To the Western mind, Christmas Eve is a night permeated with magic, mystery, and miracles; on which Ebenezer Scrooge, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, made a transformative transtemporal journey in the company of four spirits; and on which George Bailey, in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, realized the true impact of his existence on his friends and family with the help of an interdimensional angel. The mysticism we associate with this holiest of nights seems to be the reflection of an unspoken belief that the very fabric of Creation will, once a year, shrug off the laws which govern it in an existential celebration of the birth of Christ.
One old European folktale which far outdates the Golden Age of Hollywood and the era of Victorian literature, from which spring so many of our modern Christmas myths, contends that animals can sometimes be heard talking to each other at midnight on Christmas Eve. This idea hearkens back to the Gospel of Luke, which describes how Joseph of Nazareth and his pregnant wife, Mary, while visiting the town of Bethlehem for the purpose of enrolling themselves in the Roman census, were obliged to sleep in the stable of an inn. There, amongst horses, donkeys, and cattle, Mary gave birth to Jesus, the Son of God, whom she laid to rest in a manger.
Although Luke’s Gospel makes no mention of the beasts of burden which attended Christ’s birth, nor more than a passing reference to the sheep under the charge of the shepherds to whom an angel brought “good tidings of great joy,” these creatures were nonetheless pivotal characters in the Nativity, some lucky donkey even offering up his trough as a cradle for the King of Kings. Secular European folklore contends that, on the anniversary of Christ’s birth, animals of all kinds, as an extension of the honour afforded their Bethlehem predecessors, and as an opportunity to join the heavenly host in giving “glory to God in the highest,” are temporarily granted the gift of speech.
Although this legend is supposed to have its roots in continental Western Europe, it seems to have made its way across the Atlantic and into the traditions of some of Canada’s First Nations by at least the early 1800s. In his 1821 book Sketches of Upper Canada, Scottish physician and combat surgeon Dr. John Howison described his own unexpected brush with a variation of this tradition on Christmas Eve 1819, in a stretch of snowy forest west of the present-day city of London, Ontario, called the Long Woods. After enjoying a meal and warming himself by the fire in Ward’s Tavern, a lonely establishment on the Thames River where the village of Wardsville, Ontario, now stands, Dr. Howison decided to take the air.
“When it was midnight,” he wrote, “I walked out, and strolled in the woods contiguous to the house. A glorious moon had now ascended to the summit of the arch of heaven, and poured a perpendicular flood of light upon the silent world below. The starry hosts sparkled brightly when they emerged above the horizon, but gradually faded into twinkling points as they rose in the sky. The motionless trees stretched their majestic boughs towards the cloudless firmament, and the rustling of a withered leaf, or the distant howl of the wolf, alone broke upon my ear. I was suddenly roused from a delicious reverie, by observing a dark object moving slowly and cautiously among the trees. At first, I fancied it was a bear, but a nearer inspection discovered an Indian on all fours. For a moment I felt unwilling to throw myself in his way, lest he should be meditating some sinister design against me; however, on his waving his hand, and putting his finger on his lips, I approached him, and, notwithstanding his injunction to silence, inquired what he did there. ‘Me watch to see the deer kneel,’ replied he; ‘This is Christmas night, and all the deer fall upon their knees to the Great Spirit, and look up.’ The solemnity of the scene, and the grandeur of the idea, alike contributed to fill me with awe. It was affecting to find traces of the Christian faith existing in such a place, even in the form of such a tradition.”
It is not surprising that a variation of the legend of talking animals on Christmas Eve found a ready home among the belief systems of some of Canada’s First Nations. Indigenous peoples across the continent, from the Nootka of Vancouver Island to the Mi’kmaq of the Maritimes, have traditional stories about an ancient era when man and beast easily and regularly conversed with each other. As Canadian writer James R. Stevens put it in his 1993 collection of traditional Oji-Cree stories Sacred Legends, directly quoting a Cree elder, “It is said that in those ancient days all the animals could talk the same language as human beings.”
Although most animals, for at least 364 days of the year, seem to have lost their ancient ability to converse with mankind, some native medicine men have professed to have learned the long-forgotten speech of the animals. In his 1963 book Never Cry Wolf, Canadian wildlife biologist Farley Mowat described an Inuit shaman named Ootek, who paid the occasional visit to his field camp in the Keewatin Barrens of what is now the territory of Nunavut, from which he observed the behavior of a resident pack of tundra wolves. Ootek claimed to have learned the language of his lupine neighbours, from whose howls he could track the movements of the caribou with astonishing accuracy. On one occasion, Ootek proved his incredible ability to Mowat by predicting both the arrival and size of a party of Inuit hunters whose presence in the area he could have no way of knowing, matter-of-factly translating the wolf howls as he heard them. And in a passage in an ethnological treatise on a particular Coast Salish nation which this author, for the life of him, cannot relocate, certain medicine men on Canada’s West Coast were said to be able to comprehend the caws, clicks, and croaks of crows and ravens.
Another type of West Coast animal believed to possess some rudimentary form of language is the whale. One wonders what sort of things whales talk about, these mammals doomed to live underwater, which, if they want to breathe, are obliged to haul their gigantic bodies to the surface to gasp for air through a tiny blowhole; many of which must satiate their enormous appetites on tiny organisms like krill and plankton, which have to get stuck in their teeth before they can eat them; which have enormous brains, but lack opposable thumbs, denying them the ability to partake in the pastimes in which one would assume animals of their supposed intelligence would be inclined to partake, like discovering mathematical theorems, building cathedrals, composing symphonies, or exploring the cosmos; and which marine biologists occasionally observe shrieking at each other across the ocean. When scientists finally decode the whale language, this author is convinced that it will be composed of nothing but profanity.
Jokes aside, there is at least one example of an animal which is said to have had the ability to communicate with human beings using human language. I’m not referring to talking birds, apes that know sign language, or dogs that have been trained to mimic human words, but rather a mysterious mongoose said to have inhabited a farm on the Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland.
In the 1930s, a family by the name of Irving occupied a desolate farmhouse in a remote corner of the Isle of Man. The Irving family consisted of father James, an impoverished but well-read farmer; mother Margaret, a sturdy, dignified woman of native Manx stock; and daughter Voirrey, a quiet, introverted 13-year-old with an interest in animals and mechanical vehicles.
Back in the fall of 1931, the Irvings began to hear strange noises coming from the walls of their farmhouse, apparently issuing from some small animal which had taken up residence therein. At first, the sounds were animalistic in nature, consisting of thumps, scratches, hisses, and yips. The Irvings quickly discovered that their mysterious visitor was a remarkable mimic, which could perfectly reproduce animal calls which James directed at it in an attempt to ascertain its nature. It was only when Voirrey began reciting nursery rhymes to the creature, however, that the Irvings were made fully aware of the animal’s remarkable abilities. In what other witnesses described as a shrill, uncanny voice two octaves higher than that of an ordinary human, the animal repeated Voirrey’s rhymes right back to her.
Despite James’ initial attempts to shoot, trap, and poison the creature, the mysterious animal remained a fixture of the Irving household for the next few years. From its various hiding places in the walls, it would make simple conversation with the Irvings, using juvenile and often vulgar language to complain, make small talk, mock the Irvings’ guests, and talk about itself. Sometimes it would emerge from a crack in the wall, always without being noticed, and hurl some tiny object like a needle or small rock at guests or family members. On other occasions, supposedly while performing its bodily functions, it would cause water to leak from the walls.
About half a year after moving into the Irving home, the strange creature revealed that he was an 80-year-old mongoose who hailed from Delhi, India. He then began to show himself to the Irvings, running out onto the ceiling crossbeams, from which he would accept treats like chocolates and bananas, and appearing in various locations throughout the property. The Irvings described the animal, whom they named Gef, as a small weaselly creature with yellowish fur, a bushy tail, and abnormally large humanlike hands.
Over the years, Gef would perform a number of fantastic feats, demonstrating a knowledge of several foreign and domestic languages – including Russian, old Manx Gaelic, and British sign language – and displaying the gift of clairvoyance, often accurately predicting the arrival of guests and family members. He also carried out certain unbidden tasks in service of the Irvings, killing rabbits for their use and eavesdropping on distant neighbours, returning to tell his hosts certain details of their conversations which later proved to be perfectly accurate.
When news of the Irving’s extraordinary unpaying tenant became public knowledge, a number of newspapermen came to the remote property to investigate the phenomenon for themselves. Many of them heard Gef speak from the walls, and left convinced that something truly unusual was taking place at the farmhouse. The case attracted the attention of two well-known paranormal investigators, Harry Price and Nandor Fodor, who visited the Irving home and developed their own theories as to the cause of the phenomenon, one being that Voirrey produced Gef’s high-pitched voice through astonishingly talented ventriloquism, and another contending that Gef was really the fantastical manifestation of a dissociated personality unwittingly possessed by James Irving.
Some researchers who have commented upon the tale of Gef the talking mongoose have noted that it shares many commonalities with classic poltergeist stories, the quintessence of such cases being the haunting of an elderly couple living with their teenage daughter in a rural farmhouse by, apparently, an invisible entity hell-bent on wreaking mischief. Students of the poltergeist phenomenon have observed that the entity in question usually seems to revolve around, and perhaps derive its energy from, the teenage girl who invariably features in such cases, the latter supposedly emitting some mysterious and powerful energy unique to female adolescence.
If Gef truly was a flesh-and-blood mongoose whose vocalizations were those of a poltergeistic entity feeding off the emotional energy of Voirrey Irving, as the most sensational schools of thought regarding the poltergeist phenomenon would contend, then is it possible that animals really can talk on Christmas Eve? If a mischievous inhuman spirit could make a mongoose speak expressly for its own amusement, then certainly God, if He felt so inclined, could do the same. So keep your pets close tonight, and keep an open ear. Anything is possible on Christmas Eve.