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Irons in the fire: The hay helped me believe

Paul Marchant for Progressive Forage Published on 30 November 2021

There’s a quote I’ve often turned to when I’m most in need of divine reinforcement. It is this: “The thing about truth is that it exists beyond belief. It is true even if nobody believes it.”

As I was growing up, my family’s Christmas season was probably quite similar to that of a good share of rural families across the country. While we of course always tried to remain grounded in the true meaning of the season, much of what we did and experienced revolved around the many time-honored family traditions we eagerly anticipated every year. The bottom side of my pedigree comes straight out of Germany; a lot of what we did was heavily influenced by the old Deutsch culture and heritage of my mother’s family. On the top side, my father’s family was among the first settlers, outside of the natives, to settle in the Intermountain West. Consequently, a lot of the old pioneer and Depression-era holiday traditions meshed with the old German lore to form the basis of my family’s Christmas season customs. And, of course, along the way we came up with a few originals of our own.

When I was at about the age where life starts to jade a kid, and doubt creeps in and begins to sink its claws into innocence, I found myself questioning the validity of the dogma surrounding some of my culture and family’s traditions and consequent beliefs. I wasn’t in full-on apostate mode, but I sure had some uncertainty about one of the most obvious elephants in the room. I mean, was it really possible for one guy, his jolliness notwithstanding, to make it all the way around the world, in just a 24-hour period, to deliver gifts to every household with a mere deer-drawn sleigh as his mode of transportation? As much as I had always held tight to my belief in that story, I was beginning to notice, even look for, cracks in the vessel of this long-held truth of ours.

In all earnestness, I took my concerns to my parents. I don’t really remember their exact response, but I imagine it was along the lines of, “Just go ahead and stop believing and see what happens.”

That’s a pretty good tactical response for a parent on the ropes, but it’s also a tantalizing dare to an inquisitive young mind. It held me at bay for a while, but they must have known it was merely a finger in the dike and couldn’t hold back the tide of doubt for long.

It was about this time a new tradition was born at our place. A few days before Christmas, my dad offered up the suggestion that we leave some hay out for Santa’s reindeer team. As you might imagine, this struck a chord with this ranch kid. I figured not many folks around the world gave much thought to the nutritional needs of the reindeer, all the while they were supplying the fat, jolly one with an incomprehensible amount of milk and cookies and the occasional orange. I’d seen enough haystack damage perpetrated by hungry elk to figure that working reindeer (they had to be related to elk, right?) would appreciate a bite of our homegrown meadow hay.

So, late on Christmas Eve night, I took special note of how my dad spread out a bale or two of hay in the driveway, about the length of what we figured a nine-reindeer hitch to be. Early the next morning, well before sunrise, I jumped out of bed with an uncommon eagerness to do the morning chores. My dad had left the house much earlier to get the milking done, and I knew he may even finish my assigned chores before I made my way the 200 yards up the road to the milk barn. Still, there was motive behind my uncommon early morning zeal to get the bottle calves fed.

Before I could even fasten the old five-buckles on my feet, I was out the door to inspect the arctic feeding grounds. Sure enough, to my great relief, the hay in the driveway had been slicked up cleaner than if the horses had gotten out. I could breathe easier. Though my faith would be sorely tested on grander scales and larger stages, with arguably more at stake in future years, that neutralizing doubt was dealt a blow on that cold Christmas morning. I had my proof.

The tradition of feeding reindeer on the night before Christmas is now being strictly observed by a third generation. Even though my grandchildren or children anywhere, believers and doubters alike, may be in such far-flung places as Cheyenne, Cedar City, Hungerford or Doe Run, they can be certain Santa’s charges will be adequately nourished for their improbable journey when they reach a little run-down ranch just a few miles east of Oakley. I’ve yet to see a Christmas morning when a flake of hay has remained in the driveway.

Now here’s the best thing for all of us, regardless of station or locale: When a scared, nondescript couple laid their baby on a dirty bed of meadow hay more than 2,000 years ago, they were most likely at once overcome with transcendent hope and overwhelming doubt. They chose to believe, and that gave each of us the greatest gift of all. end mark

Paul Marchant is a cowboy and part-time freelance writer based in southern Idaho. Follow him on Twitter, or email Paul Marchant.

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