Nativity Legends: 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 Year of Birth Jesus; 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, “hoc node,” 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 ver-sions 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.