December 24, 2004

Talking animals: miracle or curse?

There's a widespread European superstition that at midnight on Christmas Eve, animals are able to speak in human voices. There are some heartwarming treatments of this story, in which the gift of speech is God's thanks to the animals in the manger in Bethlehem, and the animals use this gift to help humans. However, in most of the versions of the story, overhearing the animals' midnight speech is very bad luck.

In some cases, the animals predict misfortune.

Once upon a time there was a woman who starved her cat and dog. At midnight on Christmas Eve she heard the dog say to the cat, "It is quite time we lost our mistress; she is a regular miser. To-night burglars are coming to steal her money; and if she cries out they will break her head." "Twill be a good deed," the cat replied. The woman in terror got up to go to a neighbor's house; as she went out the burglars opened the door, and when she shouted for help they broke her head.

Again a story is told of a farm servant in the German Alps who did not believe that the beasts could speak, and hid in a stable on Christmas Eve to learn what went on. At midnight he heard surprising things. "We shall have hard work to do this day week," said one horse. "Yes, the farmer's servant is heavy," answered the other. "And the way to the churchyard is long and steep," said the first. The servant was buried that day week.

In these stories, occult knowledge is bad, and research beyond normal bounds creates not only unwelcome knowledge of misfortune, but also misfortune itself.

A story by Saki, Bertie's Christmas Eve, takes a different route to a similar end. Listening for the miracle of animal speech brings misfortune, but this time it's because stereotypical properties are transferred across species in the opposite direction. Bertie, it seems, can be beastly.


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 24, 2004 08:55 AM