Sarah Rae Murray is a writer, former veterinary practice receptionist and an advocate for all animals.
There’s something magical about this time of year; stories and traditions from around the world capture the imagination and become a part of that magic. When it comes to Yuletide or Christmas folklore, animals are significant figures. Whether it’s the reindeer of Old Saint Nick or the Icelandic Yule Cat, stories of animals have been passed down from generation to generation and have become symbolic of the season. Despite the stories that exist in pop culture, we often aren’t aware of their origins or only know pieces of the story.
Here are a few interesting tales of animals and Christmas symbolism:
Reindeer became a part of Santa Claus’ mythology through 19th century poetry. In 1821, printer William B. Gilley published an illustrated children’s poem that depicts Santa’s sleigh being pulled by a single reindeer. Clement C. Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (now popularly known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas”) was the first to introduce Santa’s team of eight reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, and Blixem. But what about the most famous reindeer of all? Rudolph came later, in 1939, as a character in a colouring book. This colouring book was part of Carl Lomen’s marketing efforts to popularize reindeer meat in the United States. The Lomen Reindeer Co. didn’t succeed but Rudolph became a lasting character in Christmas pop culture.
What came first: the robin or the postman? Robins are commonly seen in seasonal images, including the cover of Christmas cards. In the UK this isn’t surprising as the robin doesn’t migrate during the winter. But there’s another interesting connection between robins and the Christmas season. In Victorian times, British postmen wore red jackets to represent royalty and the Union Jack. They earned the nickname of ‘robins’ because their identifying garment resembled the red breast of the bird. Robins carrying cards in their beaks became a popular image on Victorian Christmas cards, a tribute to the very postmen that would deliver the seasonal cards.
Yuletide folklore isn’t all jolly elves and enchanted reindeer. It includes frightening figures as well that were often created as characters in cautionary tales. This is the category the Yule Cat falls under. More giant monster than house cat, the story of Jólakötturinn encourages hard work leading up to Christmas. In rural Icelandic tradition, employers would give members of their household new clothing and shoes as a reward for good work. The origin of the legend of the Yule Cat is unknown but the story goes: if you’re lazy and don’t receive new clothes by Christmas Eve, you’ll be “Devoured by the Christmas Cat”—a saying directed towards those who aren’t putting in the work or have yet to receive a new garment. However, there are some subdued iterations of the story where the Yule cat only eats their presents and food rather than the people themselves.
Galloway, Laura. “How Santa got his reindeer.” CNN, 2012, Web.
Maloney, Alison. “Red Letter Day: This is why robins appear on Christmas cards…and it’s not the reason you think.” The Sun, 2017, Web.
Moyes, Sarah. “Christmas Animals from Around the World.” One Kind Planet, 2016, Web.
National Geographic Australia. “Beware the vicious Yule Cat or he might eat you.” National Geographic, 2017, Web.
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