Being raised on a dairy farm, I was aware from a young age of the legend that on Christmas Night, cows will start talking to one another and rejoicing the birth of Christ. As Christmas approached each year I would plan to get up in the middle of the night, sneak out of the house and go to the shed to see if it was true. But Santa Clause’s magic always seemed to be too powerful and I would sleep the whole night through waking up the following morning with no Santa Clause to be seen or cows to be heard. Just their vacant stare as they waited to be milked, chewing cud, the steam rising from their mouths and the occasional cough. But missing it each year maintained the magic; almost as if they had tricked you again, remaining evasive and withholding their secrets. Reality would set in quickly however, with milking to be done, yards to be scraped and silage troughs to be filled before the presents under the tree could be tackled!
In the 1930’s the Irish Folklore Commission collaborated with the Department of Education to encourage schoolchildren to collect folklore in their areas. These included local stories, customs, legends, superstitions, games, names, riddles, past times and traditions. I have already written about a number of these on this blog relating to the Blackstairs Region however, going through my notes recently over the Christmas period I came across one which was directly related to my childhood Christmas ambition. The collector was Lizzie Kelly, a pupil at Drummond National School, Co. Carlow under the tuition of P. Ó Murchadha (Murphy). Lizzie did not provide her address however, her informant was Patrick Kelly, Ballinaberna, Ballywilliam, Co. Wexford, aged 19. Both Drummond and Ballywilliam are located on the west and east sides respectively of the southern terminal of the Blackstairs range.
In this version of the legend, cattle are not specified, but all animals or “humble beasts” are believed to speak on Christmas Eve. To hear them doing so however, is to bring terrible bad luck upon yourself. One farm servant in the region scoffed at this belief and proclaimed that no animal could ever speak. To the horror of his neighbours, he made plans to prove it both to himself and everyone else. So on Christmas Eve he went into a stable with three horses and lay down in the straw, full of confidence that he would be proven right come the morning. At the stroke of midnight the first horse turned to his companions and said “Heigho! This day week we shall have hard work to do!”. The farm servant was even more stunned by the strange reply from the second horse: “Aye! The farmer’s servant is a good heavy weight”. “And the road to the churchyard is long and steep” grumbled the third. With a shriek of terror the farm servant fell into a deathly swoon from which he never recovered and was buried in the local churchyard a week later.
Santa’s sleeping magic was a blessing!