I had started the milking early on Christmas morning so the family wouldn’t have to wait long to open presents. On the way to the parlor, I passed the sick pen. 1225 sat in the dim light, her eyes sunken and her chin in the straw.
She had a displaced abomasum – hopefully the kind I could fix myself. Later, I would have to get someone to help me roll her over.
I set the milkers to wash and retrieved the cows in the darkness, humming a carol I didn’t know the words to. I vowed to remain in good spirits despite the cold and the milking before me. I had closed the gate on the first group in the parlor when there was a knock on the door. Santa opened it and descended the steps.
He had dark circles under his eyes and slumped past me with his head down. His red suit was dark and matted with soot stains, smelling like a heavy smoker. In lieu of a greeting, he simply took the iodine off the pipe and started dipping the first cow in line.
Not knowing what to say, I picked up the paper towels and followed behind him. He moved slowly and stiffly, his belly re-settling under his belt every time he went to another udder.
A few of the cows would sway above his gloved hand, but he paid them no mind. When the silence was too much, I said the only thing I could think of.
“Sometimes I envy you guys,” Santa said. “You work hard, but at least it’s steady. Milking and feeding and fieldwork – you more or less know what you’re in for.”
Santa dipped two teats of the next cow, stopped and turned toward me. “But with my gig, it all happens at once. Talk about pressure. Suddenly, people expect a miracle.” He bit his lip as if fighting back a tear. “How much can one man and nine deer do?”
“When I haul, I use The Deere too,” I said, chuckling to myself.
“When I haul, I use ... ” I gave up. Santa wasn’t in the mood. I made a note to laugh at my joke again later.
I realized that I started this day ill-equipped to handle this situation. When my young nieces were upset, I would tickle them or put peanut butter on their noses. I looked over to Santa, who leaned his forehead on the flank of a shorthorn. I weighed the likely outcome of tickling a grown man in a red suit – and decided against it.
“It’s not that I’m not proud to be part of an institution that promotes amenable social behavior,” Santa said, his voice muffled through the fur. “It’s the whole ‘naughty’ and ‘nice’ dichotomy. As humans, I can’t help but feel that the moral codes we apply to ourselves are much more complex.”
Santa dipped the cow next to him. She shifted on her hind legs and then kicked out and struck him in the wrist. The iodine flew from his hand. He made a fist but didn’t hit her. Instead, he leaned under her belly and pointed his finger at her muzzle. “Naughty!” he shouted.
I nodded. It was obvious this conundrum only added to his woes. I climbed the steps of the parlor and soon came back with two cups of coffee from the milk house. I didn’t know if Santa took cream or not but, taking a chance, I mixed in a spoon of milk replacer.
When I opened the parlor door, I found Santa standing next to a third-calf heifer in the holding area, the marking crayon in his hand. He had drawn a Christmas tree on her side and was now putting an X through it. He was in rougher shape than I thought.
He thanked me for the coffee, but after taking it, he sighed. He looked toward the aluminum box of filters hanging by the vacuum pump. I stuffed more paper towels in my back pocket and refilled the dipper.
Santa sighed again, louder.
How did he know? Did he look when I was gone, or was it a sixth sense that came with the occupation? I reluctantly opened the filter box and tossed him the cookies I had stashed there.
“At least you get the summers off,” I said, groping for any optimism I could find.
“Except for shooting a few Coca-Cola commercials.” Crumbs fell into his beard as he chewed. “It’s the clichés, too,” he said. “A jolly man spreading joy. Pshhh.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “A farmer having a simple way of life.”
“Saying ho-ho-ho. What does that even mean?”
“Wearing overalls and flannel?”
“The deep belly laughs. Come on!”
“Cow tipping? Is that even possible?”
Suddenly, I had an idea.
“Do you have one more miracle left in you, Santa?” I motioned him up the steps. He followed, eating the cookies two at a time to free his hands.
We stood in front of 1225. She looked at Santa and then back at me with wide eyes. “I suppose you’ve never knocked over a cow for the fun of it?” I said.
I knelt down and put my shoulder against the animal’s side. Santa, hesitating, did the same. “And push!” I yelled.
1225 fell over with a flop. Her rear legs shot through the air. The bedding sagged beneath her and straw jumped in the air. Santa loved it. He wrung his hands and smiled like a delighted child.
“One more time,” I said.
When we tipped the cow over again, Santa shot to his feet. He grabbed his belt, tilted his head back and gave a rolling chuckle that filled the barn.
I watched Santa disappear out of the milk house door, still slapping his sides. I eventually returned to the parlor and took the milkers off the cows that were finished. As they walked back to the freestalls, I leaned on the pipeline and watched them with the satisfaction of knowing that I might have saved Christmas for at least one person this year.
Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.