December 2016
On the Edge of Common Sense

Cows in the Manger

Have you given any thought to whether there were any cows in the barn on Christmas Eve that night many years ago? All Luke says is there was a manger. It doesn’t take much Bible reading to inform us that cows have been domesticated for centuries. Why, Adam even named ‘em! They’re mentioned throughout the Old Testament.

But, this was a manger in a barn behind an inn … a motel, I would guess. I couldn’t speculate if they had a restaurant in-house, but surely they would have offered a Continental breakfast … scrambled eggs, a loaf of bread, some dates and honey, and, of course, fresh milk! Butter would be on the table and cream for their coffee substitute. Grape juice would have been out of season and Ethiopians hadn’t invented coffee yet, just frankincense and myrrh.

So it stands to reason they kept a cow in the barn, kind of a Jersey-Corriente cross that didn’t eat much and had a calf every year they could sacrifice or BBQ, plus some chickens and goats.

So, what difference does it make if a cow was in the barn when Jesus was born? Well, to me, it represents a connection between them and those of us who also keep livestock. We can immediately picture the stable as it’s often portrayed. It had several pens, an alley running lengthwise, hay storage at one end, maybe a lockable grain room with tools, a halter, hog snare (for gentile guests), sheep hook, some calving straps, a cat, a length of rope and a pack for the burro – whatever ya need to keep domestic beasts.

We also know what it smelled like: animals, hay and straw, lamp oil, pigeon droppings. ... It would be warm. The more animals, the greater the body heat. It could have been cozy if the doors closed tight. We can picture the feeder, the trough Mary laid baby Jesus in. It wouldn’t have looked like a nest as the Nativity scenes depict. It would have been deeper and longer. Able to hold an evening’s ration for ol’ bossy. Made of wood, with the boards’ edges worn smooth from years of cows rubbing. They probably took the manger out of the cow’s pen and just threw her some hay over the fence.

It would be nice to think the innkeeper or his wife would have shown Joe and Mary to the barn. Lit the lamp, maybe found them an empty stall out of the wind, forked in some straw. The bare minimum. But still, how could they leave a woman in labor out in the barn? I don’t get it. I have to accept it all as God’s plan. Jesus was born of regular, decent working-class people. He grew up with them, learned a trade. If it were proper to say, He had a normal life for a while. God did it that way for a reason. So we could relate to Jesus better. That’s why the cow was there, so we farmers and animal lovers would feel a part of it.

For Mary’s sake, it’s too bad Joe didn’t stop on the road a bit earlier that night, like at a farmhouse. He might have received a kinder welcome. If they were my kinfolks, they’d have fed ‘em supper, found ‘em a place to sleep inside and probably mid-wifed Mary! But they didn’t stop. Joe was in a hurry to get to Bethlehem, and you know how men are.


Baxter Black is a former large animal veterinarian who can be followed nationwide through this column, National Public Radio, public appearances, television, and also through his books, cds, videos and website,