The Animals on Christmas Eve

Some boarded dogs stayed for a while
Until their owners took them home;
I walked them all, in single file,
But left the cows and pigs alone.

My mother went the extra mile
For little chicks that needed love.
In March, they lived with us in style,
Behind the ancient, square coal stove.

As days warmed up and leaves grew big,
If the old cow and little heifer
Pilfered mash money from a pig,
Mama would be fair, but never

Gave extra credit in her log
If unearned. Some barnyard crooks
Might borrow cash from some small hog.
But chickens, who would cook the books,

Stuff themselves silly, then not lay,
Got instant justice for their trouble—
Lost head and feathers. In one day
Were gutted, plucked, and singed of stubble.

Christmas was when animals
Chatted and socialized as pals.
That’s what my mother told to us.
There was no Christmas animus.

Animals spoke out to each other;
Midnight came, they talked of mother.
Why not? She made us all believe
We weren’t alone on Christmas Eve.



Sally Cook is both a poet and a painter residing in upstate New York. Her poems have also appeared in Blue Unicorn, First Things, Chronicles, The Formalist Portal, Light Quarterly, National Review, Pennsylvania Review, TRINACRIA, and other electronic and print journals. A six-time nominee for a Pushcart award, in 2007 Cook was featured poet in The Raintown Review. She has received several awards from the World Order of Narrative and Formalist Poets, and her Best American Poetry Challenge-winning poem “As the Underworld Turns” was published in Pool.  

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27 Responses

  1. Yael

    Nice! This reminds me of some of the classic German fairy tales which were based on the culture of the integrative agriculture barnyard economy, and which anthropomorphized all the critters so that everyone could be a character actor in the story. I love how you weave the nitty-gritty details of the daily barnyard grind around the theme of Christmas and a mother’s love, judgment and care as the glue which holds the entire economy together. The sentence structure serves to illustrate and emphasize the unpredictable and sometimes mischievous rough and tumble nature of farm animals’ interactions when they are stabled in close quarters. Thanks for this enjoyable read which put a smile on my face.

    • Sally Cook

      Dear Yael —
      Your reference to German fairy tales interests me as my mother’s stepmother was Mrs. Weimer, who came to this country at the turn of the last century.
      My grandfather had three families. The first and second were 20 years apart and my mother was of the second. When my grandfather realized it was not a good idea to have a small child hanging around a hotel dining room to have breakfast with her father, he sent her east to pick up civilized habits.
      Some of it stuck, but some did not.
      However, Mrs. Weimer had taught her a host of Germanic things and she passed them on to me. Folk tales, medicines and recipes — wonderful useful stuff.
      This poem grew out of this, and I am happy you enjoyed it.

  2. Margaret Coats

    Sally, your mother, mistress of home and barn, centers your poem. According to her, animals are naughty during the year, but nice at Christmas. When they socialize, surely they would talk about her, their just and wise and loving steward.

    I heard from my mother that animals receive the power of speech at midnight on Christmas. She, as an adolescent, slipped out of the house to witness their conversation, but heard nothing beyond a few normal animal sounds. Instead, she saw them all kneeling in honor of Christ’s birth, which made a great impression on her. Much later, I discovered that animals do talk at midnight on Christmas, but they speak Latin. While teaching Latin, I made up a first-semester final exam reading passage, to explain how animal sounds, as Latin words, tell the Christmas story. This was one exam students loved–and took home to translate to their families.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours, both human and animal!

  3. Sally Cook

    Dear Margaret —
    I do believe that even animals of limited intelligence communicate verbally. Have I any scientific proof? No, but the misuse of the word “science” of late puts my mind into other pathways. I had always thought animals had their own languages – for instance, cats can learn to bark, if they choose. I had a “throw away” cat someone dumped in strange territory who was saved from certain death by a woman when he dragged himself to her one winter day.
    An animal rescue group brought him back to health, but no one talked to him.

    The first night at my place, he leapt up on me and croaked out a thank you.
    Nothing musical about him! But as he saw that people would speak to him, he began to reciprocate, and when he died he had amassed quite a vocabulary and was beginning to bark. Barking as a second language !

    A few days after he died I kept hearing sounds from the back of the house, as if a child was bouncing a basket ball against it Convinced it was some neighborhood kiid, I thought I would sneak up on him, get a good look, and speak to his parents the next day .

    Did so, but there was nothing there. And then I heard it – the short, sharp bark of my cat, who had come back to say goodbye ! I love your mother. She, mine, and so many others are what mothers used to be. Will they ever be again ?


  4. Jeff Eardley

    Sally, what a wonderful image of a snow covered farm, animals socialising and chickens getting their come-uppance. We are basking in sunshine in England but thinking of you guys at the moment with the horrendous weather that we are reading about. Best wishes for you and yours at this special time.

    • Sally Cook

      Dear Jeff –

      As I see you do not particularly enjoy chickens, I must confess they are not my favorite animal. I have killed one of them in my life because I was told to do so; it did not even have the decency to lie down and die, but ran about in a most disgraceful manner, half scaring me to death.

      You and your sunshine! Here you are, basking, and we are stuck with the Sussex bunch, who are pretty scary, too. I say this from a place with 20 foot waves, a driving ban, 70 mph winds and sub zero temps. Thanks, Jeff for your Christmas wishes — they will warm us. Or can’t I say this any more?

      • C.B. Anderson

        Whence the expression, “Running around like chickens with their heads cut off.” Chickens are surprisingly durable animals (unless accosted by a hawk or a fox et al.), but, as you intimate, there is little that is admirable about them. The poem was wonderful and chock-full of mythic notions.

  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Dear Sally, you manage to offer us a slice of the savageries of day-to-day farm life with rich language, vivid images, and wit… and then you sprinkle it with the magic of your mother’s warmth and wonder and bathe the animals in Christmas starlight, lifting them from the page to shine as bright as Rudolph’s nose. I love this poem for its harsh reality, its air of mystery, and its beauty. A very Merry Christmas to you!

    • Sally Cook

      Susan, I know you mean every word of your Christmas message to me, and it means the world. We have two rooms with small heaters in them; each of us has taken one. We are determined to survive ! Please do the same, dear friend.

    • Sally Cook

      Susan, might I just sneak in here to say to C.B., dear Kip, I wish you a very Merry Christmas, filled with goodies – both luscious and liquid !

      • C.B. Anderson

        Your wish came true. My son-in-law made butter-poached lobster and a nice fish stew. And he gave me a bottle of Aultmore and another bottle of Talisker.

      • Sally Cook

        Dear Kip –
        The Christmas gitts I wished for you were so wonderfully exotic I can neither spell nor pronounce them ! bHowever, I am glad my wish came true.

  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    Sally, you have always had a semi-mystical relationship with animals, just as you have very pronounced synesthetic perceptive abilities. All God’s blessings on you and Bob for Christmas!

    • Sally Cook

      Yes, Joe, I do have a connection with animals; often exchange thoughts with them. There was an animal hoarder where we lived in Buffalo. She had so many of them in her small house that there was no longer a place for her to sleep, but as it was still summer, she continued to take them in, and slept on the porch!
      As I walkied by, I would often see her on the porch holding a kitten with a badly infected eye. That kitten begged me to help it. Working with another neighbor, and the woman’s embarrassed daughter, we got the animals to the SPCA. I said I’d take the kitten. Took it to a vet where it was given medicine, then to the neighbor’s house where I shampooed it; then home where it spent most of its time outside. He looked like a weasel; we named him Quigley. In a month or two, you would not have known it. That cat had two or three years of good living but then developed some fatal disease and we had to put him down.

      One evening while watching TV I saw something coming down the hall. It was the ghost of Quigley! I said to Bob “Here comes Quigley’s ghost! ” He wouldn’t look because he doesn’t want to believe such things exist. As soon as I spoke, the image disappeared, but I was filled with the most incredible feeling of love and joy. So you are quite right. I don’t know why these things happen to me, but — they do.

  7. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Your consideration for animals with their communication and sensitivities is something to which I can relate as a farm boy once upon a time. I fed chickens, slopped hogs and milked cows among other things and felt I could talk to them and they would understand. Bless you and the animals still living on Christmas while I thank them for their selfless sacrifice for my dinner table.

    • Sally Cook

      Roy, I still think how my father kept a radio next to the cow’s stanchion so the cow could listen to all the early evening radio shows. Of course he did, too.
      He claimed it made them give more milk!

      • Roy Eugene Peterson

        I would believe that! My dad always talked to them while milking!

  8. John Creekmore

    A very nicely rhymed recreation of a time long past. It would be so nice if Christmas meant no animus between humans, too.

  9. Brian Yapko

    This is a delightful poem, Sally, with some salt and some sugar. I long ago heard the story that at midnight on Christmas Eve the animals talk, especially the oxen and horses who fall on their knees to honor Christ. I am especially amused that it is your mother that they talk about! Of course, she looms large in their lives and the fact that she taught humans and creatures alike learn that they weren’t alone is a lovely sentiment. Merry Christmas!

    • Sally Cook

      Dear Brian —
      I would guess that my mother thought every living creature was a child of God . This may have formed her attudes about animals. In some ways it was a simple business relationship, as she acceptrd the fact that we are higher, and we need food. That is why vegetarians view meat eaters as hypocrites.

      My mother viewed wild animals as a higher form of animal, only to be consumed under extreme duress. This was probably a view she had learned during her early time growing up with Indians. Must I say Native Americans because it would sound more “Woke”? She called them Indians; they probably referred to her as the child of a white devil == point is IT DIDN’T MATTER. She learned to honor the deer. I would see her out in a storm feeding them or setting up a salt lick; sometimes just standing silent, looking into the eyes of a doe.

      Baby wild things were referred to a local farmer who would put them in a safe place – shed, barn — with other babies being nursed by a nursing mother, sometimes from another species. I find that animals do tend to work together. Too bad we don’t always do the same.

  10. Paul Freeman

    The mood of a Brothers’ Grimm retelling permeates your poem, making it feel timeless.

    Thanks for the read, Sally.

  11. Sally Cook

    Dear Paul —
    You must have an extra set of perceptions in order to know that I read the Grimm’s Fairy tales ! Glad you enjoyed my tale of Christmas Eve.


    “The ancient, square coal stove.” Ah, yes, I can see it, even now. A true Christmas present. Thank you so much.

    • Sally Cook

      Jared , ours was dark brown enamel. Useful to warm slippers, and soapstones for cold bedclothes. The routine was, take about four sheets of newspaper, grab the stone, weap it as you ran through the unheated hall, up the stairs, into a huge icy bedroom, stuff the stone into the bottom of a bed, run to the bathroom and light a small open flame Reznor floor burner. After using the commode and brushing your teeth it was off with Reznor, to the bedroom and off with the Reznor there, as well.
      Into the bed ! In a few minutes the temperature was liveable. As you drowsed off you could hear the six locust trees rustling against the giant pine. Sometimes the house shook from the wind, nothing to be concerned about; the house was like a ship, bearing you over icy waves of air to a land of fantastic dreams.

      Thanks, Jared, for taking me on that journey once more.

  13. Russel Winick

    Lovely poem Sally, full of delightful images and, for me, a snippet of education as well. Thanks for this Christmas gift!

    • sally cook

      Oh, Russel I am more than happy to send a Christmas gift your way. I still think of that house and all the otherworldly things that happened there, and hope, if you have such a house in your past, that you will visit it tonight.


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