Thursday, December 5, 2013


is stable is
a Prince’s courte,
 The cribbe His 
chaire of State;
The beastes 
are parcell of 
His pompe,
The wodden dishe, 
His plate.
Robert Southwell 

The Lion's Noël

A Book of Christmas Beasts


One evening during the Christmas season in Billings, MT, I was visiting the home of one of my friends. On their mantel was a Christmas decoration: it was individual block letters that spelled out N O E L. Sometime after I left, they would have discovered that I had reversed the letters, leaving behind: L E O N. To this day, wherever I go, if I find those letters, and am able to, I reverse them.

I also love the symmetry of combining these words: L E O N N O E L. 

The name Leon has as its root leo, which in Latin means "lion."  So at some point I began thinking of a Lion's Noel, instead of leon noel, and that expanded into an idea for a book project to include poetry and carols and stories about the animals at the birth of Jesus.

The lion's "noel" then is the lion's carol, his paean, his praise, his homage to the infant Jesus at His birth.

And it makes perfect sense that, as king of all beasts, it is his responsibility to preside over any homage paid by animals to the King of Kings       -- noblesse oblige.

I have been collecting anthologies and picture books that feature the animals of Christmas for many years. Once I started this blog site then it became obvious to me that I needed to feature some of these wonderful poems and stories. There are even a couple of my own attempts at poesy included in the presentation: "Piglet's  Ephratah"  is  included  in  part  VI.  Piglet's  Little  Paean, for  one.

Over the next few weeks then, you will find chapters specific to an animal or group of animals published on this site that will, once they have all been posted, result in a grand

Noel to the Birth of Christ 
By the Animals of Christmas

Here are a few choruses to begin the concert:

From the Aberdeen Bestiary

The Friendly Beasts

Jesus our brother, kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

"I," said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
"I carried His mother up hill and down;
I carried her safely to Bethlehem town."
"I," said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

"I," said the cow all white and red
"I gave Him my manger for His bed;
I gave him my hay to pillow his head."
"I," said the cow all white and red.

"I," said the sheep with curly horn,
"I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm;
He wore my coat on Christmas morn."
"I," said the sheep with curly horn.

"I," said the dove from the rafters high,
"I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry;
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I."
"I," said the dove from the rafters high.

Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.

           Robert Davis, 1881-1950

Matthew 1:23

Behold, a virgin shall be with child, 

and shall bring forth a son, 

and they shall call his name Emmanuel

which being interpreted is, 

God with us.

From "Christmas Creatures" 

     Camels represent one of the religious traditions of Christmas. In Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Puerto Rico, children are told that they bear the Three Kings with their gifts for children. And children remember the camels, putting hay or grass for them under their beds, on the roof, or before the door.

     In Southern Syria the Youngest Camel himself bestows the gifts. According to a Syrian Christmas tale, when the young camel was too weary to walk farther, he fell down, and was blessed by the Christ Child.
     Children awaiting the camels never see them any more than we see reindeer, but they wake up to find gifts in place of the hay or grass. 
     Peasants of central Europe feed their hens and geese wheat that has been blessed at church at Christmas to protect them from evil. In some areas the last sheaf of corn at the harvest was once dressed like a woman -- the Corn Mother. On Christmas Eve, a wreath made from the ears of the mother sheaf were put in the manger to make the cattle thrive.
     Rooted in ancient magic, customs like these found their way into Christmas early. St. Francis of Assisi gave them further meaning. Because Christ was born in a stable, St. Francis taught, all animals should share in the plenty of Christmas.
     Since then, farmers of Europe have given their cattle and horses extra rations at Christmas, and choice bits from the family table. English horses sometimes received a drink of ale.
     In parts of Germany the cat, the dog, the canary, and even the mice in a household were all allowed to peek at the Christmas tree. 
     No housewife wanted cobwebs in the room, so spiders were kept out, according to one legend. Finally, one Christmas, the spiders complained to the Christ Child, who let them in. Down from the attic and up from the cellar they crept. And when they had seen all they could from the floor, they started up the tree, draping the branches with filmy webs. At a touch from the Christ Child the cobwebs turned to golden tinsel.
     Spanish people say that one should be especially kind to cows in memory of the cattle whose breath warmed the infant Jesus.
     The animals, so the legends go, have Christmas customs of their own. Sheep walk in procession out of respect for the glad tidings the shepherds received. Bees hum a Christmas carol. Roosters crow all night. Farm animals kneel in their stalls, and for one hour on Christmas Eve, all animals can speak.   

Edna Barth (1900-1981), from Holly, Reindeer, and Colored Lights, The Story of the Christmas Symbols

Christmas Eve Legend

The woods were still and the snow was deep,
But there was no creature who could sleep.

The fox and the vixen ran together
Silently through the starry weather,

The buck and the doe and the fawn came drifting
Into the clearing. The rabbit, lifting

His ears, shook white from the twigs he brushed;
The chattering squirrel for once was hushed

As he sat with his paws against his breast,
And the bobcat crouched on the mountain crest.

Safe in the fold the silver sheep
Told the young lambs not to leap.

In the shadowy stable the horses stood
Hearing the quietness in the wood,

And the cattle sighed in the fragrant barn,
Waiting the instant of the morn.

The stars stood at midnight, and tame or wild,
All creatures knelt to worship the Child.

         Frances Frost, 1905-1959

Joyous Noël !

May the spirit of the Child in the Manger and the humility of the animals who worship Him bring Peace to your soul this season

                         Leon Archibald, December 2013

Heraldic Lion, Tapestry, detail, by William Morris (1836-1896), British painter. This image is half of a scene which symbolizes the Quest for the Unicorn by King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. 

Noel is sometimes spelled with a diaeresis over the e, as Noël, from the French.

The verse from the title page in modern typeface:

His stable is a Prince's courte,
     The cribb His chaire of State;
The beastes are parcell of His pompe,
     The wodden dishe, His plate.

     Robert Southwell, from New Prince, New Pomp 

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