Picture: Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece, left hand predella panel depicting the Nativity. Artist: Gentile da Fabriano. 1423.
Taken from http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/gentile-da-fabriano/adoration-of-the-magi-altarpiece-left-hand-predella-panel-depicting-the-nativity-1423
In the classical Nativity scene, started by St Francis in the Middle Ages, there are two animals placed traditionally near the manger: an ox and a donkey. The Gospels do not mention these animals in relation to the Nativity, only the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew of the 7th century tells about an ox and a donkey in adoration of Infant Jesus. Anyway, the two animals became a traditional part of the Catholic Nativity scene representations.
The ox, since pre-Christian times, evoked positive associations, while the figure of donkey was controversial, sometimes close to the devil. The Gospels, anyway, depict the donkey as a positive and humble animal, which in some way accompanies Jesus through all His life: from the flight into Egypt to His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In the Middle Ages, a new virtue was attributed to the donkey: a particular humility and patience in bearing hard labour and mistreatment. According to a Medieval legend, to repay the animal for its humble service, Christ blessed it with a holy symbol, making two stripes of dark hairs grow on its back between the shoulders, recalling the shape of a cross.
Picture: The Flight into Egypt. Illustration from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry by Limbourg Brothers
Taken from http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/limbourg-brothers/not-detected-265536
Numerous legends arose also about other animals, related to the Nativity of Jesus. Thus, camels traditionally accompanied the Magi in adoration of the Child. They tell also about a stork, that plucked its own feathers to cover the manger where Jesus would be laid, to make Him warm. Perhaps, for this legend the stork is widely associated with the infants. Also the robin, by a legend, tried to warm the Child, moving its wings to maintain the fire. During its attempt the bird was burnt by the flame, getting its typical red chest. The spider is believed to have helped the Sacred Family to hide from the soldiers during the flight into Egypt, by creating a big cobweb. In Ukraine, there is a tale about a poor woman who was upset because she had nothing to decorate her children’s Christmas tree. In the morning she found the branches covered with spiderwebs, that turned into silver by the rising sun.
Picture: A Stork. Illustration by Harrison Weir
Taken from http://www.reusableart.com
In many cultures there is a belief that on Christmas Eve, at midnight, all animals in stalls and in the forest kneel to commemorate the Nativity of Jesus. By another belief, derived from the ancient pagan traditions, the animals obtain special powers and the gift of speech on Christmas Eve. Many animals became traditional “helpers” of the gift-givers in the folk conception, like for example reindeer, horse, donkey and camel.