The Christmas Message

GON was founded in 1987 by Steve Burch. Now mostly retired, Steve still contributes articles from time to time. Here is Steve's editorial from 1990, a wonderful message that is more timely than ever.

Steve Burch | November 30, 2020

It was Christmas Eve several years ago in the north Georgia mountains. My wife’s parents live just outside Hiawassee. There was a gathering of the clan at the family home on my father-in-law’s cattle farm. It is not a big operation, but he’ll run 40 to 70 head on pastures along the Hiawassee River bottoms.

The weather was bad and getting worse as dark set in that Christmas Eve. Heavy black clouds, whipped by a raw and bitter northwest wind, beat against the cold, naked mountains and spewed intermittent showers of rain and sleet on the valley below.

The forecast called for sustained high winds and snow by morning, followed by record low temperatures for Christmas night. As it happened, the forecast turned out to be correct. Low temperatures that Christmas went down to 9 degrees.

But on Christmas Eve, that was still before us. The bright glow of Christmas lights, the crackling wood stove in the basement, and the hubbub common with the gathering of a far-flung family warmed the farm home and drowned out the icy pounding of the storm outside.

As I recall, it was about 8 p.m. when the phone rang. My father-in-law, James Dyer to you, Mister James to me, answered and spoke briefly to a neighbor who lived just up the river.

“Who was that, James?” asked my mother-in-law, when he hung up the phone.

“Oh, that was Joe saying Merry Christmas,” he answered.

But he got up and headed for the basement. Roger, his oldest son, was the first to smell out a problem. The call had been to tell Mister James that he had a cow down in the pasture across the river. He knew he had a cow about ready to drop a calf. This particular cow had had difficulty before and was also one of the wilder cows he owned. He was going to check on her alone, not wanting to interrupt Christmas Eve. Four of us grabbed hats, coats and boots and wedged into the cab of the truck to go take a look.

A mile away, in the headlights of the truck, this cow was down, stretched out in a difficult labor; frozen pellets of sleet bouncing off the hide of the heavily breathing cow. We’d have to load the cow in a trailer and move her to the barn. Otherwise, we’d likely lose cow and calf.

The work was miserable. Cranking a cold tractor, hitching up the trailer, the wet, unprotected drive back to the pasture. The cow didn’t want to be caught or loaded and more than catch her, we finally just wore her down to a stand still.

It was after 10 when we finally unloaded her into a barn stall. We let her rest while we shivered out, wet with sweat on the inside and soaked through with rain and sleet from the outside, hands and face red from the cold wind. The thermos of coffee helped, but we knew our work wasn’t done. The calf was stuck and the cow would need help.

If you haven’t been there, maternity rooms for cows usually are not the cleanest or best lit places in the world. Typically, the recipient of the help seems less than grateful as the process moves along. It was a struggle. But it was successful. About midnight, Mister James’ herd increased by one.

We raked the calf off with hay and then toweled it dry. Within two minutes of its birth, we’d removed ourselves and our gear from the stall. The relieved cow took over, the crisis passed, the scene became immediately normal. We walked through the storm back to the house.

There is nothing particularly important about cold weather in December, or hard work, or a calf getting born; not even on Christmas Eve.

But there is something noteworthy about that evening.

No one complained.

Oh, we cussed the cow and the weather and the timing. But as we walked back toward the house, glad as we were that the job was done, we were also glad that we had been there to do it.

No one complained because as cold as we were on the outside, there was something warm on the inside. There was an unspoken thought—simply that we could count on each other. The feeling is something that can neither be received or bought. It can only be freely given.

Among those who participate, there is a bonding and this bonding is common in most forms of work. Most of us don’t think of hunting and fishing as work; but it often is some of the hardest work we do. And among the right group of sportsmen, this same type of bonding often occurs. It makes people friends for life. It is a glue that can hold fathers and sons together when other stresses of growing up attempt to split them apart. It is an intangible completely unobserved and ignored by those who haven’t experienced it.

I don’t remember what happen to that calf. It isn’t important. I don’t remember what we gave each other for Christmas. That wasn’t important. But I do remember that when we were presented with an opportunity to help each other, we ungrudgingly gave ourselves to each other.

If I could wrap that feeling in a package, I’d put it under everyone’s tree this Christmas. And that is why, when I’m asked about “Christmas Spirit,” I often think of a couple of cold, dimly lit mangers—one where Christ first gave Himself to the world; and one where once, in a small but important way, we gave ourselves to each other.

Merry Christmas.

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