Kneeling cows - Alison Healy on Christmas folklore

From eating 12 mince pies in 12 days to cows speaking on Christmas Eve, folklore abounds this time of year

Isn’t it sad to see the old Christmas customs going out of fashion? I remember a time when all the cows knelt down at midnight on Christmas Eve to honour the birth of baby Jesus. Well, at least that’s what we were told, as children. And because we were always at midnight Mass, we were never able to engage in a spot of festive fact-checking.

I did venture out to the cow house around 11pm one frosty Christmas Eve to see if the cows were limbering up to assume the kneeling position. To my great disappointment, they were just standing there, observing me balefully while chewing the cud and swishing their tails. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and imagined they were waiting for us to leave for Mass before falling to their knees.

Nowadays you never hear about animals kneeling for Mary’s boy child, so we are forced to conclude that even the cattle of Ireland are now a shower of heathens. I had presumed the kneeling animals was a story concocted by my father, a man who was excellent at embellishing stories and occasionally inventing them if necessary. But then I discovered Thomas Hardy’s writings and found him referring to the kneeling cattle in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and in his poem, The Oxen. Like us, the protagonist in his poem was told about the kneeling cattle from an elder and it never occurred to him to doubt it. Thomas Hardy later wrote to a friend explaining that he had learned of the custom from his mother when he was a child.

But like all good customs, it has been embellished over time and it now seems that our cows are very halfhearted indeed when it comes to dramatic gestures on Christmas Eve. According to folklore records, some animals faced to the east before kneeling while others acquired the power of speech at midnight.


Accounts of the kneeling cattle can be found in the ever-reliable School’s Collection, a fascinating assembly of handwritten folklore gathered by thousands of Irish schoolchildren from their elders in the late 1930s, and available to peruse on

One account from Kilmeedy, Co Limerick in 1939 stated that animals bowed down their heads to honour our Lord at midnight. It also added, with great authority, that water changed into wine at the same time. Perhaps that helps to explain the smell of alcohol that wafted up the aisle from the men who arrived late for midnight Mass and stood at the back of the church, arms folded across their chests? The poor innocent men were only trying to slake their thirst with water when they were duped into drinking alcohol.

What sort of person calls to their neighbours and proceeds to eat their mince pies in stony silence?

Another young folklore collector in Limerick recorded a local tale of two curious men who wanted to investigate if the water actually changed into wine at midnight. When they put their fingers into the water to taste it, “their fingers fell off”. I don’t recall seeing swathes of fingerless men in the northwest of Ireland so perhaps that miracle might have been confined to the Limerick region.

But while the kneeling animals might have fallen out of favour, we can always find room to adopt some new Christmas customs. If you are an enthusiastic mince pie aficionado, you might already be embracing the custom of eating a mince pie every day for the 12 days of Christmas to guarantee happiness over the following 12 months.

A website ( which investigates old customs to see if they have survived or died, happily found that the mince pie custom is still very much alive. It found a reference to the custom as far back as 1853.

But it also found many variations on the custom. One maintained that the 12 mince pies must be eaten in different houses. Another declared that the year of happiness would be assured only if you did not speak while eating the 12 mince pies. But if you follow the rule that the pies had to be eaten in different houses, then this could be problematic. What sort of person calls to their neighbours and proceeds to eat their mince pies in stony silence?

While confirming the survival of the mince pie custom, the website sounded the death knell for the kneeling cattle, as I feared. But I’m with Thomas Hardy’s protagonist in The Oxen, when he said that if someone asked him to go and look at the kneeling animals, he would still go “hoping it might be so”.

And if it wasn’t so, he could console himself with a mince pie, thus ensuring the survival of another Christmas custom.