Christmas Pig 4: The Magic in Things

I asked Brian Basore — who has forgotten more about Lewis Carroll and his Alice books than I have ever known or will ever know — if I was nuts in thinking there are a lot of Wonderland and Looking-Glass pointers in J. K. Rowling’s The Christmas Pig. He bought a copy, read it overnight, and wrote me to say, I’m overwhelmed by the hat-tips to and echoes of Alice in Christmas Pig.” Which made my day, of course (every reassurance I’m not losing my mind is received as a boon). I’m working with him on a post about this ‘intertextuality’ or ‘literary allusion’ that I hope to have up soon, but today, as a kind of rest-stop from the heavy lifting of the first three Christmas Pig posts I’ve written, I want to focus on one thing Brian told me as an aside: It shocked me to read that things, not animals, can speak on Christmas Eve. It makes her story work, but I’d never heard that before.”

This made me think of three ideas, all of which I’ll share after the jump: (1) the foundation story of the ‘Night of Miracles and Lost Causes,’ (2) the difference between how a sacred artist makes things and how God creates, and (3) what Rowling, Carroll, and perhaps several or all the other story-tellers who have thing-characters that aren’t human  speak aloud mean by this prima facie absurdity in their stories. I have given this side-trip on the journey to grasp Christmas Pig’s artistry and meaning the provocative title ‘The Magic in Things’ to play off the ‘The Magic of Things’ essay by Rowling published on Christmas Eve in The New York Times. Join me after the jump to see if there is any other connection between this post and that essay!

I really want to do my best to keep this essay brief, so let’s jump right in.

(1) The Foundation Story of the ‘Night of Miracles and Lost Causes,’

It shocked me to read that things, not animals, can speak on Christmas Eve. It makes her story work, but I’d never heard that before.” Brian is alluding here to the folklore teaching that the descendants of all the animals who were in the cave-manger with the Christ child can talk on Christmas Eve. I first heard that idea fifty years ago this week when Mary Ellen Walton explained to her younger siblings gathered in the barn the night before Christmas how the cows, chickens, horse and pigs there will be able to talk at midnight (The Homecoming: A Christmas Story). Here is the short version in ‘The Night the Animals Talked’ by Ed Price at

In the frosty mountains and on the snowy fields of Norway, there is a legend that draws children to all kinds to stables and stalls throughout the country on each Christmas Eve night. They are hoping to hear a miracle. They are waiting to hear the animals talk.

Over 2,000 years ago, Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem. This was no abandoned place, but was a working stable, filled with animals of all kinds. Into these humble surroundings, encircled by the innocent creatures of God, the Savior of man came into the world.

Now according to legend, at least, Christ’s birth occurred at exactly midnight. Inside the stable, the animals watched in wonder as the new-born babe was lovingly wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger. Suddenly, God gave voice to the animals and immediately they began to praise God for the miracle they had just seen. This went on for several minutes and, just before the entrance of the shepherds — who had hurried to the stable because angels had told them the Christ had been born there — the animals again fell silent. The only humans who had heard them were Mary, Joseph and, of course, the Christ child.

The legend of the talking animals persists to this day in Scandinavia. And every Christmas Eve, wide-eyed children creep into stables just before midnight to hear the animals praise God for the wondrous birth of His Son. Of course, adults scoff at this. “Old wives tales,” they grump. “Those children should be home in bed, not out in the cold waiting for the family cow to preach a sermon.”

But the children know — or at least believe — that animals really do praise God at midnight every Christmas Eve. And who of us — those who believe in an all-powerful God — can say that it really doesn’t happen?

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”   (Matthew 19:26 NIV)

Mark Liberman in Watch out for those talking animals tonight at his Language Log blog tells the story of the many stories that derive from this by direct allusion, written by authors as notable as H. P. Lovecraft, Beatrix Potter (The Tailor of Gloucester), and Thomas Hardy (who includes the story both in Tess of the d’Urbervilles within another story and in a 1915 poem, ‘The Oxen’). The best perhaps is in Marguerite Cunliffe Owen’s Tribulations of a Princess, to which story Liberman gives a wonderful introduction and an as inviting excerpt. See Monahan’s ‘How Talking Animals Became a Christmas Legend’ for more on all that.

Rowling, as Brian observed, has built The Christmas Pig’s core conceit, that Things can speak in the Land of the Living but only on Christmas Eve, the Night of Miracles and Lost Causes, on the traditional foundation of talking animals. Her story twist is to make the power of speech something Things enjoy that night, which difference I think invites the question, “So what is the difference between animals and crafted items?” Before attempting an answer to that question, however, the symbolism of talking animals needs some explanation.

(2) The Symbolism of Talking Animals

To understand why animals present at Christ’s Nativity could speak, at least in the presence of Christ, the Theotokos, and St Joseph, a grasp of the essential premise of Johannine cosmology and theology is necessary (for the importance of Johannine thinking to Joanne Rowling see the first part of these Christmas Pig posts). The Prologue of St John’s Gospel, its beginning both in the sense of being its ‘start’ and its ‘principle,’ arche, is about the Logos or Word of God, the arche of everything created. 

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

It would be hard, perhaps impossible, to overstate the importance of this passage to esoteric Christian theology, cosmology, epistemology, and literature. Even if just restricted to the writing of J. K. Rowling, the Prologue to the Gospel of St John is the key to the map of her artistry and meaning with respect to light, the heart, the locus of the light in “every man that cometh into the world,” and of character names as exteriorizations of their interior logos or essence.

In terms of the Nativity of Christ, the birth or appearance of the Logos as a baby, an incarnate human person, Man Himself, the legend of the animals in the cave-manger speaking has a symbolic meaning that is at once natural and spiritually challenging and edifying. Animals are creatures with anima or soul with the power of movement and of speech, only not speech intelligible to humans or significantly intelligent (animal thinking is traditionally understood as connected to logos by instinct not deliberation and conscious effort towards communion). At the birth of Christ, the Logos Himself, God’s Word or Creative Speech, the logoi of the animals present is contranaturally elevated to the logos of men and they acquire the capacity of human speech.

They lose this power when fallen enter the cave because nature depends on its spiritual center or mankind for the world’s communion with God in His Word. Insomuch as humankind fails to accept this role and act as this means to return all created existence to behold and reflect God’s glory or light (cf. John 1:15 above), nature “groaneth” in travail (Romans 8:17-25). Their descendants are supposed to have this power of speech again on Christmas Eve at midnight — the turning point of time every day as Christ’s incarnation is the turning point of human history (whence Lady Day or Annunciation being the traditional English New Year’s Day) — just as Orthodox believers who celebrate in liturgical fullness any of the Great Feasts on the appointed day participate ontologically with the graces present of the day being celebrated. Whence the appearance of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem only on Orthodox Pascha, not Western Easter, and the importance of the miracle of the Holy Cross over Athens in 1925 on the Old Calendar Feast of the Holy Cross. Just as Christians in Orthodox liturgical celebrations of Nativity are present at Christ’s birth every year, so, according to edifying legend at least, the animals at midnight who were present in Bethlehem at the historic event share in the graces of human speech again every year at that time.

As Brian Basore noted, this is relatively straight forward. How, though, do we get from talking animals to a world of animate things, the Land of the Loszt, and to talking Things even in the Land of the Living on Christmas Eve? This requires some discussion of how man makes things in contrast with how God creates.

(3) The Difference between How a Traditional Artist makes Things and How God Creates

I said I wanted to keep this post relatively short and light but we do need to enter some pretty deep and unfamiliar waters here; forgive me if what follows is not what you expected or wanted. It is the core assertion or thesis of this series of posts that a Perennialist reading of The Christmas Pig is best for drawing out its allegorical meaning and anagogic symbolism and nowhere is this more true than in grasping the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of talking Things at Christmas Eve in Jack’s bedroom and everywhere at all times in the Land of the Lost. The Perennialist teaching about human art, which includes crafts in making everyday utensils, and its relation to how God creates makes talking Things as natural a correspondence as talking animals on Christmas Eve.

The Perennialists, it must be remembered, in their discussion of art and folk crafts in traditional cultures are talking about the antithesis of modern or godless art. As discussed briefly in the second post of this series, traditional art in contrast with modern art is sacred art, which is to say, art made not for aesthetic reasons or to express individual feelings or experience but to foster noetic contact with the Divine Names or Forms or Persons and Events existing in a world-transcending realm above yet informing our Shadowlands. Modern art, be it naturalistic or abstract, even when it has a religious subject, is by definition profane, which is to say, ‘outside the temple,’ rather than sacred art.

The appearance of sacred art is not an imitation of God’s creation, which is to say, depiction of the natural world. Perennialists after Coomaraswamy uniformly cite Aquinas’ explanation of this in his Summa Theologica: “Art is the imitation of Nature in her manner of operation: Art is the principle of manufacture” (ars imitatur naturam in sua operatione ars, non operatur sicut principale agens, sed sicut coadiuvans agens principale, quod est principium interius, confortando ipsum, et ministrando ei instrumenta et auxilia, quibus utatur ad effectum producendum Q. 117, a. I). “The work of the creator [artist], whenever he looks to the unchangeable and fashions the form and nature of his work after an unchangeable pattern, must necessarily be made fair and perfect, but when he looks to the created order only, and uses a created pattern, it is not fair or perfect” (Timaeus 28A, B, cited by Nasr 2007, 212).

The doctrine common to traditional civilizations prescribes that sacred art must imitate the Divine Art, but it must be clearly understood that this in no way implies that the complete Divine creation, the world such as we see it, should be copies, for such would be pure pretension; a literal ‘naturalism’ is foreign to sacred art. What must be copied is the way in which the divine Spirit works (cf. St Thomas Aquinas, ST 1.117.1). Its laws must be transposed into the restricted domain in which man works as man, that is to say, into artisanship (Burckhardt 1976, 10).

The artist “therefore imitates nature not in its external forms but in its manner of operation as asserted so categorically by St. Thomas Aquinas [who] insists that the artist must not imitate nature but must be accomplished in ‘imitating nature in her manner of operation'” (Nasr 2007, 206). Schuon described naturalist art which imitates God’s creation in nature by faithful depiction of it, consequently, as “clearly luciferian.” “Man must imitate the creative act, not the thing created,” Aquinas’ “manner of operation” rather than God’s operation manifested in created things in order to produce ‘creations’

which are not would-be duplications of those of God, but rather a reflection of them according to a real analogy, revealing the transcendental aspect of things; and this revelation is the only sufficient reason of art, apart from any practical uses such and such objects may serve. There is here a metaphysical inversion of relation [the inverse analogy connecting the principial and manifested orders in consequence of which the highest realities are manifested in their remotest reflections]: for God, His creature is a reflection or an ‘exteriorized’ aspect of Himself; for the artist, on the contrary, the work is a reflection of an inner reality of which he himself is only an outward aspect; God creates His own image, while man, so to speak, fashions his own essence, at least symbolically. On the principial plane, the inner manifests the outer, but on the manifested plane, the outer fashions the inner (Schuon 1953, 81, 96; see first comment beneath post for more on this).

The traditional artist, then, in imitation of God’s “exteriorizing” His interior Logos in the manifested space-time plane, that is, nature (cf. John 1:3 above), instead of depicting imitations of nature in his craft, submits to creating within the revealed forms of his craft, which forms qua intellections correspond to his inner essence or logos. [Schuon argued that “a sufficient reason for all traditional art, no matter what kind, is the fact that in a certain sense the work is greater than the artist himself and brings back the latter, through the mystery of artistic creation, to the proximity of his own Divine Essence” or logos (Schuon 1953, 96-97). Sacred art is, in other words, at least as much about the sanctification of the artist as it is producing salutary work.] The work produced in imitation of God’s “manner of operation” then resembles the symbolic or iconographic quality of everything existent in being a transparency whose allegorical and anagogical content within its traditional forms is relatively easy to access and a consequent support and edifying shock-reminder to man on his spiritual journey. The spiritual function of art is that “it exteriorizes truths and beauties in view of our interiorization… or simply, so that the human soul might, through given phenomena, make contact with the heavenly archetypes, and thereby with its own archetype” (Schuon 1995a, 45-46).

Back to the Christmas Pig.

The animals of the pious legend in the cave-manger at the birth of the Logos spoke because they were in contact with Word-Speech Himself and no longer needed Man as Image of God to act as mediator for Creation. Animals today descended from these blessed creatures are supposed to have this speech because of the ontological correspondence between the super-lunary events ‘existent’ in eternity and their celebrations on specific days; they experience the world-transcendent reality of the Logos‘ first appearance as incarnate Man on the ‘Night for Miracles and Lost Causes,’ which is miraculous, i.e., not subject to natural law, because of the contranatural and sacrificial descent of the Word into flesh.

The Things in Rowling’s Christmas Pig have the capacity for speech both because, as created objects of invention, they have a logos within them through the artistry of the craftsman who imitated God’s method of operation, creation via Logos, in investing the artist’s logos in the thing’s manufacture (literally, ‘having been built by hand’ if today it usually means ‘by machine’). Not all thing’s in Rowling’s imaginative sub-creation have speech even on Christmas Eve, however; only those which have been “alivened,” the story’s symbolic language for animation or having been given a soul, by having touched a human heart, the locus of the logos-light in every man per St John’s Prologue.

These logos aspects of Things, their being in other words exteriorizations of love — for the God Who is Love (1 John 4:7-12) is nowhere more loving than in His Word, Incarnation, and Sacrificial Love — makes them, in Rowling’s Johannine artistry, capable of speech in the Land of the Living just as the Bethlehem cave-manger animals with logos essences were on the first and all consequent nights of Nativity. The “alivened bits” of Things in the Land of the Lost, which is to say, their logos aspects separated from their “plastic parts” Up There in the Land of the Living, have the power of speech and communication because they are only the logos or Word aspects of their existence, insomuch as they were given one by their human creator or by the love of their owner.

Rowling is carrying on the tradition of edifying children’s stories with talking Things — I think especially of Carroll’s Alice books and Collodi’s Pinnochio — but she takes their Christian artistry (yes, I know Collodi was not a Christian; read the intentio operis of Pinnochio as anything but Christian, however, as anything but Christian and you’re lost) a step further. Carroll is quite deliberately, I think, taking Alice into Logos land as Jack goes into the Land of the Lost, the beneath, behind, and within Things “through the Looking-Glass,” but Rowling makes this explicit both with her Christmas setting, Jack’s incarnation as a Thing “fallen” by loving choice to sacrifice his life to save his beloved toy, and the love of the Christmas Pig and Blue Bunny for Jack.

It shocked me to read that things, not animals, can speak on Christmas Eve. It makes her story work, but I’d never heard that before.” To answer Brian’s implicit question, that is, “Where did she come up with this?”, I’d say it was in Joanne’s grasp of Johannine theology, of extra-liturgical sacred art as imitation of God’s Logos “method of operation” in creating, and the consequent traditional symbolism of Christmas and of talking animals and Things in Estecean High Fantasy. It is also why her wand cores are all symbols of Christ the Logos.

Read Rowling’s ‘The Magic of Things’ and see if her comments do not line up with this ‘Magic in Things’ post. Note her beginning with the toy created by her mother that she has kept all through the years as an exteriorization and token of her mother’s love, the symbol in all her work of Divine love, unconditional, sacrificial, and absolute. It’s all downhill from there.

Next up, the Blue Bunny! Thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts, comments and corrections below.



  1. Promised footnote in text above:

    Transcendent Unity of Religions, 81. Schuon there referred the reader to Guenon’s Man and His Becoming according to the Vedanta “for the metaphysical theory of the inverse analogy.” “Analogy is necessarily applied in an inverse sense… and just as the image of an object is inverted relative to that object, that which is first or greatest in the principial order, is, apparently at any rate, last and smallest in the order of manifestation. To make a comparison with mathematics by way of clarification, it is thus that the geometric point is quantitatively nil and does not occupy any space, though it is the principle by which space in its entirety is produced, since space is but the development of its intrinsic virtualities. Similarly, though arithmetical unity is the smallest of numbers if one regards it as situated in the midst of their multiplicity, yet in principle it is the greatest, since it virtually contains them all and produces the whole series simply by the indefinite repetition of self” (Guenon 1981, 41-42), This “metaphysical theory of inverse analogy” finds expression in the English High Fantasy tradition after Coleridge in the hidden “inside greater than the outside.”

  2. Thank you for this John. I was very interested by your sources of animals speaking on Christmas Eve – I wrote this up a little too in reference to the Christmas Pig – but I was interested because your version is linked to the animals in the manger, but the version which I know is a bit different. I wrote this up with reference to the rooster in Chamber of Secrets if HogPro readers are interested! . This looks to me to be the older tradition (beginning c. 5th century) to which the manger animals joined later.

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