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Legends Of The Nativity






It would indeed be singular if an event of such importance as the
birth, as man, of the Son of God had not been specially marked out by
signs and wonders, and that many legends concerning these should be
rife. Naturally He was welcomed by the heavenly host; and Abraham a
Sancta Clara, in one of his sermons, gives a vivid description of the
wonders that happened on the Nativity. At the time when God's Son was
born, there came to pass a great many wonderful circumstances. First
of all, a countless multitude of angels flew from heaven, and paid
their homage to the Celestial Child in various loving hymns, instead
of the usual lullabie, sung to babies. Next, the deep snow, which had
covered the ground in the same neighbourhood, at once disappeared;
and, in its place were to be seen trees covered with a thick foliage
of leaves, whilst the earth was decorated with a rich and luxuriant
crop of the most beautiful flowers.

This visitation of the angels is represented in nearly every old
painting of the Nativity, some, like Botticelli, giving a whole band
of angels, others contenting themselves with two or three, sufficient
to indicate their presence. Fra Jacopone da Todi sings:

Little angels all around
Danced and Carols flung;
Making verselets sweet and true,
Still of love they sung;
Calling saints and sinners too,
With love's tender tongue.

Lope de Vega makes Our Lady caution the angels as they come through
the palm trees--

Holy angels, and blest,
Through these palms as ye sweep,
Hold their branches at rest,
For my Babe is asleep.

And ye, Bethlehem palm-trees,
As stormy winds rush
In tempest and fury,
Your angry noise hush;--

Move gently, move gently,
Restrain your wild sweep;
Hold your branches at rest,
My Babe is asleep.

Mrs. Jameson[44] says that one legend relates that Joseph went to
seek a midwife, and met a woman coming down from the mountains, with
whom he returned to the stable. But, when they entered, it was filled
with light greater than the sun at noonday; and, as the light
decreased, and they were able to open their eyes, they beheld Mary
sitting there with her Infant at her bosom. And the Hebrew woman,
being amazed, said: 'Can this be true?' and Mary answered, 'It is
true; as there is no child like unto my son, so there is no woman like
unto his mother.'

Le Bon,[45] speaking of the cradle of Jesus, says: According to
tradition, the stone cradle contained one of wood. That of stone still
exists at Bethlehem, not in its primitive state, but decorated with
white marble, and enriched with magnificent draperies. The wooden one
was, in the seventh century, at the time of the Mahometan Invasion in
the East, transported to Rome, then become the new Jerusalem, the
Bethlehem of a new people. It there reposes in the superb basilica of
Santa Maria Maggiore, where it is guarded by the eternal city with
more affection than the Ark of the Covenant, and with more respect
than the cottage of Romulus. Centuries have not been able to enfeeble
the veneration and the love with which this trophy of the love of God
for his creatures has been surrounded. This cradle, this sacred
monument, reposes in a shrine of crystal, mounted on a stand of silver
enamelled with gold and precious stones, the splendid offering of
Philip IV., King of Spain. This shrine is preserved in a brazen
coffer, and is only exposed for veneration--on the grand altar, once a
year, on Christmas Day.

The ox and ass are indispensable accessories to a picture of the
Nativity, and it is said that their introduction rests on an old
tradition mentioned by St. Jerome, and also on a text of prophecy:
The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib.[46]
Tradition says that these animals recognised and worshipped their
Divine Master.


In praesepe ponitur,
Sub foeno asinorum,
Cognoverunt Dominum,
Christum, Regem coelorum.

Et a brutis noscitur,
Matris velo tegitur.

So also it is believed in many places that at midnight on Christmas
eve all cattle bowed their knees; and Brand gives an instance of this
legend, and says that a Cornish peasant told him in 1790 of his
having, with some others, watched several oxen in their stalls on the
Eve of old Christmas Day, and that at twelve o'clock, they observed
the two oldest oxen fall upon their knees and (as he expressed it in
the idiom of the country) make a cruel moan like Christian creatures.

There is another legend which relates how other animals took part in
the announcement of the Saviour's coming on earth. Praetorius says:

Vacca puer natus clamabat nocte sub ipsa,
Qua Christus pura virgine natus homo est;
Sed, quia dicenti nunquam bene creditur uni,
Addebat facti testis, asellus; ita.
Dumque aiebat; ubi? clamoso guttere gallus;
In Betlem, Betlem, vox geminabat ovis.
Felices nimium pecudes, pecorumque magistri,
Qui norunt Dominum concelebrare suum.

Hone describes a curious sheet of carols printed in London in 1701.
It is headed 'CHRISTUS NATUS EST; Christ is born,' with a wood-cut
10 inches high by 8-1/2 inches wide, representing the stable of
Bethlehem; Christ in the crib, watched by the Virgin and Joseph;
shepherds kneeling, angels attending; a man playing on the bagpipes; a
woman with a basket of fruit on her head; a sheep bleating, and an ox
lowing on the ground; a raven croaking, and a crow cawing, on the hay
rack; a cock crowing above them; and angels singing in the sky. The
animals have labels from their mouths bearing Latin inscriptions. Down
the side of the wood-cut is the following account and explanation:--'A
religious man inventing the concerts of both birds and beasts drawn in
the picture of our Saviour's birth, doth thus express them: The cock
croweth, Christus natus est--Christ is born. The raven asked
Quando?--When? The crow replied, Hac nocte--this night. The ox
crieth out, Ubi? Ubi?--Where? Where? The sheep bleateth out
Bethlehem. A voice from heaven sounded, Gloria in Excelsis--Glory
be on high!'

Another pictorial representation of this legend is mentioned by the
Rev. Dr. John Mason Neale in The Unseen World (p. 27). An example
which, in modern times, would be considered ludicrous, of the manner
in which our ancestors made external Nature bear witness to our Lord,
occurs in what is called the Prior's Chamber in the small Augustinian
house of Shulbrede, in the parish of Linchmere, in Sussex. On the wall
is a fresco of the Nativity; and certain animals are made to give
their testimony to that event in words which somewhat resemble, or may
be supposed to resemble, their natural sounds. A cock, in the act of
crowing, stands at the top, and a label, issuing from his mouth, bears
the words, Christus natus est. A duck inquires, Quando? Quando? A
raven hoarsely answers, In hac nocte. A cow asks, Ubi? Ubi? And a
lamb bleats out Bethlehem.

This idea that beasts were endowed with human speech on Christmas
night was very widespread, as the following legend well instances, it
being common both to Switzerland and Suabia. One Christmas night, in
order to test the truth of this legend, a peasant crept slyly upon
that solemn and holy night into the stable, where his oxen were
quietly chewing the hay set before them. An instant after the peasant
had hidden himself, one of the oxen said to another We are going to
have a hard and heavy task to do this week. How is that? the harvest
is got in and we have drawn home all the winter fuel. That is so,
was the reply, but we shall have to drag a coffin to the churchyard,
for our poor master will most certainly die this week. The peasant
shrieked, and fell back, senseless, was taken home, and the ox's
prophecy was duly fulfilled.

It is also thought that the cocks crow all night at Christmas, and
Bourne says, anent this belief, that it was about the time of cock
crowing when our Saviour was born, and the heavenly host had then
descended to sing the first Christmas carol to the poor shepherds in
the fields of Bethlehem.

Shakespeare mentions this popular tradition in Hamlet, act i. sc.
i.:--

Some say, that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

But there is yet another legend of cock-crowing which is found in a
carol for St. Stephen's Day, temp. Henry VI.:--

Saint Stephen was a clerk
In King Herod his hall,
And served him of bread and cloth,
As ever King befall.

Stephen out of kitchen came
With boar his head on hand,
He saw a star was fair and bright
Over Bethlem stand.

He cast adown the boar his head,
And went into the hall.
I forsake thee, King Herod,
And thy works all.

I forsake thee, King Herod,
And thy works all,
There is a Child in Bethlem born,
Is better than we all.

What aileth thee, Stephen,
What is thee befall?
Lacketh thee either meat or drink,
In King Herod his hall?

Lacketh me neither meat nor drink,
In King Herod his hall;
There is a Child in Bethlem born,
Is better than we all.

What aileth thee, Stephen,
Art thou wode,[47] or ginnest to brede[48]
Lacketh thee either gold or fee,
Or any rich weed?[49]

Lacketh me neither gold nor fee,
Nor none rich weed,
There is a child in Bethlem born
Shall help us at our need.

That is all so sooth, Stephen,
All so sooth, I wis,
As this capon crow shall,
That lyeth here in my dish.

That word was not so soon said,
That word in that hall,
The Capon crew, Christus natus est!
Among the lords, all.

Riseth up my tormentors,
By two, and all by one,
And leadeth Stephen out of this town
And stoneth him with stone.

Tooken they Stephen
And stoned him in the way,
And therefore is his even,
On Christ his own day.


There are several minor legends of animals and Christ-tide--for
instance, at this time the bees are said to hum the Old Hundredth
Psalm, but this is mild to what Olaus Magnus tells us Of the
Fiercenesse of Men, who by Charms are turned into Wolves:--In the
Feast of Christ's Nativity, in the night, at a certain place, that
they are resolved upon amongst themselves, there is gathered together
such a huge multitude of Wolves changed from men, that dwell in divers
places, which afterwards, the same night, doth so rage with wonderfull
fiercenesse, both against mankind, and other creatures that are not
fierce by nature, that the Inhabitants of that country suffer more
hurt from them than ever they do from the true natural Wolves. For, as
it is proved, they sit upon the houses of men that are in the Woods,
with wonderfull fiercenesse, and labour to break down the doors,
whereby they may destroy both men and other creatures that remain
there.

They go into the Beer-Cellars, and there they drink out some Tuns of
Beer or Mede, and they heap al the empty vessels one upon another in
the midst of the Cellar, and so leave them; wherin they differ from
the natural and true Wolves. But the place, where, by chance they
stayed that night, the Inhabitants of those Countries think to be
prophetical; Because, if any ill successe befall a Man in that place;
as if his Cart overturn, and he be thrown down in the Snow, they are
fully persuaded that man must die that year, as they have, for many
years, proved it by experience. Between Lituania, Samogetia and
Curonia, there is a certain wall left, of a Castle that was thrown
down; to this, at a set time, some thousands of them come together,
that each of them may try his nimblenesse in leaping. He that cannot
leap over this wall, as commonly the fat ones cannot, are beaten with
whips by their Captains.

There is a story told of another Magnus, only in this case it was a
Saint of that name. On Christmas eve, in the year 1012, a party of
about thirty-three young men and women were merrily dancing in the
churchyard of a certain church, dedicated to St. Magnus. A priest was
at his devotions inside the church, and was so much disturbed by their
merriment that he sent to them, asking them to desist for a while. But
of this they took no heed, although the message was more than once
repeated. Thereupon, waxing indignant, the holy man prayed his patron
saint, St. Magnus, to visit the offenders with condign punishment. His
prayer was heard, and the result was that the festive crew could not
leave off dancing. For twelve whole months they continued dancing;
night and day, winter and summer, through sunshine or storm, they had
to prance. They knew no weariness, they needed no rest, nor did their
clothes or boots wear out; but they wore away the surface of the earth
so much that at the end of the twelvemonths they were in a hole up to
their middles. The legend goes on to say, that on the expiration of
their Terpsichorean punishment they slept continuously for three days
and nights.

There are some curious legends of underground bells which sound only
at Christmas. A writer in Notes and Queries (5 series, ii. 509)
says--Near Raleigh, Notts, there is a valley said to have been caused
by an earthquake several hundred years ago, which swallowed up a whole
village, together with the Church. Formerly, it was a custom of the
people to assemble in this valley every Christmas Day morning to
listen to the ringing of the bells of the Church beneath them. This,
it was positively stated, might be heard by placing the ear to the
ground, and hearkening attentively. As late as 1827 it was usual on
this morning for old men and women to tell their children and young
friends to go to the valley, stoop down, and hear the bells ring
merrily. The villagers heard the ringing of the bells of a
neighbouring church, the sound of which was communicated by the
surface of the ground. A similar belief exists, or did, a short time
ago, at Preston, Lancashire.

This legend is not peculiar to England, for there is the same told of
a place in the Netherlands, named Been, near Zoutleeuw, now engulphed
in the ocean. It was a lovely and a stately city, but foul with sin,
when our Lord descended to earth upon a Christmas night to visit it.
All the houses were flaming with lights, and filled with luxury and
debauchery; and, as our Lord, in the guise of a beggar, passed from
door to door, there was not found a single person who would afford Him
the slightest relief. Then, in His wrath, He spoke one word, and the
waves of the sea rushed over the wicked city, and it was never seen
more; but the place where it was immersed is known by the sound of the
church bells coming up through the waters on a Christmas night.

In spite of Shakespeare's dictum that no spirit dares stir abroad,
the rule would not seem to obtain in the Isle of Man--for there is a
legend there, how a fiddler, having agreed with a stranger to play,
during the twelve days of Christmas, to whatever company he should
bring him, was astonished at seeing his new master vanish into the
earth as soon as the bargain had been made. Terrified at the thought
of having agreed to work for such a mysterious personage, he quickly
resorted to the clergyman, who ordered him to fulfil his engagement,
but to play nothing but psalms. Accordingly, as soon as Christ-tide
arrived, the weird stranger made his appearance, and beckoned the
fiddler to a spot where some company was assembled. On reaching his
destination, he at once struck up a psalm tune, which so enraged his
audience that they instantly vanished, but not without so violently
bruising him that it was with difficulty that he reached home to tell
his novel Christmas experience.





Next: The Glastonbury Thorn Its Legend

Previous: Decorating With Evergreens



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