of “Dr. Bland’s Vet House Calls”, a veterinary house call service. He can be reached at 954 673 -8779 or at doctorbladvet.com. He is also the son of Mary Lois Bland and uncle of “Gracie” Spencer of High Point, North Carolina.