The Story of the Sacred Cow of Christmas

Gather round, boys and girls, and I’ll tell you all the story of the Sacred Cow of Christmas. STOP RIGHT THERE! I told you to sit down.

YOU – Will this be a loooong story, John?

ME – It sure will, and it’ll get even longer if you keep interrupting! Now stop fidgeting, pour me a little more of that egg nog – Don’t be stingy with the brandy! – and settle back. Alright then.

Once upon a time, back in the late 1960s, when Tori was just a wee slip of a girl, she and her mother and father and brother moved to the Philippines. Her mother, Janet, wanted to keep all the traditions of Christmas for the kids, but the Philippines were on the other side of the world and they didn’t have a lot of the things the family was accustomed to, including no Christmas trees with twinkly lights and glass balls and candy cane ornaments and what not. So Janet had to improvise.

She got something to decorate – Tori was a wee sprat at the time and today doesn’t recall if it was a palm tree or just a stick or what. But it was enough for Janet to decorate with local capiz shells and angels and – this is the important part – a collection of cheap plastic animals – chickens, goats, sheep, fish and a cow. Christmas was saved!

Fast forward about 20 years. That wee slip of a girl had grown into a beautiful, vivacious woman who I had the good sense to marry just as quick as I could convince her to say yes. (And that took some doin’, but that’s a different story.) We were living in Oregon, and we still had the shells from the Philippines, and fish and the angels – and the cow. It was a little the worse for wear, the garish paint had mostly chipped off and it had lost a leg (rear, right side, I believe) but we hung it on the tree every year, a tribute to family and memories and good times.

And one year – late 1990s or early 2000s – we were decorating the tree and one of the kids – Ben? – picked up the cow and asked, “Why are we putting a cow on the Christmas tree? And why does it only have three legs?”

We could have told him the real story – it’s a good story – but we’d already told it once or twice. Besides, what fun is that? What’s the point of having kids if you can’t fill their heads with harmless nonsense?

So on the spot, Tori and I made up a whole involved story about the cow being in the manger and witnessing the birth of baby Jesus. “’The cattle are lowing,’” we reminded them, from the song. “’The poor baby wakes.’ But what if the cattle weren’t lowing. Maybe the poor baby wouldn’t have woken up, so the cow saved the baby’s life.”

“But why does it only have three legs?” we were asked.

“Well,” we said, thinking fast. “It was a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and then Mary had to give birth and that’s hard work, so they were tired and hungry. So the cow gave up its leg so they could have something to eat.”

We even made up a song to go with it. Join in, kids, you know the tune and the words are easy.

O Christmas cow,

O Christmas cow,

Your roast beef delights us.

O Christmas cow,

O Christmas cow,

Your roast beef delights us.

You sacrificed your leg so that,

Jesus could have, his breakfast

O Christmas cow,

O Christmas cow,

Your roast beef delights us.

Ah, good times. A few years later, when Ben moved to New York, we even recorded the song and sent it to him.

We still have the cow, of course, although it’s not currently on the tree. It’s in the box of Christmas stuff in our storage shed in Albany, Or., where it’s been since we moved in July 2008. (Yes, we still have the storage shed on which we pay monthly rent. It makes sense, but that’s another story. Get me more egg nog and I’ll finish this up.)

So fast forward again. Couple of days ago Ben was part of a live webcast for a series he’s in (These People, very funny, check it out online.) It was their Christmas special. Afterwards, the cast stayed on camera while the audience asked questions, and one of the questions was, “What are some of your special Christmas memories?”

There was a moment of silence, then Ben finally said, “When I was a kid we used to hang a three-legged cow on the tree, it was supposed to be the sacred Cow of Christmas or something. We even had a song about it.” One of the other cast members asked, “Do you remember the song?” Ben denied it. There was no way he was going to be coaxed into singing that on-camera. But I don’t believe him for a second. I’m sure he remembers the song.

But more importantly, out of all the Christmas memories he could have shared, that was the one his mind jumped to. It was pretty special. And it went all the way back to Janet trying to make the holidays special for her family, half a world away. It made the holiday for us. I get a little teary just thinking about it. But that might just be the egg nog.

Merry Christmas from the Baurs.

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