Symbolism of the Nativity Scene Animals

Over and over the nativity scene came to my mind. I questioned why? I heard, “Bring the animals in the nativity scene to life.”

I have a habit when wanting to understand the symbolism of an animal, I go straight to my book, Animal-Speak. As I picked up my book I felt a pull to the computer. I was drawn to Wikipedia searching “nativity scene.”

I found that “Saint Francis of Assisi (known as the patron saint of animals) is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223. It was a living nativity.

I looked further down the page and found “Animals in nativity scenes.” With no basis in the canonical narratives of the birth of Jesus, an ox and ass are usually part of the nativity scene. The tradition may have arised from an extracanonical text, the Pseudo-Matthew gospel of the 8th century:  ”And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, Mary went out of the cave, and, entering a stable, placed the child in a manger, and an ox and an ass adored him.” Then was fulfilled that which was said by the prophet Isaiah, “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib. Therefore, the animals, the ox and the ass, with him in their midst incessantly adored him.” Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying, “Between two animals you are made manifest.”  In a 1415, Corpus Christi celebration, the Ordo paginarum notes that Jesus was lying between an ox and an ass.”

Considerable symbolism is attached to the ox and the ass. The ox traditionally represents patience, the nation of Israel, and Old Testament sacrificial worship. The ass represents humility, readiness to serve, and the Gentiles.

It is mentioned that other animals were added later to nativity scenes. A few are sheep, camels, cows, and elephants. Finding the ox and the ass were the original nativity scene animals, I researched both in my Animal-Speak book by Ted Andrews.

I found the ass represents wisdom and humility. The last paragraph gave summary:  “The ass is the promise of awakening wisdom and the approach of new opportunities of even greater work. Don’t be stubborn and refuse to move with the flow. Don’t hold on only to what you have done to this point. Remember that it is not the goal but the path to that goal. Do not become content and complacent, for the ass promises even higher wisdom and greater opportunities.”  These words summarize what many of the animals tell their people in my communications.

Unfortunately I could not find information about the Ox.

Shortly after sending my information on nativity scene animals I received this information from an e-newsletter subscribers.

Hi Karen,

I found your information on the Nativity animals intriguing and though you might like to know that in a fairly popular book by Paul Foster Case called, simply, The Tarot. Case goes into some detail about the ox, which is associated with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph (or ALP, in translation to our Roman alphabet), “meaning Bull or Ox.” Case also associates that letter with the Tarot Fool, the Zero card in Tarot. In one key quote he notes that the symbol of the ox in association with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet goes back to the Taurean Age, “when the bull was the god-symbol dominant in the leading religions of the world. Apis in Egypt, Mithra among the Persians, Dionysos among the Greeks, all had the bull or ox as a symbol.” So the ox at Jesus’ nativity would fit right into that ancient line of special souls or saviors.

Thanks for your e-newsletter.

At the moment I thought I was finished with this newsletter, I heard in my mind, “If you are called an ass, respond to them – ‘And proud of it!” I then felt a serious wave come over me, and heard:  “And tell them the story of the nativity scene.”

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