A Killough Valley Christmas story

Friday, December 21, 2012

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

Imagine being a farm boy in the years just after World War II in the Ozarks over yonder. I was just such a farm boy. I was an only child for my first 13 years. Our closest neighbors on Killough Valley lived a mile away and had no children. The nearest children lived nearly two miles up the valley. This was before we had electricity. We only listened to the battery radio for weather forecasts and farm-market reports. So what time I had left over -- after stacking wood on the back porch, milking Lulu the cow and walking to and from school two and a half miles over in the next valley, I relied on my own imagination and my limited understanding of the world. I knew little about taxes, except I remember the dime store in my favorite hometown charged tax, and I had to use those colored plastic coins to pay a fraction of a cent in tax.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee ... unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem ...

In those days my geography was sorely limited. Born in St. Louis, I grew up on a farm in the hills. My life was contained within a 50-mile radius, which provided everything I needed or could be supplanted by a mail order from a Montgomery Ward catalog. I had no idea, exactly, where Galilee and Bethlehem were, but I knew they must be somewhere beyond St. Louis or even Cape Girardeau, if you headed straight east down Killough Valley toward the river.

... To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

I had several aunts and uncles, but the closest was my mother's sister, who lived with her family on the valley over the hill where I walked to and from the one-room schoolhouse. Her name was Mary. When I heard the Christmas story I would imagine my Aunt Mary riding on a mule, her only transportation when she was a teenager. As for that "being great with child" business, little boys in those days did not, as a rule, spend a lot of time talking about unwed mothers. But we did, from time to time, hear grownups talk about them, with a certain tone of voice and a good deal of head shaking.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Farm boys are exposed to the birthing process at an early age. From time to time I had to help when a heifer had her first calf. And sometimes, if it was cold, I would grab a newborn calf and wrap it in burlap sacks and dry it off. I imagined swaddling clothes to be something like that. I knew women, mothers of my schoolmates, who made dresses from feed sacks. So why not burlap swaddling clothes? Our barn, built in the 1880s had mangers on two sides where livestock could be fed. Our milk cow dutifully went to one of the manger stalls every morning and every evening, enticed by the molasses-laced grain we put there. She would lick the manger clean, and the wood was worn smooth by her tongue. Of all the stalls in our barn, I would have picked the one used by Lulu for a newborn baby.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

There were no shepherds on Killough Valley. There were no flocks of sheep. I had only seen pictures of sheep. A couple of our neighbors had goats, and I sometimes drank goat's milk because my mother thought it was healthier than cow's milk. I didn't like goats, even though I liked their milk. They butted you for no good reason. It was reasonable for me to conclude that shepherds had their hands full, if sheep butted like goats.

And, lo, the angel of The Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.

As far as I know, the glory of the Lord rarely, if ever, shone about Killough Valley. But there was the time, in the spring of the year when many of our neighbors set fire to the woods to encourage new grass to grow for wandering livestock, that the wind shifted and pushed one of the fires toward our barn and house. We saw the glow of the suddenly fast-moving inferno race closer and closer. We were sore afraid.

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. ... For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

This is the kind of news that would take a while to reach Killough Valley, unless an angel delivered it. The Weekly Star Farmer or the local Journal-Banner would eventually tell us, I suppose, but we would have to wait a few days for the papers to arrive in the mail. The shepherds near Bethlehem obviously had special delivery about the Special Delivery.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

When I was 8 years old, my mother acquired a used upright piano and decided I should have piano lessons from Mrs. Handford. The first tune I learned to play, one note at a time, was "The First Noel": The first noel the angels did say, was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay. To this day, I get choked up when I hear that familiar hymn on Christmas Eve, remembering how pleased my mother, Mrs. Handford, my Aunt Mary and my cousins were that I could play the whole thing from memory. They were no more amazed than I.

And the shepherds came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

Even as a boy it occurred to me that shepherds, which I assumed must be something like cowboys without horses, played a mighty big role in the story of the Nativity. This story started out as a tale of taxation and ends up with a bunch of farmhands crowding around a feeding bin in a stable, all trying to get a good look at a newborn baby.

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

It's hard to keep a good story to yourself. Have you ever noticed that? Just imagine: the very first to hear this story wasn't the mighty Caesar or any of his government officials. The mayor of Bethlehem, as far as I know, wasn't even told about the shortage of lodging for all the taxpayers arriving in town, much less some sorry tale about a poor woman having a baby in a barn. But the shepherds -- what a monumental epic they had to share. And we still hear to this day the same refrain, the one the shepherds received from the angel and a multitude of the heavenly host:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

That's a big deal. Even in Killough Valley.

Joe Sullivan is the retired editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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