The Hay in the Manger

 

I got to wondering about the hay in the manger on the clip art nativity scene on our family Christmas newsletter. Yes, we do a newsletter. We’re deplorable.

It’s an idealized, cozy scene, with baby Jesus lying in a well-filled manger and just about all of Old MacDonald’s farm animals joining the others in looking on. It wasn’t quite the picture I was looking for, but these days it’s getting more difficult, if not impossible, to buy clip-art without signing up for an expensive subscription, and this was something that we had got years ago for free.

The picture is nice to look at, and although idealized, a barn actually can be a cozy place in winter, if you don’t mind the barn smells, which aren’t necessarily bad. Of course, cleaning out the calf pen towards the end of winter can be another matter.

My father was born in a farm house that was maybe 150 feet from the barn. He said that when there were overnight house guests, the kids (he was one of eight) were sent out to the barn to sleep in the hayloft. And in those days before hay balers, when the hay was put up loose, it could be plenty comfortable to sleep there. Dad wasn’t born in a barn, but I got to thinking that if people of the underclass 2000 years ago could in a pinch have their kids born in a barn, that didn’t indicate such a terrible standard of living. It’s not necessarily like some libertarians would have us believe, that until the iPhone came along life was nasty, brutish and short. It’s not like the Russian movie Thief, where the woman co-star is shown giving birth in the rain in a roadside ditch.

The manger in our picture looks like it’s holding straw, rather than hay. The straw is also spread over the floor. Straw on the floor makes sense, because if you have some it makes good bedding for your animals, and makes a good matrix for the manure that later needs to be forked up and spread on the fields. But I doubt the real manger would have held straw because that’s a starvation diet for animals, used for food only when there is no hay or other forage to be had. We can forgive the artistic license, though, because yellow straw makes for better contrast in a picture than stems and leaves that contain dead chlorophyll.

I imagine that if the farmers around Bethlehem put up any hay for the brief winter season, they would have been parsimonious with it. The manger might not have been as overflowing and comfy as shown on the Christmas cards. The reason to put hay in a manger is so the animals don’t waste it by walking over it and defecating on it. It’s too valuable to waste. Up until modern times, it was very labor-intensive to put up a lot of hay. You can rake and fork a reasonable amount by hand, but cutting it by hand is a limiting factor. There is not the same return on your labor investment for cutting hay with a scythe or sickle that there is for cutting grain crops. In Europe, it used to put a severe limit on just how many animals could be kept over winter. However, in Judah’s climate of 2000 years ago, the hay crop probably wasn’t such a limiting factor for animals like sheep that can forage on their own in difficult places.

So what food was ordinarily put in Jesus’ manger? And for which animals? Maybe something for the few cattle that may have been kept? In medieval Europe, farmers often grew root crops like beets and turnips to feed their animals over winter. And I think this was also done in 19th century America, before sickle-bar mowers were available for cutting large quantities of hay. I am not at all familiar with beet/turnip agriculture, although I thought about trying it back when we kept a few sheep and goats on our small acreage. It was difficult to get enough food to keep them overwinter. We bought a high-quality grain mix for our female goat so she could produce milk, but all the animals needed more roughage than we could easily grow and put up, which is one reason that one fall we gave up and put the sheep in the freezer.

If turnips are used, I understand that the root parts were chopped up into smaller pieces – another daily chore – but I imagine the animals could handle the greens without any help. And these might not have been the juiciest turnip variety, but still, aren’t they messy?

All of this is speculation. I don’t even know if this kind of root crop was grown in Judah. But lacking further information, I wonder if in tonight’s Christmas programs people should sing about the Little Lord Jesus asleep on the turnips instead of asleep on the hay. And think about the stains that would make on his swaddling clothes. Maybe we could also appreciate a little more what it meant for him to come to live with us on earth.

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There are 17 comments.

  1. Judge Mental Member

    Does anything rhyme with turnip?

    • #1
    • December 23, 2018, at 10:47 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  2. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    I confess I don’t know the difference between hay and straw. And the loving spouse is as stymied as I am.

    • #2
    • December 23, 2018, at 10:51 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  3. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator Post author

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Does anything rhyme with turnip?

    Hmmm. Maybe better go with beets instead. Or how about parsnips?

    • #3
    • December 23, 2018, at 10:51 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator Post author

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):

    I confess I don’t know the difference between hay and straw. And the loving spouse is as stymied as I am.

    Straw is the leftover stems from grain crops. After you thrash out the wheat you’re left with straw. Not much nutritional value to it, but it makes good bedding.

    Hay is made of dried grass, clover, or alfalfa.

    • #4
    • December 23, 2018, at 10:53 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  5. She Thatcher
    She

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):

    Ever I confess I don’t know the difference between hay and straw. And the loving spouse is as stymied as I am.

    Straw is the leftover stems from grain crops. After you thrash out the wheat you’re left with straw. Not much nutritional value to it, but it makes good bedding.

    Hay is made of dried grass, clover, or alfalfa.

    Another difference, when it comes to bedding, is that straw is a lot less itchy. Anyone who’s ever contemplated “a roll in the hay,” with the idea that it might be some earthy and romantic experience, has obviously never spent much time in close contact with the stuff. I can’t imagine anything less enticing, or more uncomfortable, when it comes right down to it, actually.

    • #5
    • December 24, 2018, at 3:31 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  6. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator Post author

    She (View Comment):
    Another difference, when it comes to bedding, is that straw is a lot less itchy. Anyone who’s ever contemplated “a roll in the hay,” with the idea that it might be some earthy and romantic experience, has obviously never spent much time in close contact with the stuff. I can’t imagine anything less enticing, or more uncomfortable, when it comes right down to it, actually.

    Um, you’re talking about baled hay, right? Probably with a lot of alfalfa or clover in it. The cut and broken ends on square bales are definitely scratchy. I used to come home from baling hay with the insides of my wrists all scratched and raw from handling them. I didn’t wear gloves with long enough ends to cover my wrists. Break the bale apart and you still have the scratchy ends. I don’t know about the big round bales that are used nowadays.

    But I’ve put up loose hay sort of like in the old days, consisting of brome and timothy grass, miscellaneous weeds and very little clover. It was entirely fit for a romp in the hay or for a baby’s bed. 

    One time my brother and I helped a neighbor bale straw one Saturday in late September in north-central Minnesota. That was different. The bales were light and easy to handle, but after lying on the ground since harvest the straw was sooty. We were covered in black straw soot. My mother must have known what to expect, because when we got home, after dark, she met us at the door and refused to let us in her freshly cleaned house. She handed us clean clothes and told us to go wash in the lake. Our lakes were cold by that time of year, but we drove down to the public access and washed up by the lights of Dad’s 1962 VW Beetle. If you know anything about the generator charging characteristics on those cars, you know that’s another reason to do it quickly. But there was a lot of washing to do. 

    • #6
    • December 24, 2018, at 5:43 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  7. Vectorman Thatcher

    At least the Thomas Hardy poem The Oxen had it correct:

    • 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.
    • #7
    • December 24, 2018, at 6:10 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  8. She Thatcher
    She

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    Another difference, when it comes to bedding, is that straw is a lot less itchy. Anyone who’s ever contemplated “a roll in the hay,” with the idea that it might be some earthy and romantic experience, has obviously never spent much time in close contact with the stuff. I can’t imagine anything less enticing, or more uncomfortable, when it comes right down to it, actually.

    Um, you’re talking about baled hay, right? Probably with a lot of alfalfa or clover in it. The cut and broken ends on square bales are definitely scratchy. I used to come home from baling hay with the insides of my wrists all scratched and raw from handling them. I didn’t wear gloves with long enough ends to cover my wrists. Break the bale apart and you still have the scratchy ends. I don’t know about the big round bales that are used nowadays.

    But I’ve put up loose hay sort of like in the old days, consisting of brome and timothy grass, miscellaneous weeds and very little clover. It was entirely fit for a romp in the hay or for a baby’s bed.

    One time my brother and I helped a neighbor bale straw one Saturday in late September in north-central Minnesota. That was different. The bales were light and easy to handle, but after lying on the ground since harvest the straw was sooty. We were covered in black straw soot. My mother must have known what to expect, because when we got home, after dark, she met us at the door and refused to let us in her freshly cleaned house. She handed us clean clothes and told us to go wash in the lake. Our lakes were cold by that time of year, but we drove down to the public access and washed up by the lights of Dad’s 1962 VW Beetle. If you know anything about the generator charging characteristics on those cars, you know that’s another reason to do it quickly. But there was a lot of washing to do.

    Yes, straw soot is awful. And it’s not the easiest thing any more to find lovely, fluffy, well turned-over, dry, and sweet-smelling loose hay, so anyone looking for a “romp” is more likely to have to deal with mechanically-cut and baled stuff.

    My only word of advice there is, stick to square bales. Don’t even think about it if round bales are your only option. And even then, you might want to take a down comforter with you. A friend told me.

    • #8
    • December 24, 2018, at 7:26 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  9. philo Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment): I used to come home from baling hay with the insides of my wrists all scratched and raw from handling them

    And yet it was just a mere superficial pain compared to the hard muscular cramping of the hand now (seemingly) frozen to the shape of the handle of the baling hook.

    I remember having quite a giggle at the dirt and dust caked all around my co-worker’s faces…and covering the front teeth of the smiles laughing back at mine….at the end of those long days. Some great memories of hard days riding behind the baler (watch out for angry snakes) and stacking them high up in that stuffy old barn. But I sure as hell wouldn’t do it again…

    • #9
    • December 24, 2018, at 10:09 AM PDT
    • 11 likes
  10. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):

    I confess I don’t know the difference between hay and straw. And the loving spouse is as stymied as I am.

    Straw is the leftover stems from grain crops. After you thrash out the wheat you’re left with straw. Not much nutritional value to it, but it makes good bedding.

    Hay is made of dried grass, clover, or alfalfa.

    Thanks for the info. I grew up with cousins who lived on dairy farms, although I was a big city kid. Somehow the things we talked about never got down to those basics.

    But I still crack up when some vet tells us we shouldn’t let the cat or the dog have any dairy. What the vet approves of is dry kibble produced in a factory over in China.

    Anyway nicely told story about the “born in a barn” aspect of the Nativity scene and also regarding people’s real lives. When my husband was traveling through Northern India’s mountainous regions, in 2015, people would invite him into their homes. Those homes were often the one story residence located above the barn where animals stayed during the heat of the day or the cold of winter.

    • #10
    • December 24, 2018, at 12:49 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  11. Seawriter Member

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):

    I confess I don’t know the difference between hay and straw. And the loving spouse is as stymied as I am.

    I guess tying a wisp of hay to your left foot and straw to your right foot would not have been a good way to teach you how to march.

    Similarly, the drill sergeants repeatedly found that among the raw recruits there were men so abysmally untaught that they did not know left from right, and hence could not step off on the left foot as all soldiers should. To teach these lads how to march, the sergeants would tie a wisp of hay to the left foot and a wisp of straw to the right; then, setting the men to march, they would chant, “Hay-foot, straw-foot, hay-foot, straw-foot”—and so on, until everybody had caught on. A common name for a green recruit in those days was “strawfoot.”

    On the other hand you do know your left from your right, which might be more important today than knowing the difference between hay and straw.

    • #11
    • December 24, 2018, at 2:37 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  12. Jimmy Carter Member

    She (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):

    Ever I confess I don’t know the difference between hay and straw. And the loving spouse is as stymied as I am.

    Straw is the leftover stems from grain crops. After you thrash out the wheat you’re left with straw. Not much nutritional value to it, but it makes good bedding.

    Hay is made of dried grass, clover, or alfalfa.

    Another difference, when it comes to bedding, is that straw is a lot less itchy. Anyone who’s ever contemplated “a roll in the hay,” with the idea that it might be some earthy and romantic experience, has obviously never spent much time in close contact with the stuff. I can’t imagine anything less enticing, or more uncomfortable, when it comes right down to it, actually.

    • #12
    • December 24, 2018, at 3:41 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  13. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member

    philo (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment): I used to come home from baling hay with the insides of my wrists all scratched and raw from handling them

    And yet it was just a mere superficial pain compared to the hard muscular cramping of the hand now (seemingly) frozen to the shape of the handle of the baling hook.

    I remember having quite a giggle at the dirt and dust caked all around my co-worker’s faces…and covering the front teeth of the smiles laughing back at mine….at the end of those long days. Some great memories of hard days riding behind the baler (watch out for angry snakes) and stacking them high up in that stuffy old barn. But I sure as hell wouldn’t do it again…

    A buddy of mine was complaining about his grandad at 80, putting him to shame stacking bales. “But he only did it for a couple of hours or so, and I was loading them all day.” Then his mom walked up and added, “I told grandpa to start acting his age.”

    • #13
    • December 24, 2018, at 4:22 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  14. Percival Thatcher

    She (View Comment):
    Another difference, when it comes to bedding, is that straw is a lot less itchy. Anyone who’s ever contemplated “a roll in the hay,” with the idea that it might be some earthy and romantic experience, has obviously never spent much time in close contact with the stuff. I can’t imagine anything less enticing, or more uncomfortable, when it comes right down to it, actually.

    There’s always some loose hay in the hay-mow. Bales break. I’ve slept in one, and all that is really needed is a couple of blankets and a pillow.

    • #14
    • December 25, 2018, at 11:08 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. She Thatcher
    She

    Percival (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    Another difference, when it comes to bedding, is that straw is a lot less itchy. Anyone who’s ever contemplated “a roll in the hay,” with the idea that it might be some earthy and romantic experience, has obviously never spent much time in close contact with the stuff. I can’t imagine anything less enticing, or more uncomfortable, when it comes right down to it, actually.

    There’s always some loose hay in the hay-mow. Bales break. I’ve slept in one, and all that is really needed is a couple of blankets and a pillow.

    Oh. Oh. You’re talking about sleeping. Sorry. I must have got the wrong idea, somehow.

    • #15
    • December 25, 2018, at 11:17 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  16. Percival Thatcher

    She (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):
    Another difference, when it comes to bedding, is that straw is a lot less itchy. Anyone who’s ever contemplated “a roll in the hay,” with the idea that it might be some earthy and romantic experience, has obviously never spent much time in close contact with the stuff. I can’t imagine anything less enticing, or more uncomfortable, when it comes right down to it, actually.

    There’s always some loose hay in the hay-mow. Bales break. I’ve slept in one, and all that is really needed is a couple of blankets and a pillow.

    Oh. Oh. You’re talking about sleeping. Sorry. I must have got the wrong idea, somehow.

    Well, there’s always a blanket or two up there …

    • #16
    • December 25, 2018, at 11:52 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  17. Western Chauvinist Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Um, you’re talking about baled hay, right?

    Huh, you get a new perspective on things every day on Ricochet. I never considered “roll in the hay” as being located in the field where it is growing… 

    • #17
    • December 25, 2018, at 2:00 PM PDT
    • 2 likes