Wednesday, December 26, 2018

What was really in that manger?

We have the image in our minds: the Christ child lying on the hay in the manger. What was it really like?

John Gorentz, who lives near Battle Creek, Michigan, tries to answer that question.
I got to wondering about the hay in the manger on the clip art nativity scene on our family Christmas newsletter. 
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. 
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. 
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.  
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.
Speculation is okay, because it helps us better understand that evening.

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