I remember a cold and frosty Christmas Eve on the farm where I was born.
I must have been quite young as I had not yet learned how to milk the cows. In those days, there were no milking machines and we had to coax the jets of warm milk from those patient animals with our cold hands.
We had been busy all day as there was always plenty of work to be done around the farm before darkness fell. I quite looked forward to the milking as it meant moving indoors out of the cold and there was always a chance that my father, who liked me to keep him company while he milked, might feel like talking or even, maybe, tell me one of those rare stories of his own childhood.
I climbed into my usual perch, on top of the hay feed for the cows, in a corner of the byre. The byre was old and I could see the night stars through the cracks in the walls. When the wind blew, it whistled through the gaps at the side, and the old wooden door at the end. But there was no wind that night; it was crisp and clear. I could see the breath of the cows hanging in the air as they stood in their stalls, munching noisily (but contentedly) on their night feed. Our faithful black and white collie, Caeser, jumped up beside me and, after turning around a few times and sneezing when the hay tickled his nose, settled himself beside me. I could feel his warmth on my legs.
As I sat there, the image of the stable in Bethlehem, with its patient animals, came to mind and I felt myself very close to that original humble place of birth. Somehow it did not seem as far away as in the cold light of day, when I was reading and learning about it in the books at school. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine that the angels were, indeed, about to appear.
My father was in good humour that night and told me several stories about his own father, and even further back into our family history. Stories I had never heard before and, for the first time, I began to see my father as a small boy himself, with his own childhood Christmasses. How contented he had been with so very little. He also spoke though of hard times, bad winters and how tough it could be to wrest a living from the hard clay soil of our native county.
When the milking had finished, we crossed the yard in companionable silence, each carrying buckets of milk to be emptied into the creamery can in the dairy. Half way across, he stopped and, laying down his buckets, he pointed up into the heavens and began to name the stars for me. I had never known that those far distant twinklings, part of the constant canopy of night above our heads, actually had human names.
The only ones I could remember that night were the “North Star” and “The Plough”. Years later, of course, I learned the official names of all the stars in both the Northern and the Southern hemisphere but still, whenever I see the majestic ‘Polaris’ or the unmistakable shape of ‘Ursa Major’ in the night sky, I think of my father and that cold, still Christmas Eve.
When I awoke the next morning it had, magically, snowed during the night, casting a white veil over all the hills and contours of our little farm and covering the shapes of its familiar fields with an all enveloping mantle for a bright Christmas Morning.
* This story is an extract from “The Little Book of Christmas Memories”, a joint collaboration between the over 55’s website GoldenIreland.ie and Liberties Press. It features an uplifting collection of over sixty nostalgic Christmas stories from well-known Irish authors and stories from previous Golden Ireland short story writing competitions.
All royalties from this collection will be donated to Aware, a charity that supports individuals and families affected by depression.