John Speller's Web Pages - Somerset Carols Nailsbourne Carol
An ancient carol, sometimes called the "Nailsbourne Beasties' Song," from the village of Nailsbourne, three miles north of Taunton in the County of Somerset. There grows in Nailsbourne a scion of the famous Glastonbury Thorn. One legend has it that at midnight on Christmas Eve all the cattle come together to the thorn-tree and kneel in adoration of the Christ-child. The carol was collected by Ruth L. Tongue from the widow of a cowman at Taunton Market in 1907.
Ms. Tongue reported that a old farmer told her in 1957 how back in 1890 he and his friends determined to test the truth of this legend. "We went along the lane to Nailsbourne like, and ‘twas dark, couldn zee nothing at all, proper black, and we hadn’ no light, and all of a zudden there was breathings all round us, seems like, whichever way we’d turn. Thic lane were full of cattle, and we just turn and run for it. No, we never see no thorn blossom, nor I wouldn’t go now if I was asked. Full of cows thic lane was."
A similar legend seems to have existed in Cornwall. Robert Hunt in Popular Romances of the West of England (1903) reports 'I remember, when a child, being told that all the oxen and cows kept at a farm in the parish of St Germans, at which I was visiting with my aunt, would be found on their knees when the clock struck twelve. This is the only case within my own knowledge of this wide-spread superstition existing in Cornwall. Brand says, "A superstitious notion prevails in the western parts of Devonshire, that at twelve o'clock at night on Christmas-eve, the oxen in their stalls are always found on their knees, as in an attitude of devotion; and that (which is still more singular) since the alteration of the style, they continue to do this only on the eve of Old Christmas-day. An honest countryman, living on the edge of St Stephen's Down, near Launceston, Cornwall, informed me, October 28, 1790, that he once, with some others, made a trial of the truth of the above, and, watching several oxen in their stalls at the above time, at twelve o'clock at night, they observed the two oldest oxen only, fall upon their knees, and, as he expressed it in the idiom of the country, make 'a cruel moan, like Christian creatures.' I could not, but with great difficulty, keep my countenance; he saw, and seemed angry that I gave so little credit to his tale; and, walking off in a pettish humour, seemed to 'marvel at my unbelief.' There is an old print of the Nativity, in which the oxen in the stable, near the Virgin and the Child, are represented upon their knees, as in a suppliant posture. This graphic representation has probably given rise to the above superstitious notion on this head."'
Ruddick is an old dialect word for that ruddy-breasted bird, the robin.