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How Talking Animals Became a Christmas Legend

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For all its very logical and sensible legends and traditions, Christmas has quite a few strange ones too (like, say, gravity-defying reindeer). Some rare bits of Christmas mythology are even stranger still, like the one that claims that at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, animals gain the power of speech.

The legend—most common in parts of Europe—has been applied to farm animals and household pets alike, and operates on the belief that Jesus’s birth occurred at exactly midnight on Christmas Day, leading to various supernatural occurrences. Many speculate that the myth has pagan roots, or may have morphed from the belief that the ox and donkey in the Nativity stable bowed down when Jesus was born. In any case, the story has since taken on a life of its own, with variations ranging from sweet to scary.

According to The Christmas Troll and other Yuletide Stories by Clement A. Miles, variations of the legend can be surprisingly sinister for holiday lore. One tells the story of vengeful pets plotting against their masters, like this tale from Brittany:

“Once upon a time there was a woman who starved her cat and dog. At midnight on Christmas Eve she heard the dog say to the cat, ‘It is quite time we lost our mistress; she is a regular miser. To-night burglars are coming to steal her money; and if she cries out they will break her head.’

‘Twill be a good deed,’ the cat replied.

The woman in terror got up to go to a neighbor's house; as she went out the burglars opened the door, and when she shouted for help they broke her head.” 

Another tale, this time hailing from the German Alps, features animals foretelling their caretakers’ death. On Christmas Eve, a young farm servant hides in the stables hoping to witness the animals’ speech, and indeed hears a horse say:

“We shall have hard work to do this day week.”

“Yes, the farmer's servant is heavy,” replies another horse.

“And the way to the churchyard is long and steep,” says the first.

The servant dies a few days later, leaving those horses to do some heavy lifting. 

A more modern version of the tale first aired on ABC in 1970, and while it's animated and for children, it's still surprisingly grim. In the made-for-TV cartoon titled "The Night The Animals Talked," animals gain the power of speech and sing a song exalting their newfound ability—to insult each other: “You can bicker with anyone you hate / It’s great to communicate.” By the time the animals realize that they’ve been given the ability in order to spread the message of Jesus’s birth, it’s too late. While running through the streets of Bethlehem, they lose their speech one by one. The ox, last to lose the ability, is left to lament that so many humans seem to waste the gift of speech.

And then there’s “The Friendly Beasts,” a lighter version of the legend in the form of a Christmas carol. The hymn takes a less literal approach to the “talking animals” theory, instead focusing more on the connection each animal had to Jesus’s birth: “’I,’ said the donkey, shaggy and brown, ‘I carried His mother up hill and down; ‘I,’ said the cow, all white and red, ‘I gave Him my manger for His head,’” and so on with the sheep and dove. The song’s origins purportedly lie in a mostly-forgotten French medieval feast day, The Fete de L’Ane, or “The Feast of the Ass,” which honors Mary, Jesus, and Joseph’s flight into Egypt, and the donkey who transported them. The carol was born of an early Latin hymn commonly sung at the feast, “Orientis partibus Adventavit asinus," or “From the East the ass has come,” which included a chorus of “Hail, Sir donkey, hail!”

The variations of Christmas legend about special or supernatural animal behavior are diverse and far-reaching, and not all necessarily involve animals speaking. In John Howison’s 1821 Sketches of Upper Canada,the author recounts a Native American who told him that “[It’s] Christmas night and all deer fall upon their knees to the Great Spirit.” William Henderson’s 1879 book Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and their Borders recounts the legend that, on Christmas Eve, bees assemble into a type of choir:

“Thus the Rev. Hugh Taylor writes: ‘A man of the name of Murray died about the age of ninety, in the parish of Earsdon, Northumberland. He told a sister of mine that on Christmas Eve, the bees assemble and hum a Christmas hymn, and that his mother had distinctly heard them do this on one occasion when she had gone out to listen for her husband’s return. Murray was a shewd man, yet he seemed to believe this implicitly.’”

In some cases, the myth of the singing bees circles back to that of the kneeling oxen: “[…]In the parish of Whitebeck, in Cuberland, bees are said to sing at midnight as soon as the day of the Nativity begins, and also that oxen kneel in their stalls at the same day and hour.”

So, singing bees, plotting pets, clairvoyant horses, praying oxen, and more, all to illustrate the power of Christmas Eve—short of supernatural power, it certainly has a strong hold on the collective human imagination.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
10 Juicy Facts About Sea Apples

They're both gorgeous and grotesque. Sea apples, a type of marine invertebrate, have dazzling purple, yellow, and blue color schemes streaking across their bodies. But some of their habits are rather R-rated. Here’s what you should know about these weird little creatures.

1. THEY’RE SEA CUCUMBERS.

The world’s oceans are home to more than 1200 species of sea cucumber. Like sand dollars and starfish, sea cucumbers are echinoderms: brainless, spineless marine animals with skin-covered shells and a complex network of internal hydraulics that enables them to get around. Sea cucumbers can thrive in a range of oceanic habitats, from Arctic depths to tropical reefs. They're a fascinating group with colorful popular names, like the “burnt hot dog sea cucumber” (Holothuria edulis) and the sea pig (Scotoplanes globosa), a scavenger that’s been described as a “living vacuum cleaner.”

2. THEY'RE NATIVE TO THE WESTERN PACIFIC OCEAN.

Sea apples have oval-shaped bodies and belong to the genus Pseudocolochirus and genus Paracacumaria. The animals are indigenous to the western Pacific, where they can be found shuffling across the ocean floor in shallow, coastal waters. Many different types are kept in captivity, but two species, Pseudocolochirus violaceus and Pseudocolochirus axiologus, have proven especially popular with aquarium hobbyists. Both species reside along the coastlines of Australia and Southeast Asia.

3. THEY EAT WITH MUCUS-COVERED TENTACLES.

Sea cucumbers, the ocean's sanitation crew, eat by swallowing plankton, algae, and sandy detritus at one end of their bodies and then expelling clean, fresh sand out their other end. Sea apples use a different technique. A ring of mucus-covered tentacles around a sea apple's mouth snares floating bits of food, popping each bit into its mouth one at a time. In the process, the tentacles are covered with a fresh coat of sticky mucus, and the whole cycle repeats.

4. THEY’RE ACTIVE AT NIGHT.

Sea apples' waving appendages can look delicious to predatory fish, so the echinoderms minimize the risk of attracting unwanted attention by doing most of their feeding at night. When those tentacles aren’t in use, they’re retracted into the body.

5. THE MOVE ON TUBULAR FEET.

The rows of yellow protuberances running along the sides of this specimen are its feet. They allow sea apples to latch onto rocks and other hard surfaces while feeding. And if one of these feet gets severed, it can grow back.

6. SOME FISH HANG OUT IN SEA APPLES' BUTTS.

Sea apples are poisonous, but a few marine freeloaders capitalize on this very quality. Some small fish have evolved to live inside the invertebrates' digestive tracts, mooching off the sea apples' meals and using their bodies for shelter. In a gross twist of evolution, fish gain entry through the back door, an orifice called the cloaca. In addition expelling waste, the cloaca absorbs fresh oxygen, meaning that sea apples/cucumbers essentially breathe through their anuses.

7. WHEN THREATENED, SEA APPLES CAN EXPAND.

Most full-grown adult sea apples are around 3 to 8 inches long, but they can make themselves look twice as big if they need to escape a threat. By pulling extra water into their bodies, some can grow to the size of a volleyball, according to Advanced Aquarist. After puffing up, they can float on the current and away from danger. Some aquarists might mistake the robust display as a sign of optimum health, but it's usually a reaction to stress.

8. THEY CAN EXPEL THEIR OWN GUTS.

Sea apples use their vibrant appearance to broadcast that they’re packing a dangerous toxin. But to really scare off predators, they puke up some of their own innards. When an attacker gets too close, sea apples can expel various organs through their orifices, and some simultaneously unleash a cloud of the poison holothurin. In an aquarium, the holothurin doesn’t disperse as widely as it would in the sea, and it's been known to wipe out entire fish tanks.

9. SEA APPLES LAY TOXIC EGGS.

These invertebrates reproduce sexually; females release eggs that are later fertilized by clouds of sperm emitted by the males. As many saltwater aquarium keepers know all too well, sea apple eggs are not suitable fish snacks—because they’re poisonous. Scientists have observed that, in Pseudocolochirus violaceus at least, the eggs develop into small, barrel-shaped larvae within two weeks of fertilization.

10. THEY'RE NOT EASILY CONFUSED WITH THIS TREE SPECIES.

Syzgium grande is a coastal tree native to Southeast Asia whose informal name is "sea apple." When fully grown, they can stand more than 140 feet tall. Once a year, it produces attractive clusters of fuzzy white flowers and round green fruits, perhaps prompting its comparison to an apple tree.

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