Animal Nativities?

On Animal Nativities:
A Survey and more…

- Father Johann G. Roten, S.M.

In a survey conducted recently by the FOTC (Friends of the Crèche) among its members, arguments against animal nativities carry heavy theological weight. Such nativities are sacrilegious, they trivialize sacred beliefs, downplay and shorten the truth, and not least they lack respect and reverence. In sum, they pervert the most sacred mystery of Christianity.

Arguments in favor seem lightweight in comparison. They have a conciliatory tone, involve mostly personal reasons why people like animal nativities, and refer to matters of taste and favorable impression. Some arguments petition a different kind of respect, that is a more tolerant acceptance of a given cultural reality.

However, in all of this little attention was given to the question: Why are there animal nativities? Understanding is the privilege of sensitive people. Thus, let us ask: are there reasons which make animal nativities important for some? Important enough to attribute cultural – and maybe – religious value to these unusual crèche artifacts?

1) Has anybody ever noticed that animal nativities are a typical American phenomenon?

So far I haven't seen animal nativities in any of the more prominent Nativity cultures. There are animals everywhere present at the manger, sometimes most unusual ones, but neither the Italian nor the Spanish, German or Latin-American traditions have substituted animals to human figures.

Why do we have animal nativities in this country? One obvious reason may be that of tradition or absence of tradition. There is no genuine and longstanding Nativity culture in the United States, except maybe for the fifty-some-year-old Mesa Indian culture of New Mexico. Freedom from the weight of tradition allows for freedom of experiment. American mentality is pragmatic and experimental, frequently in a genuinely scientific manner. And so the mot d'ordre goes: let's give it a try and experiment: Is red wine conducive to clean arteries, or not? Is there a way, after all, to compare apples and oranges? Of course, these experiments have a practical purpose. Will the experiment work? Successful marketing is at stake and dollar signs never far from immediate scientific concern.

This concept worked for animal nativities. Some decades ago, the run for black-and-white little cows paid off. And so, for a time, they became omnipresent on window sills, in curios and playpens, not to forget Nativity sets. The animal nativity of black-and-white cows was born, and with it began the long march through domestic zoology and evermore animal nativities. Conclusion? A cherished collectible has the tendency to invade as many cherished traditions as economically viable. We may safely conclude that there is no stronger link between animal nativities and Christmas than money.

2) There may exist a somewhat deeper reason. It may have to do with magic substituting for mystery. Let me explain. A well known observation of developmental psychology asserts that magic thinking in early childhood is not bound by the logic of genus and species, space and time, quality and quantity. Transfer of meaning is all-pervasive: anything can stand for anything, or almost. There even exists a partially-corroborated theory according to which children at a very early age relate more readily to animals than to humans, foremost because they experience their domestic and non-verbal presence as less threatening than that of adult humans. The fact that there exists a psychological test (Gräser) where children are asked to represent their family as animals — Why is Mom pictured as goose and Dad as bear? — is a further example of the magic playfulness with which children recreate the world in their own way.
There is little doubt: animal nativities are a child's delight. The little one "understands" that the froggy in the manger represents baby Jesus. Who would want to use the word "sacrilegious" in this case? Could it be said that animal nativities are an attempt to retrieve the magic world of childhood, a world without boundaries between imagination and reality? It would indeed seem that we have here — in the retrieval of magic — an important reason for the success of the Christmas celebration among adults.

There is a real hunger in the adult heart to exit, for a time, the harsh landscape of adult toiling for the warm fuzziness of original blessing and the womb of all things possible. Of course, there is no need for such psychoanalytical guessing. Many adults identify Christmas with happy memories of childhood experience. Reliving this experience means, among other and more important things, to bring magic back to life.

However, magic may be a cheap substitute for mystery, a form of unwarranted self-deception. We may entertain the shaky conviction that magic equals mystery, that by recreating magic we will find the real meaning of Christmas. In this sense, animal nativities can be deceptive. They may put us in the mood, but they don't give us the mystery. They are a medium without the message. For, what we call mystery – the Incarnation – has foundation in historical reality, whereas animal nativities are a product of the imagination stylized as magic.

3) There may be a culturally even-more-pertinent reason for animal nativities. Let me call it a Postmodern reason. One of the contributors to this survey defined Postmodern as, "I will decide what it means to me." Another explanation adds to this quasi-magic and very subjective designation of meaning. The key word is "new relationality" for the believers, and "amalgamization" for the critics. In order to overcome the ever-growing egocentrism of modernity, postmodernity makes an all-out effort of universal fraternization of all people and all orders of reality. One example is a new vision of the relationship between humans and animals. In the mid-seventies, Peter Singer, Australian philosopher, launched the theory of "Animal Liberation" (1975) in which he urged in a new equality between the two orders, animal and human, based essentially on the understanding that they are both subject to suffering. We are familiar with some of the practical consequences that ensued: ban on fur coats, vegetarian boom, funerals and cemeteries for pets. In short, animals are to have a seat at the same table with the whole family.
Animal nativities are still another example, in my opinion, of Peter Singer's effort to rehabilitate the animal world. It is well known that ideas travel from top to bottom. Once they reach the grass root level, they may have lost their original inspiration, and take on a life of their own. One of those expressions may just be the "animal nativity," a way of saying that there exists a legitimate form of bonding between humans and animals. Without going so far as to call animal nativities the Singer model of animal liberation, they are a striking example of how ideas, in spite of widespread belief, generate money. But should we also agree that "all beings capable of suffering are worthy of equal consideration," or that "speciesism is discrimination"? The truth of the matter is, that there is one whom neither human nor animal species adequately and exhaustibly describe, the babe in the manger, who eventually suffered for all of us, animals and humans comprised. But do we have to reach out to Singer and his philosophy for a better understanding of animal nativities? Would it not be enough to visit Disneyland and Bunnytown to realize that animals have forever typified human characters in American culture?

In conclusion: a deeper understanding of why things are as they are may be of some help to reach a practical decision on why or why not to exhibit animal nativities. Two general conclusions would seem to be in order to help further in this regard.

(1) The religious and cultural aspects of this discussion should not be artificially separated in, "here culture," "here religion." One of the two, only, is not enough to explain the whole phenomenon. Religion inspires content and ultimate meaning of crèches; culture lends color, life, and presence — the incarnational element — to religious reality. Animal nativities are highly visible because they are provocative. Their difficulty is to lead the observer to what they are called to signify, the religious reality.

(2) Representing "mystery" — an essential task of crèches — is not an easy task, and will never be, thank God, complete or exhaustive. It needs loving attention not to fall short of its goal. This applies not only where animal nativities are concerned. Even the figures of the Holy Family can be victims of similar shortcomings. Indeed, they sometimes seem like an afterthought, like the ugliest or least cared actors of the manger scene. I am also thinking of Nativity sets — we all cherish them! — where the multitude of accessory figures detract from the centrality of the message. On the other hand, we need to avoid the boring kind of orthodoxy where Fontanini — or any other prized collectible — sets the tone and makes the rule. Avenues leading to the mystery have a variety of names: the shout of joy of the Provençal "Ravi"; the nobly bent backs of Rwandan crèche figures, the rooster's wake-up call, and many other symbols drawing their visual meaning from the vast treasure trough of cultural ingenuity.

A last question regarding animal nativities: What would ox and ass say if they found themselves mutated into a mouse or a frog? Wouldn’t they need to be consulted?

More Information

International Marian Research Institute

300 College Park 
Dayton, Ohio 45469 

Connect