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The Milk House: In a crowded parlor

Ryan Dennis Published on 19 November 2012

When I was young, having to milk Christmas morning was – I was sure then – the purest form of torture. Every Christmas song, every frosted cookie, every time “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Charlie Brown Christmas” aired on the television set was part of the countdown to getting to the presents under the tree.

I worried less about the fact that Santa Claus had the same wrapping paper and handwriting as my mother than if I got a magic set or Lite Brites or whatever nerdy thing I must have wanted back then. After a month since Thanksgiving, having to wait four more hours – much less do work beforehand – was an injustice I was sure no one else could understand.

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I’m older now, and I have to admit that hearing Christmas songs since November wears me down. I decided that “Holly Jolly Christmas” is one of my favorites, and I’m glad the first few times I hear it, but I only have so many “Christmas Shoes,” “Redneck Christmases” and “Jingle Bells” in me. I also tire of the clichés.

Although I agree with them and can appreciate their universality, by the time the day nears I cringe at hearing that Christmas is all about family, a time for giving and a chance to reconcile differences to come together.

I was told that when I have children I will go through an emotional rebirth of sorts, and all these truths will seem fresh and inspirational again. Until then, this is me throwing my hands up: I get it.

In addition to a more contained enthusiasm about Christmas (Scrooge-iness?), I’ve also developed an appreciation for parts of the day the younger me wanted to rush through. I am now sure that there is no moment that a Christmas tree looks more beautiful then when its lights are first turned on in the quiet, dark hours of the morning.

I sometimes take small delight if our boots make the first prints in a new snow under the dusk-to-dawn light that casts a pink glow on the ground. I also now wonder if the time spent in the parlor isn’t just as enjoyable as the gift-giving itself. My sister moved down south while I spent most of the year overseas. We both descend on the homestead at once, digging our boots out of the cellar and throwing on a pair of barn jeans.

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The family has expanded the last few years with the addition of her husband, Brad, and their basset hound, Dewey. Brad only grew up with beef cattle, but we resolved not to hold it against him.

He has learned well how to handle a dipper and take a milker off, and so that makes six of us (Dewey included) trying to squeeze past each other in the pit, laughing and catching up on the last few months. In such moments I start to wonder if a parlor crowded with people of the same sense of humor isn’t a Christmas miracle itself.

I must be just as nerdy as I was back then – because now I always ask for books. My mother puts in a ferocious effort on Black Friday and the weeks that follow to make sure the living room is crowded with gifts on Christmas Day. She makes us guess what each one is before we’re allowed to open it as a way to slow the frenzy of flying wrapping paper that undoes all her work.

The first few attempts are always sincere – a DVD, a new hat, a belt – and then eventually slip into the absurd – a car, a sandwich, student loan forgiveness – before we’re barely mumbling anything audible as our fingers slip under the tape.

I also realize this is another sign of getting older: I no longer groan at a pair of wool socks. My seasonal amnesia that makes a young man forget just how cold winters in New York can be has progressively improved. Warm socks, I now recognize, have their place.

When it’s all said and done, the only one in the house that’s worse for wear by the end of the day is the tree, which has likely already started to brown from dehydration since my parents’ Great Danes drink from its base and tend to fell it with their enthusiastic tails as they walk by.

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Still, it will stay up well past the holiday itself and, when it is finally dragged out of the door, it will leave behind a heavy trail of needles, perhaps representing all of our reluctance to see the season be over. The next milking after Christmas might not have the same fanfare or be as laden with anticipation, but now I can recognize that it will still have the same things that made the magic in the first place – the family – and that might be another gift yet. PD

Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family still dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorn s.

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