A Christmas time legend, mainly in Europe, says that animals have the power of speech at midnight on Christmas Eve.
A Christmas time legend, mainly in Europe, says that animals have the power of speech at midnight on Christmas Eve.
The roots of this legend are foggy at best, but the deal is Jesus was born in a manger surrounded by animals. The child was born at the stroke of midnight, and no one but Joseph and Mary was about, so God gave animals the power of speech so they could sing the praises of the newborn child and spread the news of his coming to the world.
That makes perfect sense. The savior of the world, the son of God, was just plopped out in a manger, and now I’m getting the news from this talking goat. Why would that be weird? Why would that be tough to believe?
I first heard this story from my paternal grandmother, a devout Catholic woman with strange ideas about God and church. She believed the palm fronds she picked up in Church on Palm Sunday, tied around the bedpost, protected you from lightning.
Catholics believe in transubstantiation, which means the symbols of Christ’s body and blood, the wine and bread, actually become his body and blood though not in appearance, during the Eucharist part of the mass. This same grandmother warned me never to chew the host, just to let it sit in my mouth and melt away. Never allow it to touch your teeth, she warned me. The reason behind this thinking was that the wafer was now the body of Jesus, and you should never bite Jesus.
She swore to me that she had seen people struck dead on the spot because they chewed the host. She named names. Once, after meeting one of her friends, she whispered to me, “That is the mother of the girl who chewed the host and died right where she stood.” I looked back at the poor woman and imagined that she had led a life of no chewing due to her unspeakable grief. In her house, there would be no gum, no melted cheese, just soft foods made softer by using a blender. I imagined her drinking all her meals, so she never had to be reminded of how her daughter was taken from her by a poorly timed bit of mastication.
Later I met the daughter, very much alive, chewing a wad of Hubba Bubba extreme watermelon. She hadn’t chewed the host and died; she had started dating a protestant boy, which made her as good as dead.
When I was about seven years old, I was sitting at my grandmother's house; it was three days before Christmas, she and I were playing gin, and she casually tossed this sentence out, “Make sure you stay up til midnight on Christmas eve so you can hear the animals speak.” I was stunned, eyes wide, mouth agape, shocked by what I had just heard. She then said, “gin,” threw down her cards, and started counting points. After she proclaimed her victory, she told me the story of the talking animals.
I stored her story deep in my mind, I may have forgotten details, but I never forgot that at midnight, on Christmas eve, animals would speak.
Years of Listening
I’ve told people about the animals many times, usually with the caveat that my grandmother was a little crazy, but she was harmless. Yet, if I’m honest, I tried my best to be up at midnight on Christmas eve, and if I could, I would be around animals.
Once in Vermont at Christmas, I was standing in a field at midnight, surrounded by ponies. I had drunk more than my share, and as the churchbell chimed the midnight in, I got as far as three bells before I passed out on some hay. I woke with several ponies looking down at me and nibbling my clothes, but none said a word.
Once in Venice, I stumbled out of an Irish pub at midnight and saw a cat perched on a wall overlooking a canal. I chased that cat through the quiet streets of Venice, begging the poor feline to speak to me. She did not. But a nice Carabinieri officer talked to me in very angry Italian. I understood him as much as I understood the cat.
The closest I came to hearing the magic of Christmas eve was in Texas. Again, drunk off my ass, standing in a field next to the bar. I had somehow gotten by the barbed wire fence and was standing amongst a herd of cows when it happened. The sweet bovine standing directly in front of me spoke.
“What are you doing?” She asked. I was stunned into silence. “You shouldn’t be here,” she continued. I stepped closer to the magical beast. “Seriously, what the fuck are you doing here?” she pressed me. I have to admit I was a little shocked at her language. I finally got my wits about me long enough to say, “I’ve come to hear you speak.” The cow turned and walked toward the rest of the herd. “You’ve come to get your ass kicked,” the voice said, and I felt a hand on my shoulder. The rancher spun me around and stared at me. “You on the drugs?” He asked. I shook my head, disappointed that the cow hadn’t been the one speaking to me.
It’s reflex now. At midnight on Christmas eve, if I’m awake, I check my surroundings for an animal and try to be near it when the last stroke of twelve reverberates.
The Dog Spoke at Midnight
I have recently moved, and this Christmas was a rush and a hassle of moving, gift buying, and setting up my apartment, This year, I didn’t think about the myth. I found myself standing on the city pier at midnight, watching the moon dance over the water.
At midnight I heard the church bells begin to chime; I looked down at my watch and then at the seagull about two feet from me. “You got anything to say?” I asked the bird, and he just looked away. I laughed, looked up to the heavens, and wished my grandmother a merry Christmas. As the last bell chimed, I heard this,
“He’s very shy around strangers.”
I whipped around and saw no one.
“Down here,” the voice said, and I looked down. A mixed-breed dog, a mutt, looked up at me. “Hank’s not good with strangers,” the dog said.
“The seagull,” the dog said, “you can’t lose faith just cause you picked the one shy seagull on the planet.” I stared. “Isn't this what you’ve been waiting for,” he asked, “all your life, right? You’ve been hanging around animals at midnight to hear us talk; well, I’m talking; what do you want to hear?”
This was it. This was what I had hoped for so many years. It was finally happening. I had so many questions; I asked what happens after this life, is it possible to have a world without war, how do we save the planet, is there a way to reverse climate change, can our dead friends and family hear our prayers, was God real and on and on. The words flooded out of me; I wanted to know so much. After about five solid minutes of me spewing questions, I finally stopped and stared at the dog.
“Well?” I said.
“Really,” The dog said, “God, war, climate change, the afterlife? That’s what you want to know?”
“Yes, “ I said, eager to have the world's mysteries revealed to me.
“Look, buddy,” he began, “I’m a dog. I start conversations by sniffing bums. I pee everywhere; I eat stuff off the floor; I’m thoroughly confused by mirrors; I will eagerly humiliate myself for a treat; I have no pockets, no thumbs, no degree, and I live to fetch anything you’ll throw. I’m a dog. Just because I can speak once a year, at a specific time, doesn’t mean I have the answers to life’s big questions.”
“Oh,” I said, genuinely disappointed at this news. A moment passed, and the dog burst out laughing.
“I’m pulling your leg; look at you; it’s like your best friend just died. I’m busting your nuts, buddy. Of course, I have the answers. We can speak, and we’re also given infinite wisdom on this night. So, ask away.”
I was thrilled. I got down on my knees, was eye-to-eye with the dog, and asked, “What is the meaning of life?” I held my breath waiting for life-changing wisdom. I looked into the dog’s eyes, and he looked into mine, and after a moment, he said,
Then he licked his crotch and my face and wandered off into the night.
A New Year Approaches
Two days ago, back at the pier, I saw the dog again. He saw me too. We both waited until the pier was empty and cautiously approached each other. We stood next to one another, me looking down at him, him looking out at the birds diving and dipping over the water.
I laughed, thinking about a life filled with making sure I was near an animal on Christmas eve so I could hear them speak. Some crazy notion put in my head by a slightly crazy, wonderfully caring old woman. I laughed. How crazy am I, I wondered. How silly have I been to spend all this time waiting to hear what?
I bent down and scritched the dog behind his ears. He remembered me, turned his eyes toward me, moved closer, and accepted the affection. “Good boy,” I said, “it was nice chatting with you the other night; maybe we can do it again. Although …” I stopped, thinking that my days of hanging around dogs and cats, cows and llamas on Christmas eve had come to an end. One last pat, and I started to leave.
“Although what?” The dog asked. We locked eyes. I said nothing. “Lemme guess,” he went on, “you’re done trying to hear animals talk. You're done standing around dogs and cats, moose and bears, cows and llamas, hoping they will speak and give you insight into the great miracles of life. You’re done hoping a stray mutt will open his maw and spill the meaning of life to you. Is that it? Look, buddy, maybe that’s not the deal. Maybe waiting for a horse to explain the theory of relativity isn't what your grandmother was talking about. I mean, did she ever say at midnight on Christmas eve animals have the gift of speech, and they will solve all our problems? I’m asking you, did she?”
“No, she didn’t,” the dog went on, “she said at midnight on Christmas eve, God gave animals the power of speech. What if all I had to say was I love cheese and licking my own butt? What if I said, my name isn't buddy or pal or spinner or rover; my name is Balthazar J Mundy.”
“No, it’s Sox, cause of the …” He held up one paw to show me the white fur that made it look like he was wearing sox. “Look, there is no promise, and there is no set script; maybe your grandmother wanted you to know this story so you’d listen. Stop, be in the moment and listen. To a cat, a dog, a horse, whatever. Just stop and listen; maybe she told you so that you’d never forget her. Maybe she told you so you’d believe that fantastical things can happen if you’re patient and pay attention. Maybe she taught you how to get out of your head and be present for others, dogs, moose, whatever. She never said there would be wisdom or wealth; she said animals could speak. Why isn’t that enough? I mean, how cool is it that you’re having a conversation with a dog on a pier as the sunsets and the world is awash with color? How amazing is it that you’re standing here talking to a dog? Have you even thought about that for a moment, or are you just mad because I have no great wisdom, no money-making scheme to make you rich?”
I had no response; the dog was right. I realized that I wanted to hear animals speak because I assumed they would give me some great wisdom, yes, maybe the idea of ideas, and I could become fabulously wealthy and retire to a private island.
“I guess,” I said. The dog nodded. “I kinda missed the point all this time, didn’t I?”
“Not completely,” he said. “Look, man, you’re what, eighty-five?”
“I’m fifty,” I said, feeling quite offended.
“Okay, what do I know? I’m a dog. The point is, you did it. You stood by an animal every Christmas eve since you were a kid. You waited, you listened, and you believed. You remembered your grandmother’s story, and you believed it could happen. Look at that. The kind of child-like wonder you’ve carried all these years. How incredible is that? You said yes to a strange and wonderful story year afte year after year. Why are you ignoring that? Why are you skipping that part to get to whatever? Your grandmother gave you a great gift; she gave you the ability to believe in miracles, to say yes to the possible, and keep a little child-like hope in your heart for a long time. Why are you pushing by that?”
“Oh my God,” I said, “it’s not Christmas eve, and you’re talking.”
“There you go,” he said, “you’re starting to get it. It’s not the reward, the what do I get out of it. It’s not the next big thing; it’s the thing that’s right in front of you. The small things, the kitchen miracles, the right word at the right time. Those things need your attention for what they are, not what you can get from them. Keep believing in talking animals. Keep seeing the world through the eyes of a child. Keep saying yes. Stay present, or you’ll miss all the tint details that make up life.”
He was right; my grandmother’s story suddenly made sense. I was filled with a strange sense of peace and joy. I thought the coming new year would be different because I now understood. It all made sense.
“Thank you,” I said to the dog, “You’ve given me a wonderful gift.”
“Woof,” he said and trotted away. Suddenly, he turned and looked back, “I’m kidding, you’re welcome, and happy new year.”
“Happy New Year.”
From all of us here at ThoughtLab, we wish you a Happy New Year. In the coming year, we will be the agency that guides you, counsels you, listens, laughs, and helps your business see further than you believed possible.
We will also be the agency that tells you never to stop listening and hoping the animals speak, even if they have only small talk to share. I mean, it was a talking dog; that was pretty cool.
Keep your heart filled with hope, keep your mind open to the possible, and may this coming year be a small miracle you never take for granted. We’ll see you in 2023.
Happy New Year.