It was Christmas Eve more than 45 years ago; I was helping finish daily chores on our family farm.
The cows had been milked. I crawled into the hayloft to fetch bales of hay, throwing them down a chute and spreading them out before the 65 cows. The night was cold and silent. The few impatient moos from the hungry cattle were soon replaced by contented munching after I filled the manger with hay.
The sweet smell of the hay blended with the slight pungent odor of manure. The misty clouds of vapor from the breathing animals created a little warmth in the barn. I started humming “Away in a Manger,” thinking about the special night ahead.
There’s always been a strong connection between Christmas and farm animals, thanks to the depictions of the Christ child surrounded by cattle, sheep and donkeys. St. Francis is credited with inventing the crèche to celebrate the nativity in 1223 in Greccio, Italy.
The Gospels don’t mention any animals being present in the Bethlehem stable, although shepherds and their flocks were nearby. Some quote from the Old Testament, Book of Isaiah 1:3, which says, “An ox knows its owner, And a donkey its master’s manger, But Israel does not know; My people do not understand.”
The seventh-century text called the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew links to the Isaiah prophecy.
“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.’”
Some believe Jesus was born in a cave and not a stable. Others believe he was born in the lower level of a house where the animals and feed were stored.
But does it really matter? Can we assume there were animals in the stable?
Yes, says Pope Benedict XVI in his book, “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.” He points out that references to the ox and the donkey in other parts of the Bible may have led to them being included in the nativity scenes.
Despite the lack of Biblical accuracy, Pope Benedict said no nativity will need to remove its ox and donkey. The Vatican always has some animals in the St. Peter’s Square nativity scene.
There’s also a legend that farm animals and household pets have the ability to talk at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Day. The legend is discussed in the 1971 pilot movie to the TV series “The Waltons” called “The Homecoming.” Mary Ellen tells her younger siblings the legend of Christmas Eve when the animals are able to speak at midnight; they make plans to check the barn to hear for themselves.
The myth may also have pagan roots that cattle or other animals kneel at midnight. Author John Howison in 1821 related how a Native American told him deer kneel to the Great Spirit on Christmas Eve.
Author and poet Thomas Hardy was perhaps inspired by this story when he wrote the poem “The Oxen” in 1915.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
That young farm boy those so many years ago knew what lowing cattle sound like and really didn’t believe the cows all kneeled at midnight. But he believed in the power and the hope of the message of Christmas. And that was enough.
No matter what one’s faith or creed, the least we can do is share a little goodwill. Maybe, just maybe, we can wipe away a little of the ugliness with a dash of hope.
Lord knows we could use it this year.
Chris Hardie and his wife, Sherry, raise animals and crops on his great-grandparents’ Jackson County farm. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, he’s a former member of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and past-president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with comments.