‘Christmas in the barn’ tradition carries on at Portage Presbyterian Church

December 26, 2018

When Sunday school children act out the story of Jesus Christ’s birth, the scene usually includes representations of farm animals, or occasionally, actual live cattle, sheep and donkeys.

But nowhere -- not even in the Nativity stories in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke -- is there any mention of cats.

Nevertheless, the Rev. David Hankins, pastor of Portage Presbyterian Church, said he was disappointed Sunday night because the usual clowder of barn cats was not perched on straw bales or running between the legs of about 50 worshipers gathered in the Heinze family dairy barn for the traditional Christmas in the Barn.

That didn’t stop Hankins from sharing the legend of the tan striped cat that quieted a fussy day-old baby Jesus.

When an exhausted Mary despaired of getting any rest, the cat crawled into the manger and purred the baby to sleep.

“Experiencing things in simple places -- that’s what this night is all about,” Hankins said.

In Christian churches with a liturgical tradition, the celebration of Christ’s birth doesn’t end on Christmas Day, but continues 12 days through the Epiphany on Jan. 6.

For people in Portage Presbyterian Church, part of that celebration has taken place for many years in the barn in the town of Lewiston, where Tom, Mary and Mark Heinze keep about 30 pregnant Holstein cows, one red Holstein steer and three calves -- one of them a bull calf born Sunday morning, that struggled to its feet while the congregation sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The newborn calf “probably weighed 100 pounds to start,” Mary Heinze said.

Mark Heinze, son of Mary and Tom, said he anticipated spending the next several mornings -- possibly Christmas morning, too -- in the barn attending to the births of more calves.

“In our family, we get the chores done first, then we have Christmas,” he said.

It was standing room only Sunday night. Some worshipers felt the tickle of a cold, wet cow’s nose as they stood near the pens.

Tom Heinze called the congregation to worship by ringing sleigh bells that have been in his family for generations. At times, he said, it was possible to tell, just from the rhythm and loudness of the sleigh bells, which neighbor or friend was approaching the farm.

Fred and Judy Taylor, dressed as Mary and Joseph, gathered around a manger filled with straw and corn stover, with three Holstein calves in the background.

The service concluded with a litany calling for people to find the true meaning of Christmas not in “wandering from store to store” or “the frenzy of the crowds,” but rather in ordinary, simple experiences like spending time around farm animals.

That’s why Hankins invited the congregation to take with them a handful of the straw and stover from the barn floor -- as a reminder of a baby born in a barn.

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