IN an illumination of the Nativity in the Psantier d'Ingeburg le Danemark (1210) the two animals in the stable at Bethlehem are an ox and an ass. Both are breathing over the Christ Child, somewhat mature-looking and wrapped in swaddling clothes with crossed straps.
The Virgin reclines on a couch looking fatigued, while Joseph, a bearded stoic, is resting his chin in his hand.
This fascinating image is in the new The Roman Missal published by the Catholic Truth Society. (If you consider making a generous gift to a clerical friend this will set you back £230 or $365.70. The New Sunday Missal, on the other hand, is a mere £18 or $28.62.)
There has been some contretemps over Pope Benedict's current book, Jesus of Nazareth: the infancy narratives, with references to the crib animals. Contrary to some reports, the Pope did not suggest tossing them out; in fact he writes: "No representation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass."
In an older Ireland, when the family gathered by the Christmas fireside, children were told of the religious significance of the feast. They heard lovely folktales such as that an angel stood on every spike of holly and that the animals in the manger got the power of speech at midnight to pray in adoration.
As a child, when visiting the crib after first Mass on Christmas Day, I had wondered if I could hear the animals; I listened carefully, expecting to hear some murmur, then was told I would be asleep when they said their prayers.
Some birds such as the tiny robin and wren are also part of the seasonal imagery. The pair is seen as sweethearts; in The Happy Courtship (1806) Robin goes to Jenny's window to sing a roundelay. Then when Jenny becomes unwell "upon a merry time/In came Robin Redbreast and brought her sips of wine". She responded "Thank you, Robin, kindly/You shall be mine."
But, oh the fickleness! When Jenny feels better she tells him she loves him not! Robin is not happy. "Robin he got angry and hopped upon a twig/Saying 'out with you, fie upon you/Bold-faced jig!'"
The birds are both together and singular at sombre moments in folktales. On a battlefield "covering with moss the dead's enclosed eye /The little redbreast teacheth charity", wrote Michael Drayton in the 17th Century. And John Webster in The White Devil (1608) sees the birds, again in a war zone, "since o'er shady groves they hover/And with leaves and flowers do cover/The friendless bodies of unburied men".
In the classic Babes in the Wood the two abandoned children are covered with leaves by a robin.
The robin may have been entering your home in recent days as an image on greetings cards but take care that the real bird does not come into the house though he may be "tapping on the window on a Christmas Day". This is considered an omen of a death foretold in the family.
The finality may have begun with the bird's protective fluttering above Christ on the Cross when a splash of blood on its breast marked its distinction for all eternity. The little bird that wiped Christ's face with its wings and pulled thorns from His brow came to be called the Bird of God with its eggs coloured blue as the heavens above.