Nativity Legends

Nativity Legends

Folklorists define a legend as a short, oral narrative about a person, place, or incident. Legends purport to be true, which generally means that they stay within the boundaries of what's considered possible within the shared cultural assumptions of the tale tellers and their audience.

The English word "legend" comes from the Latin word legere, which means "to read." The term originated in the early Middle Ages in reference to accounts of the lives of the saints read aloud at religious services held on their feast days. As the Middle Ages wore on, these saints' tales became more and more numerous, and more and more fantastic. Gradually, the word legend came to mean an untrue or improbable story. Medieval people not only told legends about saints, but also about biblical events and characters. Indeed, scriptural texts gave so little information concerning important events like the Nativity that much room remained for ordinary people to embroider their fanciful designs around the bare outlines of the story.

Legends Concerning Jesus' Birth

The Gospel according to Matthew tells of a miraculous star that appeared in the heavens to herald the birth of Jesus (see Jesus,Year of Birth; Star of Bethlehem). Old European legends expanded on this theme, inventing other miraculous signs that occurred on the day of Jesus'birth. For example, many tales proclaimed that on the day Jesus was born, plants burst into bloom and rivers ran with wine.

Although the Gospel accounts of Christmas do not mention any animals at the scene of Jesus' birth, medieval legends not only declared their presence at the manger in Bethlehem, but also told of their marvelous deeds. According to one tale, the rooster was the first animal to respond to the miraculous birth. He fluttered up to the roof of the stable and cried in Latin, "Christus natus est," which means "Christ is born" (see also Misa de Gallo). It probably did not seem too odd to western European Christians in the Middle Ages to imagine a rooster in ancient Judea crowing in Latin to honor Christ's birth, since Latin was the official language of the Western Church. When the raven heard the rooster's declaration, he rasped the question, "quando," or when? The rook replied, "hac nocte," this night. The ox murmured, "ubi," where? The sheep bleated, "Bethlehem," and the ass bellowed, "eamus," let's go! This clever tale assigns each of the animals a Latin phrase that mimics the sound of its own voice.

Other legends recounted the ways in which various animals paid tribute to the Christ child on the night of his birth. According to one such story, the robin stood near the flames of the Holy Family's meager fire, beating its wings all night to keep the fire alive and, as a result, singeing its breast red from the flames. The stork tore feathers from her own chest to make a downy bed for the newborn Jesus, and ever since has been honored as the patron of new births. The nightingale nestled near the manger and caroled along with the angels. As a result, her song still remains sweeter and more musical than that of other birds. The owl did not follow the other animals to the stable at Bethlehem. Shamed by its own irreverence, the owl has ever since hidden from the sight of other animals, appearing only by night to cry in a soft voice: "Who? Who? Who will lead me to the Christ child?"

Even plants honored and aided the newborn Jesus and his mother, Mary. Yellow bedstraw and sweet woodruff offered themselves as bedding for Mary and the baby, thereby earning the folk name "Our Lady's Bedstraw." Some tales assigned creeping thyme the same modest role and a similar folk name, "Mary's Bedstraw." When the Holy Family fled into Egypt (see also Flight into Egypt), the rosemary plant provided Mary with a clean place on which to hang Jesus' baby clothes after she had washed them. For rendering this small service to Jesus and his mother, the plant was blessed ever after with beautiful blue flowers and a sweet fragrance. In other versions of this tale Mary hung Jesus'clothes on a lavender bush, which afterwards produced delightfully fragrant flowers. She hung her own blue cloak on the rosemary plant, whose previously plain white flowers remained forever imprinted with its color and soothing fragrance.

Christmas Legends

Over the centuries Christmas and the customs connected with it have inspired a multitude of legends. Many related folk beliefs accompanied these legends. These folk beliefs frequently echoed the underlying premise of the Nativity legends recounted above, that is, that the whole of creation responds to the Savior's birth by acts of praise, adoration, and service.

One popular European legend declared that oxen knelt in their stables at midnight each year on Christmas Eve to honor the moment of Jesus' birth. Often animals were granted powers far beyond their normal capacities on Christmas Eve. English, French, and German folklore maintained that barnyard animals whispered among themselves in human language at that moment. The tales cautioned that these animals often spoke of the faults of their human masters or of impending deaths in the community, making it perhaps unwise to try to overhear them. The daring listener would probably find greater delight in creeping up to a beehive on Christmas Eve, since English folklore insisted that bees sang psalms, hymns, or symphonies in glorious harmonies to commemorate the Nativity.

Among Middle Eastern Christians, stories circulated about trees and plants, especially those growing along the banks of the Jordan River, that bowed towards Bethlehem at that same moment. Many European legends marveled at trees and plants that momentarily burst into fruit and flower on Christmas Eve. An old Russian folk belief hinted that water briefly turns into wine in honor of the occasion. French and German folklore declared that hidden treasures revealed themselves at midnight on Christmas Eve, and that mountains split open to display their hidden veins of precious metals and stones. Other tales told of buried or sunken bells that somehow tolled mysteriously at midnight on Christmas Eve. (For other Christmas legends, see Berchta; Befana; Boar's Head; Cherry Tree; Christmas Rose; Christmas Tree; Flight into Egypt; Frau Gaude; Glastonbury Thorn; Jultomten; Kallikantzari; Lebanon, Christmas in; Poinsettia; Snow Maiden; Syria, Christmas in; Twelve Days of Christmas; Urban Legends; Wenceslaus, King; Wild Hunt.)

Further Reading

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Dégh, Linda. "Legend." In Thomas A. Green, ed. Folklore: An Encyclopedia ofBeliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997. Foley, Daniel J. The Christmas Tree. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Books, 1960. Hackwood, Frederick W. Christ Lore. 1902. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1969. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythol-ogy, and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Lehane, Brendan. The Book of Christmas. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1986. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Palmer, Geoffrey, and Noel Lloyd. A Year of Festivals. London, England: Frederick Warne, 1972. Weiser, Francis X. Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1952.

Web Site

A site sponsored by the Marian Library and International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, Ohio, on Mary's Flowers (part of The Mary Page):
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
References in periodicals archive ?
Meanwhile, Taffy Thomas was presenting a collection of midwinter legends and tales, including nativity legends and ghost stories in the Barbour Room (4pm), while Northumbria Saxophone Quartet was staging a concert in Hall 2 at the same time.