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Dairy barn devotional gives life to the Christmas story

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 07 December 2010


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Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus

Laid down His sweet head

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The stars in the bright sky
Looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay

The cattle are lowing
The poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes …

Christians around the world will sing those phrases this Christmas season. Many will do so standing together in their house of worship. As they close their eyes, images of a nativity scene will take them to this moment. The congregation of Portage Presbyterian needs only to look around to see a manger, the stars in the bright sky, and the cattle that are lowing.

For the past seven or eight years, members of the Portage Presbyterian Church have gathered at a nearby farm for Christmas worship. This year will be the third year on the Heinze family farm in Portage, Wisconsin.

“It’s an opportunity to get back to the basics of the Christmas story,” Pastor Dave Hankins says. “Too many people get distracted by the glitz that surrounds the holiday. This reminds us of how simple the story is and yet how powerful it is too.”

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By having the service at the farm, the congregation can feel the straw of the bales they are sitting on, see the cows, smell the barn’s aroma, and listen to the animals as they meander about.

“They can experience the Christmas story rather than just hearing it,” Hankins says.

This memorable moment has staying power, so while they may not come back to the farm again, when they read the story in the Gospel the next year, they have some context to it.

Hankins led a similar service at his previous congregation. When he introduced the idea, the people at Portage Presbyterian were a little reluctant at first, he recalls. Now many members come to look forward to it.

About 40 to 45 people attend the service, with a few new faces joining the group each year. They range in ages from infant to 90 years old.

The service began with just a cradle scene, but in the past few years they’ve also added a couple dressed as Mary and Joseph. “They don’t say anything,” Hankins says. “It’s almost as if we are intruding on them, like silent witnesses.”

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“We try to keep it as simple as possible,” he adds. There are some Old Testament readings and, of course, the Gospel readings from Luke and Matthew. There is time for prayer and a number of hymns are sung, but they are all done a cappella.

Hankins’ favorite part is watching the newest members of the group. “Some kids are seldom on a farm,” he says. “When they first see a cow up close, you can see the wonder in their eyes. As the years go on and they hear references to the cattle lowing, they will now know what that is.”

Some first-time participants have commented to Hankins that it wasn’t what they had expected. Since he doesn’t know what their expectations were, he’s not quite sure how to take it. Others say it is the highlight of their Christmastime and it is one of the more powerful, moving and meaningful services they’ve attended.

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One member, Mary Heinze, decided to capture the service in a work of art. In fact, she did several watercolor paintings of the service (one of which is on the cover of this issue). Mary and her husband, Tom, are the hosts of the event. They are the fifth generation on the farm that has been in the family since 1872. Their son Mark and his wife, Beth, are the sixth generation on the farm.

Worshippers gather together in the dairy’s dry cow barn. The only heat generated is by the people and the animals, and any Sunday best is covered with thick coats, hats, scarves and mittens. Afterwards, the Heinzes invite the crowd into their home for hot cider and Christmas treats.

A steady hum can be heard from the milking parlor next door. Cows at the dairy are milked three times a day for five hours at a time. When Tom and Mary started farming in 1980, they had 35 Guernseys. Now the dairy has 325 cows.

Mary’s role on the dairy has cut back some from the full-time partnership she had with her husband. She no longer milks, but now focuses on feeding newborn calves, accounting, payroll and calf records. This frees her time to babysit her grandchildren and do some painting.

Painting with watercolors is a hobby she started doing seriously 12 years ago with $25 spent on a pad of paper and paints. Her subjects started with what she surrounds herself with – family and cows – but have spread to encompass pictures of houses, dogs and horses to memorial pieces of soldiers that passed away in the Iraq war. Some of her more notable work was a cow she painted for someone in Finland, a picture for Roger Ripley when he retired, and the CowParade cow when the event came to Wisconsin in 2006. Her work, including paintings of this special Christmas service, has been on display in the Coliseum at World Dairy Expo for the past six years.

The Christmas service on the Heinze farm is held the third week in December. This year’s service will be on Sunday, Dec. 19, at 5:30 p.m. For more information, contact Portage Presbyterian at or (608) 742-6006. PD

PHOTOS :
TOP RIGHT: Dairywoman/artist Mary Heinze’s watercolor painting of the Christmas Nativity service held in her dairy barn in Wisconsin each year. The painting is one of three she has completed that depicts the event.
TOP LEFT: Dairywoman/artist Mary Heinze stands by the watercolor painting that debuts on the cover of Issue 18 of Progressive Dairyman magazine. Photos by Karen Lee.

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