Christmas Day at five-thirty in the morning is like any other day in the barn.
The horses are hungry. Our two dogs’ collars jangle in the dark. I open the barn door and the horses greet me with nickers, eyes blinking at the intrusion of lights. The scent of hay and horses fills me with a familiar nostalgia, the scent-equivalent of comfort food.
I wasn’t a farm kid, but always envied those who were. The farm kids would have gladly traded me their morning chores. We town kids had Christmas breaks from school, but on the farm, animals must be cared for regardless. I remember waking up on Christmas morning as a child, my stomach lurching with anticipation. Before gift-giving commenced, my German mother insisted on the tradition of lighting real candles on a real tree. Dad stood nervously by, a bucket of water within reach, until the requisite candles could be lit and then extinguished. A handful of gifts laid under the tree. One from our parents, one from each of our grandparents, and one from our aunt in Germany. Some German candy was usually in the mix – a treat we savored just once a year. Sometimes my sister and I shared a single gift from our parents. One year we were thrilled to find a wooden sled with metal runners under the tree.
Today I’ve brought apple peels to the barn, leftovers from making pies. The horses dive into their treat, eyes half-closed in blissful chewing. In the early morning quiet, it occurs to me that the miracle of that first Christmas took place in a barn, with animals in attendance.
My childhood memories of Christmas past seem like a simpler time, but every generation claims this.
I remember only a handful of the gifts that I received over the years. The memories were not so much the presents under the tree, but a fully-realized expectation of joy. The focus of the entire morning was each other. As eyes lit up to the flicker of Christmas candles, the presence of the Son of God in a manger seemed as real to us as the love of our parents. I was lucky to grow up in the embrace of that assurance. Sure, there would be squabbles later in the day, but the scent of pine, candle wax, and Dad’s Old Spice were as mystical to us as gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
After the horses finish their apple treats, I walk out to the pasture to open the gates to their hay feeders. Stars shine overhead. The horses’ hooves fall quietly on soft snow. The metal gate clangs and somewhere a dog begins to bark. I walk back to the house and stomp the snow off my boots.
It is “joy to the world” for our two dogs every day of the year. They abound with enthusiasm for life. After the dogs eat breakfast, I give them each a rawhide. This is my secret to maintaining the quiet of the morning. They chew on their rawhides while I write. If one of the dogs comes too close to the other, they snarl. Even when they are no longer interested in chewing, they nap with their muzzles on top of their treasure. Comically, these two demonstrate the burden of possession; it takes tremendous energy to hold, defend, and maintain our stuff. Later, when I’m done at my laptop, I take the rawhides away and they go back to being cheerful friends, romping and rolling on the living room floor.
In reflecting on the magic of the season, I wonder if there isn’t something to learn from the creatures who bore witness to that first Christmas miracle.
Animals, like children, are not wrapped up in preparations or shopping or worrying about the right gift to give. They live in the present moment and, as far as I can tell, they don’t dwell in regret or worry about the future.
It takes a lot of intention for me to not get swept up in the pressure to create a perfect Hallmark holiday for our family- not to succumb to the glitter of more stuff. I’m only successful at this in varying degrees. I want to create good memories, the kind I remember as a kid. I want to prepare traditional foods and find the perfect presents for the people I love. But back in the barn, the horses couldn’t care less about the stockings we’ve hung on their stall doors. They do appreciate the sweet taste of apples and they accept my presence among them. Gratitude and presence. Maybe making good memories is as simple as that.