Cows mooed, lambs bleated, and the donkey watched as three wise men brought gifts to Baby Jesus at Manchester's Brookside Congregational Church's living Nativity in John Stark Park in 2017. When Deacon Kira Morehouse asked me if I'd bring animals to their first Living Nativity in 2015, I immediately agreed. Of course, Christmas is about Jesus, but without animals, it wouldn't be the same holiday. If you have a pet, you know what I mean.
Although they are a little bulky for the Nativity creche, cattle embody the Christmas spirit. They don't hold grudges or make judgments. That's especially true of my favorite – Topper, my Scottish Highlander ox. He accepts me for what I am: a farmer who feeds him, makes him pull heavy objects, and sometimes dresses him up in a holiday costume. If he has any opinions, he keeps them to himself when every December I dress him up as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein-steer. Once he understands what I want and that carrots are involved, he's a great sport and will stand quietly with Santa and his sleigh. Children love to meet this gentle giant; his side-kick, Tazzy the mini-pig; and Santa.
Just like humans, animals want to be appreciated. They thrive on rewards. A kind word or a gentle pat is as meaningful to a farm animal as it is to a human. That's why I train my oxen with kindness. If Topper walks off when I want him to stand still, I don't punish him; I just bring him back to where he was supposed to stand and reward him when he stays.
According to a holiday tradition, the animals speak on Christmas Eve. You bet they do! But they talk every other day of the year, too. We may not always comprehend, but they constantly vocalize. If I'm late in feeding them, the water trough is frozen, or a mother has been separated from her baby, there will be commentary!
I've watched a steer and horse lick each other. I've seen two cows that had been separated, joyously greet each other when reunited. Our donkey, Eleanor, brays when we take the goats out of her pen.
Charlotte, the pig, will grunt with pleasure when I rub her belly, the donkey will nuzzle me for treats, and Topper will put his head on my shoulder asking for a neck scratch. I watched the movie “Charlotte's Web” recently, and had no problem with the talking animals. They were far more realistic than the pristine barnyard – without a pile of manure or rusting vehicle in sight.
A dog wagging his tail or a cat purring on your chest is your pet communicating. We just have to pay attention.
Sometimes it's hard to sort animal communications from mischief and antics, many of which are recorded and shared online – the comical cat flopping downstairs, a deer and turkeys playing in the snow, a donkey in a hospice comforting the residents, the dog stealing a French fry after his owner leaves the room. My steer, Milo, loves to swipe the hat off my head. Why? Teasing me is his idea of fun.
This holiday season let's do as the animals do: appreciate each other, show affection, encourage rather than punish, and have some fun. You can meet Topper in his Rudolph nose on Saturday, Dec. 15, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Miles Smith Farm in Loudon. (Remember, he loves what he does – and he's paid in carrots.) The next day, Sunday, Dec. 16, at 3 p.m. you can see my little group of barnyard colleagues atJohn Stark Park sponsored by the Brookside Congregational Church in Manchester as the goats, sheep, and Eleanor the donkey help bring the Christmas story to life.