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The animals are warning us. Will we listen?

Nativity scene with animals
Greg Walters

As a kid, my mom told me that animals could talk on Christmas Eve.

Not all animals on Christmas Eve — that would be weird. Just the cows, chickens and sheep who spent the night near the manger with Mary and Joseph. When Jesus was born at the stroke of midnight, Mom said, the animals were the only witnesses to the miracle of His birth. God gave them the gift of speech, so they could praise Him and sing Him to sleep.

No matter what your religious beliefs, it’s a great story. And even though I am no longer an observant Catholic, I tell my own sons this story when we put out our nativity set each year.

You can imagine how surprising it was to learn that pretty much nobody else has ever heard of this. As my husband put it: “Um, no. That’s just your weird family story.” Several of my colleagues agreed.

So, I took my story to Google. It turns out the fable is common among Eastern European Catholics, especially in Poland, where my mom’s family is from. The internet offered a number of unsatisfying origin stories for the tale — one said it arose from the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, where social roles were reversed for a week in winter. One article offered these gloomy details: “Some say that the only people who can hear animals speak are fated soon to die. Other legends even say that the animals speak to each other to plot revenge against neglectful owners.”

That’s the kind of downer I don’t need right now, so I kept poking around.

Eventually, I came across a 2009 blog post written by a veterinarian-turned-minister named Nancy Janisch. She found a deeper meaning in the tradition: a restoration of the world’s lost harmony. “The missing harmony begins to be set right at Christmas,” she writes. When the animals can speak, and all are united in praise of God, “The world is set right for a moment.”

Janisch was writing as a theologian, but the idea resonated with me as an environmental reporter. Especially this year, when we saw the clearest evidence yet that our planet has tipped off balance in a most unharmonious way.

There hasn’t been this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in at least 2 million years, well before humans showed up. The latest United Nations climate report said we’ll see at least 6 to 12 inches of sea-level rise by 2050 no matter what we do. And the international climate conference in Glasgow ended with COP26 president Alok Sharma fighting back tears because attendees had accomplished so little. #COPOUT26, the kids called it.

In Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest book, “Under a White Sky,” she interviews a glaciologist named J.P. Steffensen. He notes that modern humans have been living on most parts of the planet for about 50,000 years, but only began settling into farming villages around 10,000 years ago, at the beginning of a very stable interglacial period. Big urban civilizations showed up about 5,000 years after that. A stable climate, he argues, has allowed humans to flourish. And we humans have gone and thrown the climate out of whack.

Which brings me back to the talking animals.

Humans didn’t emerge from a mythical garden where all creatures lived in harmony and talked together. We’re living in the garden right now, and have been for 10,000 years. The climate crisis is like a giant wave cresting, curled over our heads and poised to crash, but moving almost too slowly to see.

But the animals see it. Plants can, too. They are telling us that the climate is changing. Flowers are blooming and sap is running earlier, birds are altering their migration paths, lobsters are slowly plodding north to cooler seas.

I think that’s why the cows and goats in the manger have been in my thoughts so much this year. Humans can survive climate change if we pay attention to what the plants and animals are telling us. But we’ve become too good at tuning them out —especially at this time of yearI’m no exception. These last few weeks have been the usual mad scramble to finish the Christmas cards, ship gifts to far-flung relatives and hunt through local pharmacies for home-COVID tests. All while praying that the omicron variant doesn’t close my kids’ school at the last minute. 

But maybe amid all the clatter, there is stillness to be found. The Christmas Eve story reminds us that we can hear the animals, if we stop for a moment to listen.

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