It is late Christmas Eve, the furnace room is warm and cozy despite its mechanical and ‘unfinished basement’ look. I’d say it has a real man’s decor to it. This is the place where I pull on my barn overalls, my coat and my winter hat – some of them still damp from today’s outdoor work in the snow. On the other side of the door, my boots are waiting, cold and stiff in the unheated garage. By the time my feet notice the cold coming through my thick double socks the boots are already warming up. I trudge through the deep snow as invisible, silent snowflakes descend from a pitch-black sky only seen briefly as they cross the beam of light shining from the backdoor of the farmhouse.
I make my way to the new barn first to check the cattle once more before bedtime. I can hear the music of Handel’s Messiah drifting over the cold air as I approach the barn. The natural ventilation of turkey curtains easily allows the music to escape along with the warm, moist air created by the cows. As I enter the warm barn, the aroma of feed and straw and manure greet me and delight my senses. I walk behind the girls checking each one as the music continues to play. It’s been playing since this evening’s milking and, as is my Christmas Eve tradition, the Messiah will continue to play all night and into the evening of Christmas Day. I swish some straw under a few cows who are standing and then head to the barn office where I will say goodnight to the fish in my aquarium and turn off their lights.
Again, I find myself making my way through the snow only this time my destination is the old barn. On my way, I pass by the big calf hutch, which can house up to nine calves but tonight only has three healthy young bovines curled up in their straw beds. Despite the low numbers, the hutch is still decorated with Christmas lights and again as tradition has it, they will stay on all night tonight and right through until late Christmas evening.
The old barn door opens with a creak and immediately arouses the dogs who run to greet me, growling at the cats along their way. At this time of day, the cats fail to be alarmed. They just lie on their sides, stretch, blink their eyes and then curl back up into their sleep positions. The bewildered dogs then look to me for some playfulness, which I too fail to give them. It’s time for rest, for peace and quiet . . . for peace on earth actually!
This barn houses the older calves, the heifers and the dry cows in group pens, maternity pens and in tie stalls. I first walk along the feed aisles, sweeping hay up to cud-chewing, bobbing heads. With their stomachs full and feeling quite content they only casually glance at my activity. They understand that it is nighttime and not feeding time but do they know it’s Christmas Eve? I think not.
When I was a child, there was a Christmas special on television that proclaimed at midnight on Christmas Eve all the animals in the world could talk for one hour. I’d love it if all my cattle could do that. Once a year I would pull up a bale of straw, sit down and listen to all my animals for an hour. They could tell me all their fears and frustrations. They could tell me what I am doing wrong and the changes they would want me to implement. They could tell me how much they hate the electric fence! Maybe the cows I recently purchased would let me know how much they like it here or, then again, they may complain of homesickness. Maybe… I stop short and begin to wonder how such a little legend, brought to my attention more than 30 years ago, could still come to mind every year again. I chuckle too at the fact that every year again I secretly hope that maybe this year it will really happen, but alas, I have never heard a word even though I’ve often been in the barn at midnight on Christmas Eve.
The only Christmas tradition these animals in the old barn will get is one light bulb on for the whole night and the CBC radio with all its Christmas music, poems and stories. The light bulb is hardly traditional since I also do this whenever I think a cow will calve during the night but these creatures are not fussy and so they seem quite content with whatever Christmas gift I give them.
That’s what I love about these farm animals, including the cats and the dogs, they are so easily content. In a sense they do ‘talk’ by the way they lie down after receiving fresh straw or the way they reach out with wet noses and grateful tongues during feeding time. Their eyes easily speak of fear, pain, sickness, or contentment and if they are cold, they will shiver.
A true farmer ‘listens’ to his animals all the time. Like an Old Dutch translation of Proverbs 12:10 where it says, “De rechtvaardige kent het leven van ziyn beesten." Translated to English: “The righteous man knows (or understands) the lives of his animals.”
I love this old barn. I love it because it is so ‘natural’ with its hand-hewn wooden beams and field stone walls. As my mother would say “It creaks with history”. The thick walls make for wide window sills where cats love to sleep on sunny afternoons while the mice scurry above along the beams and between the cracks of the haymow floor. The only thing that’s missing in this rustic barn is an old pair of wooden box stalls with a team of draft horses.
So here, I stand in this almost-perfect Christmas Eve setting. That first Christmas 2,000 years ago was so natural too. Aside from the angels, everything was ordinary and simple such as shepherds and sheep, straw and hay and a barn. Simple parents and, from all external appearances, a simple little child in a rustic old manger.
I guess what makes that night so long ago seem so similar to my night here with the cattle are all the things that are missing. There is no shopping mall busyness, no commercialism, no hectic traffic, and no cash register line-ups. There are no candy-filled, crying, overstimulated, overtired kids dragged around by frazzled mothers with bored fathers walking ten steps behind. No self-help books for those suffering from Christmas burnout such as the one entitled “God Rest Ye Grumpy Scroogeymen.” No politicians arguing about ‘Christmas trees’ or ‘Holiday trees.’
No, here there is just contentment and peace and quiet. Peace on earth, actually!
As I contemplate these things, my mind progresses to the Christmas Day church service tomorrow morning. Many people will attend this service and we will all come with showered and perfumed bodies and in our finest clothes. Our hair will be just right and we will smile and say “Blessed Christmas” to one another. There will be decorations and candles, a tree and a nativity scene, special music and power point.
I begin to wonder, wouldn’t it be more real, more down to earth, more natural if on Christmas morning we all got up and skipped the shower, didn’t comb our hair or brush our teeth, but rather put on old clothes and boots and gathered in barns throughout the countryside to worship our Lord and Savior? Simple, ordinary people gathered in simple, ordinary surroundings to worship a King who came down to our simple, ordinary level!
I close the old wooden barn door behind me and begin to make my way towards the farm home that houses my wife and children and where my bed is waiting for me. Tomorrow, early on Christmas morning, when all is still dark, my wife and I will walk this winding path through the snow, amongst the trees and on past the woodpile and calf hutch to a barn where patient cattle will lay waiting, very oblivious to the fact that it is Christmas day. So why do I have my traditions of music and lights on all night? Do the cattle care? Does it even occur to them that the music is on all night? Do they try to shout to me “Hey, farmer Bill, you forgot to shut off the music!” Do they even know my name?
I guess these traditions are for us so that on Christmas morning we can feel emotionally warmed by little lights and music already in progress. It makes the morning feel different, special. Yet I can’t help but think we can learn from the cattle; that even though something so profound and so unfathomable as God coming to earth in the form of a man, can yet be greeted with simple ordinary behavior, without all the hype and hoopla that we humans want to attach to it.
I turn off the furnace room light and make my way up to the main floor where flickering firelight from the wood stove dances upon the pine ceiling. After one last look, I go upstairs, get undressed and crawl into bed beside my warm wife. I think to myself, ‘does Christmas get any better this?’ Still all is peaceful and quiet.