As December progresses, the most familiar rhymes of the season start popping out everywhere: radio waves and shopping malls are filled with the strains of carols, mailboxes are flooded with cards full of short Christmas poems, and “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” is read out loud in homes across the world. The topics of these Christmas songs and poems are many and varied and frequently star less-than-human protagonists, but what with “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” comparatively little stage time is given to the animals present at the Nativity of Christ.
Perhaps the most famous poem starring the Christmas animals is the old French carol entitled “The Friendly Beasts,” (circa 12th century; English trans. by Robert Davis, 1934) which focuses on the humble contributions of the stable animals assumed present at the birth of Christ. It is sung from the perspective of the donkey who lovingly carried Mary on her long journey to Bethlehem, the cow who donated the manger in which Christ lay, the sheep who gave up his wool for the swaddling clothes, and the dove who gently sang the Christ child to sleep on the night of his birth. Each verse begins with the refrain “’I’, said the donkey, shaggy and brown” or “’I’, said the sheep with the curly horn”, and the carol’s last verse runs as follows:
Thus every beast by some glad spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Emmanuel.
The gift he gave Emmanuel.
In his poem “The Nativity”, C.S. Lewis reflects on the same aspect of the Christmas story. His treatment, however, takes the basic concept of the French carol and turns it on its head; rather than anthropomorphizing the beasts by giving them a ‘glad spell’ which allows them to participate in the human spirit of Christmas generosity, he inverts the familiar sentiment and wishes that he was able to respond to Christ’s presence with the virtues which symbolically belong to these same animals:
Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.
Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.
Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!
Lewis paints a portrait in which the power of Christmas begins in the Christ child, a ‘glory in the stable’ that is perceived through the lens of the animals. He watches from their perspective, ‘among the asses’ who find a child where they sought hay, and hopes to receive from that very child the grace to become like unto those who wait so patiently when they find their plates otherwise occupied.
The direction of Lewis’ poetic motion is in stark contrast to that of the French carol, in which the gift is to the Christ-child, given with human intentions in the mode of a donkey, and, in many ways, “The Nativity” seems to capture better the spirit of the season. At Christmas, we long to receive the grace that enters into the world through the humblest objects around us; it is not the gifts that we can give, but rather the gifts we are given, which truly make Christmas a holy day.