Animals have always permeated our Christmas traditions

By MPP Toby Barrett

From the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem, the eight tiny reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh to the glorious cardinals adorning festive cards, animals have long had an important role to play in our Christmas traditions.

The inclusion of animals that we see in Nativity scenes celebrating the birth of Christ paints the image of an inn being full, with the inn’s stable being the only place for Mary and Joseph to stay. We are told they initially travelled to Bethlehem to register for the census as ordered by Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. As this was Joseph’s hometown, some biblical scholars believe Mary and Joseph may have stayed with relatives. Others make the point it was unlikely there was an inn in the small village of Bethlehem.

Houses in that part of the world 2,000 years ago were commonly two stories. Families slept on the upper level and used the lower level during the day. It’s believed animals were brought in to the lower floor at night, with some scholars speculating this was to keep the animals warm while others argue the heat generated by the animals kept the residents warm.

The belief, for whatever reason, there was no room for Mary and Joseph on the upper floor so they had to sleep on the lower floor. As a result, the presence of sheep, donkeys and camels in the original Christmas story.

The first recorded Christmas celebrations were in 366 AD –  after the death of Turkish-born St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 in 345 AD.  St. Nicholas’ association with Christmas started in 1087 when a group of sailors moved the saint’s bones to the town of Bari on the Adriatic coast of Italy. A grandmother in Bari started giving children gift-filled stockings on the anniversary of Nicholas’ death.

The tradition caught on and spread throughout Europe, with the image of the saint changing to a white beard and the story involved a flying horse. Eventually, the Roman Catholic Church decreed the gift giving in connection with the saint should take place on Dec. 25.

If we go forward to the early 1800s, the Santa Claus tradition as we know it evolves. Novelist Washing Irving, famous for writing The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, wrote a satire of the Dutch tradition of Saint Nicholas called Knickerbocker History. Irving used the Dutch name Santa Claus. After reading Knickerbocker History, Clement Moore wrote the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in 1822. Moore introduced the “eight tiny reindeer” into the Christmas story.

It would be easy to say the rest is history, but I want to concentrate on the reindeer for a second.

For, you see, the European reindeer is actually a subspecies of what we call caribou. In Europe and Asia, they have been domesticated for centuries, used for food, fur and pulling sleighs. The European reindeer is smaller than the North American sub-species, hence the term “tiny reindeer”.

I sincerely wish to offer everyone a Merry Christmas during this wonderful time of year. Let’s all have a great holiday. Please join me for a free holiday skate and a chat over hot chocolate on Dec. 27, 2-3 p.m. at the Dunnville Community Lifespan Centre and from 8-9 p.m. at the Delhi Community Arena.