"Christmas Morning" (Rappahannock County, Virginia) 13"x11"
oil pencil, watercolor, and pastel

"The Oxen" was written by Thomas Hardy in 1915, during the carnage of the First World War and one year, I think, after the death of his first wife.The legend that cattle - all descendants of the beasts that knelt in reverence at the stable in Bethlehem - would kneel each Christmas Eve at midnight would, of course, have been familiar to 75 year-old Hardy from childhood. Any fan of "The Waltons" (and I was a DIE-HARD fan while I was pubescing in East Tennessee during the 1970's) will recall when John Boy took all of his younger brothers and sisters out to the barn on Christmas eve.

I should emphasize that I wrote my dissertation on Thomas Hardy and, so, have a head full of Hardy facts that are of very little practical use in my daily life.

By 1915, Hardy had long since lost his early religious belief, but the 16 lines of this poem encapsulate beautifully (I think) the urge to faith that persists even in the face of all better judgment.

I should also add that my own personal relationship to cattle (not that I'm around them so much these days, which suits me just fine) remains markedly conflicted.  They're just.....so....damned....dumb.....

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
   "Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
   By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
   They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
   To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
   In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
   "Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
   Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
   Hoping it might be so.