In many European cultures, this lovely superstition has children sneaking downstairs and into barnyards and stables, hoping to witness the miracle for themselves.
The tradition probably sources back to the nativity. As you probably remember from Sunday school (or the creepy Little Drummer Boy "Gift of Love" TV special from the 60s), in the story of Jesus's birth, his parents could find "no room at the inn." So they settled into a "lowly manger" and it was there, among farm animals, that Mary delivered. Those creatures, blessed to be present, passed the gift of speech down to their descendants two thousand years later.
It's a lovely story, whether you consider human speech a gift or not (I certainly know people in whom that gift is wasted — to quote my mother-in-law (and many others), "If you can't say something nice ..."). Those of us who make animals part of our families speak with them year-round. And they find ways to answer, Christmas Eve or not.
In our greater family, this season has marked the passing of several beloved animals. My brother's family lost a special cat about a month ago. My business partner and his husband lost a beautiful dog. And, just this week, an older equine at my teenage daughter's stable, a retired race horse, ran wildly around the paddock only to collapse and die.
We comfort ourselves as well as we can. "He lived a long life." "She was adored and knew it." "He died doing what he loved to do."
But, despite kind words and common sense, there's a hole in our hearts. St. Francis called animals our "Brother and sister creatures." I would add "Son and daughter."
This year marks our first Christmas in eighteen without our own Boogalie (that's Cajun for "Swamp Monster"). Boogalie was a very little dog with a very big personality. He joined our family a year and a half before our daughter did and passed away in July. He has left an empty place in the kitchen (my husband calls it our "Tiny Tim corner"); after five months, I've finally stopped calling to him when I get home.
The trouble is that these animal family members become completely human to many of us. But, they don't enjoy human lifespans. With any luck, we do, so we must rebuild without them. Find new ways to love them even though they've left us.
The other day, after "General" died, my daughter's stable posted a beautiful poem to help heal all the young equestriennes who were mourning his loss. It's called "Don't Cry For The Horses" by Brenda Riley-Seymore.
Don't cry for the horses that life has set free.
A million white horses, forever to be.
Don't cry for the horses now in God's hands.
As they dance and prance to a heavenly band.
They were ours as a gift, but never to keep
As they close their eyes, forever to sleep.
Their spirits unbound, forever to fly.
A million white horses, against the blue sky.
Look up into Heaven. You will see them above.
The horse we lost, the horse we loved.
Manes and tails flying, they gallop through time.
They were never yours, they were never mine.
Don't cry for the horses, they will be back someday.
When our time has come, they will show us the way.
Do you hear that soft nicker close to your ear?
Don't cry for the horses, love the ones that are here.
It was strange to do my Christmas shopping this year without picking up boxes of treats, rubber balls and squeaky toys (Boogs was so ferocious; toys typically lasted about ten minutes, rarely making it out from under the tree). When I pulled out our stockings earlier this month, there was a particular one, red plaid and bone-shaped, that I kissed and put back away.
We'll pass it on to another little family member next year.
This year, we'll just remember.
If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to order a copy of Lovin' the Alien at www.lovinthealien.com.