Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas and the Oxen

By: Marieanne Coursen, Agricultural Interpreter

When we think of Christmas the animals that usually come to mind are reindeer, but oxen play a part in the traditions of this holiday also.

In an article found in the Popular Educator, an educational magazine published by Harvard University in 1898, Ella M. Powers wrote:
“Fifty years ago in our own country, Christmas trees were rarely seen and the introduction of this Christmas custom is largely due to the Germans, for Germany is the home of the Christmas tree. The week before Christmas in 1851, a woodman of the Catskill mountains in New York filled two ox sleds with young shapely evergreen trees and drove over the rough snow-drifted roads to New York City. He selected a corner upon the sidewalk and here he displayed his choice Christmas goods from the woodland. The resinous aromatic odor attracted the passing crowds and eagerly the people purchased his sylvan bargains! He returned each year. This was the beginning of the Christmas sale of evergreens in America. Now those mountains of Rip Van Winkle’s long sleep furnish over two hundred thousand trees for the Christmas decorations. Other states furnish quantities and many a schooner laden with spruces from Maine may be seen in the harbors of our cities at the season of the Christmas festival.”

And this from a London journal in 1834: Singular Devonshire Customs on Christmas Eve
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 in an attitude of devotion and that which is still more singular since the alteration of the style, they contrive to do this only on the Eve of “old” Christmas Day. An honest countrymen living on the edge of St. Stephen’s Downs near Launceston, Cornwall, informed me on October 28th, 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 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.”
This legend continues in this poem published by Thomas Hardy in 1915: 
(by the way, “barton” means farmyard and “coomb” means valley)

The Oxen

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,”with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
I should go

Our own team of oxen, Jiggs and Buckwheat, will be a part of our holiday celebration on Saturday, December 11th. We will be out and about, dodging the teams of horses jingling their bells and pulling their wagons and will be found later snug in the “gloom” of the Marble barn on the day of that magical yearly tradition: Candlelight Evening. Hope you can come!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Marianne! What a beautiful expression of the wonder and tradition of Christmas and the parts that oxen have played. Looking forward to seeing you, Jiggs and Buckwheat on Candlelight Evening.

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