The Christmas story itself was celebrated on the Sunday before Christmas by a carefully practiced children’s program, with each class presenting a story, some recitation, a song or a poem. I liked to do recitations but sometimes I got sick to my stomach before hand. I never could understand why there was such rustling and laughter after my presentation. At an early age I thought that “Away in a Manger” was definitely an overworked song and was glad that it was always assigned to the younger set of children like nephew Fred and nieces Gerry and Bunny.
As a child of the farm it didn’t make sense that a child would be born in a manger. Mangers were simply too cold a place for babies so that part of the Christmas story was, for me, relegated somewhere out there among the fables where Santa Claus, reindeer and Jesus meet. In our barn we had a manger but it was not really used after I was about seven years old and the horses had been sold. For Ohio farmers the 1940s was the period of rapid mechanization. After the war new tractors were purchased and within a brief period all the farm work came to be done with mechanized power. First the tractors were used for plowing, then for preparing the fields for planting and eventually tractors were incorporated in the transition from thrashing machines to pull and power the combines. In my mind the final demise of horses was when the daily task of taking out the manure was powered by the tractor. Horses also lost out to tractors at the other end of the food chain. The work of mowing the hay and the straw stubble was adapted for tractors. Hay was the winter food for cattle and straw was used for their bedding.
One way or another I was able to avoid much of the manure work although at a very early age I was on the manure spreader in the field with my father when he stopped the horses to close a gate through which the cattle occasionally passed. Something mysterious, maybe a ghost, frightened the horses and they took off running with a little boy slipping and sliding around in the slimy stuff at the bottom of the manure spreader. They raced full speed past the barn, up the driveway, past the garage and out towards the main road, Route 43. I was scared maybe even terrorized but there was nothing that I could do to stop the horses although I do remember yelling as loud as I could “Whoa! Whow! Stop you dummies!” Animals could be dumb but humans could not be called dumb in our vernacular. The more I yelled, the more they raced ahead and the more oozing remains of the empty manure spreader covered my clothes, first the pants, then the coat, then the gloves, even my cap and face were covered with “it”.
As we approached the road I wondered if anyone would hit us or if we would continue into the field across the road going on perhaps forever into the woods beyond, never to return again. Just as we reached the road, the milkman, Ed Oswald stepped in front of the horses and they came to a quick stop. I was just at the age when it’s embarrassing for a boy to cry but I could not choke back an uncontrollable flow of whimpers. I was sure that it was my fault and that I had done something that teased or frightened the horses. No sooner had the milk man stopped the horses than Dad came running up out of breath and thanked the milkman profusely for his intervention and said repeatedly that it was his fault and that he should have known better than to let the horses alone with a little boy. My final memory of that odyssey was going off to the house whimpering and covered head to foot with manure.
My most vivid memory therefore of a manger was that special place in the barn where those same wild ghost infected horses were given grain and hay. There was no tradition in our farming patterns for barns and houses to be connected, as might have been the case in Asia and Europe or Bethlehem 2000 years ago. There was a rigid fault line between animals and humans. Even cats and dogs were not allowed in our house. So there was no way to get the story to work for me. Jesus being born in a manger, with all the absence of reality that the story inferred, would not take on meaning for at least another 20 years until I had spent time in Viet Nam and begun to explore how the world really worked and saw babies who were born in places like mangers. It would take the combination of my own efforts together with some very fine teachers and experience to cobble together a working notion of Jesus birth in poverty in a world where state terrorism was practiced, and infanticide was state policy.
By pressing the metaphor a bit further I was able to complete the story. Our household was always open to guests and hospitality was assumed. Occasionally there would be a severe winter storm in our area. The blizzards of that period combined with the limits of snow removal, closed Rt. 43. I loved those blizzard because travelers, including truck drivers, became way laid along that main road in front of our house. The trucks were often laden with steel being transported from the plants in Youngstown for further refinement into industrial parts for cars and other instruments of post World War II civilization in Cleveland just 20 miles Northwest. The excitement of a simple snow blizzard was completed when one or more of those trucks either slid off the road or sought refuge at our house after being marooned along the road.
On more than one occasion they stayed at our house for up to a week. I loved those times because they gave me a window into a completely different life, people who got to travel between cities every day, ate in restaurants and had wonderful stories to tell. I peppered them with questions and bothered them all day to play with me. Eventually, years after the blizzard had melted I revisited the imagination of my childhood and completed the story this way. Jesus’ birth in a manger was like many truck drivers being marooned in front of our farm, more refugees than our house could handle. In the midst of this confusion were some cars one of which included a pregnant woman and man on the way to the hospital where she expected to give birth. In the confusion of the snow, the overcrowding and constant kitchen work, people came to be assigned to stay in the barn, an unheard of form of Stoltzfus hospitality. Among those who ended up in the barn was the couple on the way to the hospital in Bedford and behold the baby was born right there in the manger of our barn where the horses usually ate hay and grain and snorted. I never told anyone about this story line, but it made sense to me arising naturally out of my rural childhood and my growing experience of poverty around the world.
My solution to the Christmas story and the words of “Away in a Manger” gave me confidence that I could function with honesty in the world of terror, war, poverty and fear. I could see a direct line from the manger in Bethlehem through the manger for the horses in our barn to the world wide struggle with problems of justice, peace and order in conditions that were at the brink of completely falling apart. Part of the Christmas story was starting to have meaning but I had another problem. Why would God do it this way? I didn’t get the answer to that in the manger but the manger helped me lodge the question in real life with animals, food crises, emergencies and terror.
Just let the smell of manure go for a while. Terror stinks too. We can live with manure smells, I thought, until we have the luxury of time and space that comes when all terror ends. The Wise people from the East, probably Iraq, with their attendant strange gifts for Jesus had to wait even longer in my mind for weaving into the Christmas story. They made good props for children’s dreams complete with getting to wear bathrobes and funny crowns to church. How many thousands of adults have been entertained by those astrologers and wise people? The gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Why would any family want gold, or frankincense or myrrh? None of us even know what at least two of them were and as far as I know our economy had been off the gold standard for sometime already.
As a child Christmas was always followed by that long week between Christmas and New Year.
Life seemed to return almost to normal. The gifts were finished and needed to be used. There continued to be sporadic singing of Christmas carols and a late gift or two but the next big thing was New Years which was supposed to bring an opportunity for New Year resolutions, meaning the changes and commitments that could help start over in the next block of time. Resolutions didn’t work very well for me. Usually at the urging of one of my adult care givers, Mom, Dad, Sara Ellen, Bob, Ed, and Glenn, (Dwight and Evelyn were gone by the time I arrived) I was encouraged to make a resolution which I did. My new pattern of behavior which involved some kind of secret internal decision to be good didn’t work. The behavioral changes lasted for about 36 hours until I would start to forget. My failures with resolutions carried a small tinge of guilt that lasted for almost a week and then even the guilt was gone, only to return a year later when new decisions were made and the cycle was repeated.
But now I can sing “Away In a Manger” with gusto and I am still working on those resolutions.