A Christmas awakening

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Christmas tree

(Author’s note: The following column was first published the week of Christmas 1998. Now, by tradition, it returns. It is included in my daughter’s book, The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey. Merry Christmas.  — Alan)

The Christmas tree was a scrub cedar hacked from the edge of the woods that bordered the farm. Big-bulbed lights, strung in barber pole fashion, generated almost as much heat as the nearby wood stove. Yellowed Christmas cards, saved over the years and perched like doves in the untrimmed branches, served as ornaments.

“I believe this is the prettiest tree I’ve ever had,” Howard proclaimed as we stood in its glow. “And it smells good, too.”

The only scent evident to me was a mixture of wood smoke and the remains of a fried pork supper. But I lied and said, “Sure does.”

Howard beckoned me to sit. We had shared this Christmas Day in the dairy barn and it was his request that we share a bit of the night. He knew I was alone because my family, his employer, was visiting relatives. I knew he was alone because he was always alone, a bachelor for nearly 40 years.

“I’ll get us some Christmas cheer,” he offered as I sank into the sofa.

He shuffled toward the kitchen in untied work shoes and, a minute later, returned with two water glasses filled with rhubarb wine.

“It’s been a good Christmas, ain’t it Allie Boy?” he asked as he sat in a ladderback chair by the stove.

He had called me Allie Boy for as long as I could remember. I had taken to call him Hoard the Dairyman, after a farm magazine my father subscribed to. I nodded. It had been a good day. Two wobbly newborn calves greeted us when we arrived at the dairy barn 16 hours earlier. Wet and shivering, we dried them with the past summer’s straw before showing them how to find breakfast at their mamas’ side. One was a bull, the other a heifer.

“We ought to name ‘em Mary and Joseph,” Howard now said as we rehashed the day, “on account of them being born today.”

Mary and Joseph? Generally, Howard had only one name for all cows: Succum. None of us knew what it meant or where it came from, but from the time he arrived on the farm in the mid-1960s every cow was Succum and every heifer was Little Succum. A group of cows or calves were simply Big Succums or Baby Succums.

“Mary and Joseph they will be,” I said.

Silence hung in the stale air. Howard reached for his pipe and the big red can of Velvet that had been my Christmas gift to him that morning.

“You want to roll yourself a smoke, Allie? I got some papers here.”

I shook off the offer.

“Yep,” Howard said to himself, “that’s the prettiest tree I’ve ever had and this is shaping up to be the nicest Christmas I’ve ever had because you came by.”

I looked at the tree and then at the old man ringed in tobacco smoke staring at it and I felt sad. I felt sad for me. I had agreed to come to his house as a favor for a hired man. But he had not wanted a favor. All he had wanted was the chance to share his Christmas good fortune with me. He had some homemade wine, a warm fire, his best Christmas tree ever and a week’s worth of tobacco. He was happy and he wanted to share that happiness with me.

As I stared at the silhouette of Hoard the Dairyman in the glow of the Christmas lights, I saw a man of great warmth, wealth and honesty. He didn’t have a checking account or credit card, but he was richer by far than the condescending college boy on his sofa.

“Well Hoard,” I said a quiet minute later, “I better go. We both have got to be at the barn early tomorrow.”

He led me to the back door.  “Don’t forget,” he said, “we’ll call those calves Mary and Joseph.”

And more than 40 Christmas Nights later, I have not forgotten two calves named Mary and Joseph and Howard’s priceless gift of simple giving.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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