On Going to the Barn at Christmas

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh,the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun,
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on –
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
                                                           “Christmas Poem”  ~  Mary Oliver


Comments always are welcome.
The legend referenced in the poem’s first line also appears in Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Oxen,” published  on Christmas Eve, 1915, in The Times of London.
I photographed the stone barn in Wabaunsee County, Kansas.

114 thoughts on “On Going to the Barn at Christmas

  1. “The dissolving Now” As fast as the thought can come, “now” is gone, and so much of our lives are lived to make “now” happy. “Immaculate still as you thundered forth on the morning of creation” – so powerful! I adore this; hope to include such beauty in more or my “nows.” Thanks for bringing Mary Oliver to my morning.

    1. A refusal of history seems to have become part of our culture, and that “dissolving Now” can wreak some havoc. The way she used the “sleepy beasts” as a counterweight to that fleeting moment is wonderful; anyone who’s spent any time in barns, or with cattle, knows how perfect the image is.
      A blessed Christmas to you and yours, Oneta.

    1. I decided this was the best photo for Oliver’s poem when I noticed those grasses, and realized that, in combination, the fleeting grasses and the enduring stone barn picked up on her distinction between the “dissolving Now” and the solid, stolid cattle.

  2. I fear too many of us humans have become like the animals in Mary Oliver’s poem – knowing only the dissolving now, drowsy in this physical world; not remembering the reason for Christmas. Your photo and this poem complement each other perfectly. May you have a Christ-filled holiday.

    1. I just mentioned in a previous comment that I thought the image reflected the sense of the poem perfectly. That doesn’t always happen, of course, but when it does, it’s lovely. Like the song you chose to share today, it moves past the trappings of the holiday to touch the heart of the mystery. I hope your own celebrations are peaceful, and filled with love.

  3. We each find in Christmas’ celebration what we will and not without knowing the date selected was for the intent of recognizing Jesus’ birth — hopefully to convey peace and good will wishes for all.

    1. The threads of tradition, myth, and historic event certainly are intertwined in our celebrations. Sometimes, our celebrations go so far over the top any possible connection to an ages-old faith are a little hard to find. Given a choice between a certain local congregation’s pageant — complete with donkeys and camels, flying angels on wires, and rappers — or the barn and beasts of Oliver’s poem, I’ll take the barn.

  4. The photo of the stone barn tied the poem very nicely, Linda.
    Thank you for giving me this lovely poem, I really appreciated the end of “I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
    my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
    the best it could all night.”

    1. Coincidentally, I spotted the word ‘nuzzled’ in another blog yesterday, and realized I haven’t heard the word for some time; it’s a lovely one, filled with warmth and tenderness. I was struck by that final image, too. While our worry about caring for creation’s well-placed, we too often forget (or can’t imagine) that creation cares for us, as well.

      1. It’s lovely, and deeply reassuring. It brings to mind something Einstein said in a lecture at Princeton University in 1921: “The Lord God is subtle, but malicious he is not.” In ways we don’t fully understand, the world itself wishes us well.

  5. Might Mary Oliver have read Thomas Hardy’s “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,”
    I should go with him in the gloom,
    Hoping it might be so.

    barton = a farmyard
    coomb = a valley or basin on the flank of a hill

    1. I don’t doubt that she read it. That’s one reason I linked to Hardy’s original: seeing how one writer builds on another — or how both interpret the same myth — always is interesting.

      Beyond that, Oliver’s poem seems to be a response to Hardy: one view of what might have happened had he and the elders exchanged the fire for the barn. I’ve always been touched by Hardy’s poem; now, I’m glad to have Oliver’s to pair with it.

      1. Isn’t that strange? I read the Mary Oliver poem but then somehow missed your link right after it. The quirks of the human mind. In any case, we both wanted to consider the relationship between the two poems.

        Your mention of myth makes me wonder whether mythologizing is a human universal. I’m inclined to think so. I visited a museum in Washington, D.C., some years ago that had a gallery devoted to Louis Armstrong. The text was so fulsome I got the impression that Armstrong was being turned into a god.

        1. Which of us hasn’t read past a link, or misinterpreted an image, or completely missed a point? As the politicians like to say, I recently “mis-remembered” something about the camphorweed I’ve found at Brazoria. I left a note about that on your camphorweed post.

          As for myth-making and the creation of gods, I agree. One of Luther’s useful insights is his conclusion that there are no atheists in the world. He contended that everyone worships a god; only the nature of that god is at issue. I was thinking about that yesterday when I heard a review of the new film about Ruth Bader Ginsberg on NPR, and then followed up with this article from Politico. The number of people who’ve been quite public about their willingness to give the woman a rib or a lung is astonishing.

          1. Till I read the Politico article, I hadn’t known how far the apotheosis of Ginsburg has gone. (And at first I read RBG as RGB, based on the discussion of red, green, and blue in our exchange of comments about yaupon holly this morning.) More generally, though, I’ve long been aware that while Americans of the right end of the political spectrum adhere to traditional religions, those on the left end of the spectrum have created for themselves a de facto secular religion, complete with dogmas, sacraments, and saints. Anyone who questions those dogmas is treated as a dangerous heretic, much as Luther was in his era.

            I keep happily away from politics in the blog world, so I’ll go back to my nature photography.

    1. So many of my favorite traditions, and much of my favorite Christmas music, is rooted in your traditions, so thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the poem, and I hope your own celebrations are rich and joyous.

    1. You’re welcome, Dor. I suspect you’re learning a new thing or two about the bonds between humans and beasts this Christmas! Give Elsa an extra pet for me, tell her not to bark at Santa, and have a delightful holiday yourself.

  6. Good to keep in mind that as I read this poem, only the beasts were caught in the “dissolving Now.” The townspeople were still remembering the past as the “church bells of the town “spilled their midnight music,” a reminder that there is still sanctuary available for the remembering of the past, the purpose for our Christmas celebration, and gathering together, rather than remaining in our stalls like stone…

    1. Just a note here, in case you miss my email. I found a comment from you at Lagniappe in spam, and when I approved it, it disappeared. I think you mentioned your bluebonnets, but I was waiting until it was approved for a closer read — so much for that! I’ve double-checked on both blogs and you show as “approved,” so I hope it won’t happen again. Happy spring!

    1. I’m so glad to have introduced you to this one, Martha. There’s a sense of deep peacefulness in it which stands in opposition to the chaos of our lives: both corporate and personal. The promise of Christmas is that peace can overcome the chaos. Let it be so.

      Christmas blessings to you and Ben, and to all who join you in celebration.

  7. This was the first time I had read this bit of poetry. It will be one for me to reflect on each Christmas season. I really loved the part about the nuzzling with sleepy beasts. It reminded me of Daisy deer, and how she watched over me as I slept in the grasses near her. This poem has made me a bit misty-eyed this morning.

    1. I was happy beyond words to find this Oliver poem. She’s been so prolific that there’s always something new to discover, especially in her books. Online sites tend to feature the same poems, so many of her treasures remain hidden.

      I thought of you and your deer when I came to the last lines. They reminded me as well of a lullaby my mother used to sing to me. I had no idea that Peter, Paul, and Mary had recorded it, but it’s a lovely version: simple and understated.

  8. It’s a lovely poem and perfect illustration. Not just the plants are ephemeral, The stone wall itself is cracking, and eventually the stones themselves weather away, and illustrate the point. Thank you for all the fine posts this year, and
    Best wishes for a wonderful new year

    1. I was happy to remember that I had some photos of various stone buildings and fences from Kansas; this one was perfect, and much better than some of the falling-down wooden barns around here. I’d not considered the stones cracking, but of course you’re right. Nothing in this world endures forever. I’ve always liked this paragraph from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

      “Last forever!’ Who hasn’t prayed that prayer? You were lucky to get it in the first place. The present is a freely given canvas. That it is constantly being ripped apart and washed downstream goes without saying.”

      It’s been a good year, with lots of changes for you. I’m looking forward to seeing what the new year brings as you begin to explore your new territory. Geographically, I’m fairly well in place, but there’s no telling what mischief I might get up to even so!

    2. ps: I’ve been watching the Cornell bird cam on and off tonight, and I have no idea what I’m watching. There are multiple critters running around that I thought were mice. But they’re much larger, with a white belly and a furry tail like a squirrel. Squirrels don’t roam at night, though. Any idea what they might be? They’re fast, that’s for sure.

        1. I’m flying back to Milwaukee this morning, and the Ithaca airport is across the road from Sapsucker Woods, where the ornithology center is located, sorry I won’t have time to stop by to see them!

          1. As always, I have the Cornell cam open in a tab this morning. When I heard airplanes for the first time, I remembered your comment and knew why their comings and goings suddenly are part of the sound track. It’s calm today — apparently their flight paths have changed.

            1. It’s a very nice, modern airport – – in miniature. And here’s a random, useless factoid for the day, via my dad, who had it from his dad: many years ago, the road back to the airport was paved with slabs of rock salt. It was kind of an experiment, and I guess didn’t work out, because you never see anyone doing that, although I’ve been reading about trials of asphalt paving infused with chunks of salt

            2. That’s interesting, if puzzling. My first thought was of the damage done by salt water after a hurricane. Wouldn’t rain dissolve the salt and create problems for the surrounding land? I know there have been discussions about using salt to keep roads free of ice and snow, and some people really are opposed.

            3. The roads in upstate NY are heavily salted all winter. The whole area has thick seams of salt under it, so it’s cheap and readily available. Trucks spread literally a million tons a year, and also sometimes spray salt brine, or add magnesium chloride, etc. when it’s really low temperatures. There’s alternatives, some of them made from corn and beets, etc. but they’re more expensive. So yes, there’s a real impact on bridges, waterways, groundwater, etc. from all that salt.

  9. It may have started life as an old German folk tale. There are many fictionalised stories which have Holy Night at their heart, and the beasts in the barns and stables are in the centre. The farmer and farmhands went out after dark and fed their animals an extra ration; I believe this is still done in some Catholic areas.
    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, dear friend.

    1. Tidbit about the farmers going out to offer an extra ration of feed is delightful, and interesting. Every Christmas for as long as I can remember, I’ve always put out extra birdseed — sometimes, extravagantly so. Yes, they vaccum it up within minutes, but it seems right and proper to let them share in the celebration.

      Night, beasts, and barns are an evocative combination. It’s no wonder that the tales endure. They help to make the season brighter, and heaven knows we can use all the brightness that’s offered. Merry Christmas to you, Ursula, and every good wish for a healthy and happier New Year!

    1. Mary Oliver is a favorite of mine. She’s written so many poems that even if a reader finds only half interesting or appealing, it’s still quite an oeuvre. I like the way she slipped away from Hardy and the elders to have a look in the barn for herself.

  10. Years ago I lived in Indiana and we had a barn. We always visited at midnight on Christmas Eve to see if the cows were kneeling. As you can imagine it was very cold and the cows would be laying in the deep straw for warmth. In essence, they were kneeling since that is the only way up and down. (These were Black Angus) Most years the moon was bright and the ground covered with crunching snow. We always felt closer to the spirit of Christmas out there in the barn. Thanks for bringing these memories back, Linda.

    1. Thanks to my years in Iowa, we share a lot of memories: cold winter nights, crunching snow, Black Angus, moonlight outside the barn and that breathy warmth within. No matter what the merchandisers tell us, there are some gifts that just can’t be purchased, whether in a store or online.

      Here’s wishing you a full portion of the Christmas spirit, John. Enjoy the day!

    1. Yes, and even the millipedes. Most of the time, I can’t help going “Ewwww….” when I find one of those, but today? I’ll let them crawl out from under their yule logs and join the celebration. Happy Christmas to you and Peggy — and whichever of the kids you happen to be with. I’ve lost track!

  11. Aw, I’d never heard this one before, and it’s perfectly lovely. Thank you, Linda, and Merry Christmas. No barn for me to sneak into, but I’d like to think I’ll remember to give it a try one day!

    1. I’m lacking a barn myself, but we always can tag along with Mary Oliver — at least in our imaginations. In the meantime, we’re surrounded by critters both wild and domestic who might have a message for us — best be listening, especially at Christmas!

  12. Again, you find a perfect match of image and words.
    Mary reminds us when wrapping up against the cold, that some discomfort is required to receive greater blessings. Yes, nuzzling is a comforting word – maybe we can bring back those words of comfort and joy.

    1. Tidings of comfort and joy have been celebrated for centuries, and your mention of them reminded me of their use in a favorite carol. I’m not generally an Annie Lennox fan, but there’s no question that her version of the song is — intriguing. The video must have been fun to make, and it certainly is truer to the carol’s origins than versions done by huge,perfectly rehearsed choirs.

      It’s especially interesting that the correct punctuation of the first line is “God rest you merry, gentlemen” rather than “God rest you, merry gentlemen.” The verb “rest” is used as it is in the phrase “rest assured.” The construction’s not so common now, but the Oxford English Dictionary records the use of “rest thee merry” from 1400; “rest you well” from 1420; “God rest you merry”, “rest you fair,” “rest you happy,” and “rest myself content” from Shakespeare; “rest thee tranquil” from Shelley; and “rest thee sure” from Tennyson. Who knew?

      That aside, we certainly could use a rest from some of the global chaos, and some tidings of comfort and joy. Perhaps 2019 will bring them.


  13. The magic is where we find it. The photo and poem are perfect for the season. Thanks for sharing another poem. All the best to you this Christmas! I hope your weather is as spectacular as ours is here.

    1. I had to smile at your remark about the weather. We started out yesterday with sunshine and blue skies, but by early afternoon, clouds had rolled in and it was drizzling. This morning we had nice, thick fog, but it’s lifting, and “they” say we’ll be back to sunshine soon.

      The good news is that the message of Christmas isn’t weeather-dependent, even if some of our activities are. I hope you’re enjoying a peaceful day, and all the pleasures of the season.

    1. The part of Kansas where I took this photo is filled with rock fences and buildings. Some are in good repair, but some are beginning to fail. I visited this barn twice, with three years in between visits. Despite a failing roof, it still made a fine subject. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Merry Christmas to you, Maria, and every good wish for the coming year.

    1. Thanks, Ellen. I’m glad to see you’ve recovered enough to be “out and about” after all that work you put in recently. It seems we’re in for yet another bout of rain, but I hope today is dry and fair, and that you find ways to delight in it.

  14. I’ve spent many hours in the barn….some of my strongest memories growing up are from the barn. Just reread Luke’s version of the Christmas story this morning to remind the Mrs and myself what it’s all about….Was struck again by the humble simplicity of it all…the hay manger, the shepherds getting first word, all of it. Merry Christmas Linda! DM

    1. Another blogger wrote recently about C.S. Lewis’s distinction between devotional and doctrinal works. It occurred to me that a similar distinction can be drawn between devotional and doctrinally-based readings of the gospels. Christmas is the perfect time for a devotional reading of Luke. Arguments about how many wise men actually showed up, and whether they were on camels or horses, can wait.

      Happy Christmas to you and yours, DM. Keep visiting — and building! — those barns.

    1. Just a minute ago, I looked at the photo again and saw something I’ve missed to this point. With the stone positioned in front of the door as it is, the photo could do just as well for Easter: the darkness of a tomb supplanting a natal barn. Granted, that stone is too small to need rolling away, but still — it’s ambiguous enough to be interesting.

      Just when I think I’ve read the best of Oliver, I find that I haven’t. I know there are some who think her predictable and repetitive, but I’m still happy to plough through the ones I find less interesting to turn over gems like this. Here’s to more gems for us both in the new year!

    1. It is lovely, isn’t it? Much so-called Christian poetry is too facile or saccharine for my taste, but Oliver knows how to approach mystery, and turns it over with a light touch. I hope everyone arrived safely for your celebration, and that the pleasures of the day extend into the new year.

  15. Very nice…And, I did go to the barn on Christmas Eve. And again, early Christmas morning. The ‘creatures’ were there, peaceful and hungry.

    1. You know, I still can see that barn — at least, if you haven’t moved — and I can see the box elder tree, the snow sliding down the roof that one winter, and the paddock. It’s good to imagine you tending to the horses, and it’s good to have you stop by. I hope all continues well in your world; my best wishes for the coming year for you and Patti.

  16. Ah, the “dissolving Now”. I was reading my way down the poem and stopped; am still pondering that small phrase. Thank you for sharing — here and throughout the year, Linda. Happy Christmas to you, friend.

    1. The ‘dissolving Now’ is thought-provoking, isn’t it? When it’s combined with her observation that the beasts are ‘innocent of history,’ it becomes even more interesting.

      Speaking of history, there’s a small, pink felt heart that’s found a home on my Christmas tree. The toy has become an ornament, and a lovely reminder of a sweet creature — thank you again!

        1. Both, as I recall. Unfortunately, I didn’t take photos of the house, since I was a little cautious about going farther onto the property, and didn’t yet have a telephoto lens.

          1. I mourn for structures such as these, Linda. With SO much painstaking handiwork devoted to their construction, showing such disrespect for the Makers’ skill and effort; it seems criminally wasteful in allowing their demise.

            1. Sometimes it’s just life: neither disrespectful nor criminal. If it’s a choice between building a new barn for animals, or sinking all one’s resources into the preservation of a barn which is essentially a token of a bygone age, I can’t blame the farmer for the choice made here.

              Besides, one of these days I’ll get around to a post about the famous Kansas Rock By-way. There are some fine things happening there.

            2. It’s certainly not just happening in one place, I have always felt this way about old buildings. (And with all the renovation/restoration shows on the air – Salvage Dawgs comes top of mind – Architectural Salvage is at least reusing but, as GranMa often said, “an ounce of prevention’s worth a pound of cure” and these structures are definitely worth the maintenance it takes.

    1. It’s a fine poem: a little unusual, and perfectly suited for people who like to include the ‘beasts’ in their celebrations. They had a role to play then, and they certainly play a role now. Here’s to a much better year for us all — in so many ways.

  17. Thanks and a Blessed Christmas to you! The image was perfect, and brought to mind our Pastor’s Christmas Eve service, where he reminded us that the “manger” was really a “feeding trough.” It is good to remember the grittiness of it all, and a visit to real animals, or a feeding trough, or a barn door can do much to help us!

    1. “Grittiness” is a good word. Too often, our idealized images take us farther from reality, not closer. Today, most people can’t even imagine the realities of contemporary farm life, let alone what it would have been like in Biblical times. It’s one reason I decided to post about the Feast of Holy Innocents today; it recalls events worse than gritty, but needs to remain part of the record.

      This year, more than most, I’m glad for the twelve days of Christmas. We could use a little extra joy in this world.

    1. I’m always delighted to find a ‘new’ poem from Ms. Oliver, and I was double-delighted that I had this photo. It’s fun to be able to go back into the archives and find something that’s suitable for a completely different purpose than I had imagined.

    1. The world’s full of gifts — it’s going to take us the whole year to unwrap them all! Happy New Year to you and yours — including those spoiled hens, and Wiley!

    1. We’re lucky to have such a substantial archive to explore, again and again. The exchange I had with Brad, just above, brought to mind a nearly decade-old post about learning how to respond to beauty. I think I’ll be re-posting it, as it relates both to Oliver, and to our own responses to her work.

    1. That’s right. I made mention of the fact in the new post I just put up, although it isn’t focused precisely on her life and work. I have a more direct tribute in the form of an etheree, but I’m holding on to that for a while.

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