I don’t know how old I was when I realized that Santa Claus wasn’t real. A story about a fat man slipping through chimneys with toys has a lot of holes in it. If it was true, we would be dealing with a very capable man in being able to do all that he was reported to – and surely, this same man could have done our morning chores for us so we could have stayed in the house and opened presents.

Dennis ryan
Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. Visit his ...

It would be nothing for someone who could deliver toys to all the children in the world before daybreak to milk 100 cows as well. He never did, as far as I can tell. This was not a man deserving of cookies.

While other children were getting out of bed (while it was still dark) out of sheer excitement on Christmas morning, my sister and I were already in the freestalls, heading the cows toward the parlor. There was no day I wanted a pardon from having to do chores on as much as Christmas.

Some years we were allowed to open our stockings before milking, but we could only eye the presents under the tree as we slipped on our boots and snow jackets. Even on the most sacred day of the year there was work to be done first.

It is one of those moments when it becomes clear that dairy farming is more than a job; instead, it is a lifestyle that informs who we are. Those who don’t know any better would say that we are putting farming before family. In truth, we are just a family that farms.


Christmas is an anticipation, as much as anything, that falls over our daily chores as it gets near to the day. It informs our thoughts inside the tractor, while feeding calves – or at times, trying to find one radio station that has anything but “Jingle Bells” or “Christmas Shoes.”

Even though it is just one day, it is a release from the normalcy of the other 11 months, where there exists a reason to be in a good mood regardless of the weather, milk price and broken machinery.

We probably have no more money than the month before, not much is easier than it was in November and, of all things, it is colder. Still, all this matters little, because Christmastime is a universal reprieve from these bothers.

For some it has great spiritual significance and for others it is a time to prioritize family, but for everyone it is a reason to whistle while shoveling up silage and in doing so adding the “holly jolly” to the things that must be done.

This is going to be the first Christmas that I won’t be home. This year I have a professorship in a German university that has classes up to December 23. As I write this, it is still too early for snow in either Germany or America.

Still, in the morning the ground is covered with frost and the leaves are all but piled below their trees, lending a sense of what is to come and the feeling that it won’t be quite the same this time. The Christmas markets here are world-famous and the radio, I suspect, will play plenty of carols in English.

Still, this will be a strange holiday. It hasn’t taken me long to realize that it has less to do with Christmas dinner consisting of wurst and potato salad than that I don’t have cows to milk or heifers to feed.

Somehow, it occurs to me that having to go out to the barn and subsequently anticipate the moment that we get back to the house, thaw our hands by the fire and open presents has become a part of Christmas for me as much as the cookies and the tree itself.

It won’t be the same without anxiously waiting for the person who got stuck washing up the parlor to get it done, change his clothes and pour his coffee.

If Christmas is about family, then it is also about what a family does. In truth, we are just a family that farms. And so, in my absence, I leave them this message from across the ocean: No peeking, no skipping cows and, even though I’m sleeping in and staying warm, it will only make me miss you more. PD