Keeping Christmas

One of the Yeoman Farm Children’s favorite stories of all time is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. They’ve not only read it multiple times, but also watched nearly every movie version (and can explain the differences between those versions).

At the very end of the story, we find this wonderful passage:

[Scrooge] had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

A question that has been on my mind of late has been What does it mean to “keep Christmas well”? For our family, a big part of “keeping Chrstmas well” has meant appreciating that Christmas is a season rather than a single day — and remembering that that season does not begin until the evening of December 24th, and continues until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (January 10th this time).

We do everything possible to avoid Christmas music and celebrations during the four weeks of Advent, and I am grateful to Mrs Yeoman Farmer for insisting on this tradition. Although our trip to adopt Yeoman Farm Baby complicated things somewhat this year, we have a number of traditions to emphasize Advent as a time of joyful expectation that is different from Christmas. In addition to an Advent Calendar, we keep an Advent wreath on the dining room table. Each evening, when we sit down to eat, we light the candles and sing a stanzia from ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ before saying grace.

We don’t even buy our Christmas tree until a day or two before the big day. (Back in Illinois, I used to wait until December 24th and was always able to get a fairly decent tree for almost nothing, but here in Michigan many places totally sell out — and the remaining vendors don’t cut their prices below twenty bucks.) The last two years, I’ve taken a different kid with me in our 4×4 truck to get a freshly cut tree from a local farm; that in itself has become a wonderful custom of its own.

The tree sits in exile on the front porch until the evening of December 24th. Then, after dinner, we put Christmas music on the stereo, set the tree up in the living room, and decorate it. Now, and only now, has the Christmas season actually begun.

As we were driving someplace this Sunday, MYF and I observed that it was sad that so many people were already taking all their Christmas decorations down. Indeed, I made an interesting observation of my own: scanning the radio dial while driving around town on Saturday (the 26th), I didn’t pick up a single Christmas song. The closest I got was “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” which isn’t really about Christmas. What’s maddening is that this year the radio stations began playing Christmas music during the first week of November. I kid you not — I had to do a very long interstate drive that week, so was scanning the radio dial in many media markets, and it was astonishing how much Christmas music was already being played in so many places. While I’m on this soapbox, I should mention that one station in a nearby town has billboards up proclaiming itself “Jackson’s Christmas Music Station”. Just for fun, I tried listening to that station while driving around today. Want to guess how much Christmas music I heard on Jackson’s Christmas Music Station on this, just the Fifth Day of Christmas? Zero.

So, we’ll keep on keeping Christmas on our own, playing Christmas music at home and celebrating this wonderful season for another couple of weeks — even if the rest of the world has moved on (and is probably already stocking the store shelves for Valentine’s Day). We try to take things especially easy during these eight days that comprise the Octave of Christmas…though I do need to get a move on and butcher a goose this afternoon. That goose (or, rather, gander) is going to be the centerpiece of our New Year’s feast. Yes, it’s a bit Dickensian…but what do you expect, given the YFCs taste in literature?

I hope all of you, my readers, are keeping the season well — no matter what your faith. All of you are in our family’s prayers at this special time of the year.

Stranded

I’ve been stranded at the Baltimore-Washington airport for the last couple of days, due to this enormous winter blizzard. Flew out here Friday morning, and had meetings with clients all day and evening. I also took about 30-40 pounds of meat with me, as Christmas gifts for clients; it’s hard to describe how pleased folks were get a heritage turkey, or Icelandic lamb chops or leg roasts. Although we did sell meat to the public at one time, for now we’ve found that it makes more sense for us to give the meat away to friends, family, and clients as gifts; it’s something very special, very personal, and something that cannot be purchased in stores. We may eventually sell to the public again, but for now the “gift” approach seems best for us.

The plan was to fly home on Saturday morning, but 20 inches of snow begged to disagree. All three DC Metro airports were shut down pretty much all day, and I’d be surprised if more than a handful of planes got in or out of the region. There is a television monitor in the hotel lobby, showing flight arrival and departure information at BWI; every time I walked past it, every single flight was marked as “cancelled.”

I spent all of Saturday holed up in that hotel near the airport with hundreds of other stranded travelers, watching snow fall. And fall. And fall. Being the consummate introvert, I didn’t mind the opportunity to crawl into a “cave” with a detective novel and hibernate for a day. I wish I’d brought another change of clothes, and I wish I had my boots here with me, but I’m grateful that I reached my hotel late Friday night before the worst of the snow fell – and that I was able to extend my stay for an extra night. And while the food here is overpriced, and the restaurant is understaffed, everyone has remained cheerful. There seems to be a spirit of “we’re all in it together, and there’s nothing we can do to change things, so let’s make the best of this situation” with both the hotel guests and staff. For my part, I told the housekeeper that I didn’t need any service for my room (other than a few extra packets of coffee for my coffeemaker); I figured she had plenty to do already, given that much of the staff probably couldn’t have made it in to work.

The television had lots of footage of children playing joyfully in all this white stuff, and I’m sure the Yeoman Farm Children would’ve been doing the same if we lived here. They tell me we only got an inch or two back home, which is hardly enough to do anything with. I’m very grateful that Mrs Yeoman Farmer, and the YFCs, have been such good sports about my being stuck here; they’ve had to pick up the slack with caring for the animals, cooking, and mixing up formula for Yeoman Farm Baby. Southwest Airlines put me on a flight out of here this afternoon, and it’s showing “on time” status so far. Given that the sun is shining brightly, and the snow has completely stopped falling, I’m optimistic about getting home tonight.

The local TV station also had a continuous scroll of business and school closures. One thing that was interesting: the number of individual Protestant churches that were announcing the cancellation of all Sunday services. There were only a couple of individual Catholic churches that announced cancellations, and those seemed to be just for Saturday evening Masses, but the TV scroll did include an important general announcement: The Archdiocese is reminding Catholics that church law excuses them from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass if it’s unsafe to travel because of the weather.

Note, however, that most Masses in the area will not actually be cancelled. You can bet that attendance will be way down, but the priests will be there and will be offering the Holy Sacrifice. As I thought about it, I realized one obvious reason: most Catholic priests live on the same property where their church building is located. Most Protestant ministers do not. I still remember an amusing incident from the early 1990s, when a similar blizzard hit Michigan; I called a local Catholic church, which was staffed by a community of Franciscans, and an older friar answered the phone. I asked if they were still going to have Mass, and he gave a hearty laugh. Then, in a wonderful southern drawl he replied, “We sure are. You see, we’re all in here. The question is: can you get here?” I laughed with him, because the answer was such an obvious No.

But as I thought more about it, I realized that there was an even more important reason why Mass will still be offered in most places today: because, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how many people are in attendance. Yes, it is important for us to attend Mass when we are physically able, but it isn’t necessary to have a congregation present for the Mass to “do its thing.” In Protestant services, by contrast, the focus is largely on the congregation and the fellowship of the community; if only a couple members of your congregation will be able to come, it doesn’t make much sense to have a service. But the Catholic Mass is totally different: it is a true sacrifice, and as such provides countless graces for the whole church, completely separate from the merits of the celebrant or the size of the congregation. When we cannot be physically present at Mass, we can unite ourselves spiritually with it and join in those graces.

A chapter in St Josemaria Escriva’s book, Christ is Passing By, has an excellent discussion of the Eucharist, which develops these thoughts in more depth. This particular morning, when the twenty inches of snow outside meant there was no way I would be able to attend Mass myself, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about one particular paragraph from that homily of St Josemaria (in point 89, of the chapter linked to above):

Through the communion of the saints, all Christians receive grace from every Mass that is celebrated, regardless of whether there is an attendance of thousands of persons, or whether it is only a boy with his mind on other things who is there to serve. In either case, heaven and earth join with the angels of the Lord to sing: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus…

If you are among those who can’t physically attend Mass today, I hope these considerations from St Josemaria are as spiritually fruitful as they have been for me. As a nun from the parish I grew up in used to say, on days when she had to lead a communion service because there was no priest available to celebrate Mass, “put yourself on a patten,” spiritually uniting yourself to a Mass that is being celebrated right now, somewhere else in the world.

A Different Kind of Adoption

This may seem like an odd move, but bear with me. I’d like to merge two recent streams of posts: our adoption of Yeoman Farm Baby, and the natural hatching/brooding of baby birds on the farm.

I’ve enjoyed the comments and input from various readers, who have asked about and shared their experiences with allowing various types of birds to hatch and brood their own young. Whether you’re doing this for the educational experience, the economics, to fly under the radar of NAIS, or purely for the entertainment value…hatching your own baby birds is a wonderful experience and I highly recommend it. But the unfortunate reality is that many good egg layers don’t make good nest setters. And many good nest setters don’t make good mothers. With broodiness and mothering instincts having been so aggressively culled by commercial hatcheries, it’s remarkable to find a bird that can both hatch and successfully mother her own young.

One answer that we’ve found to this problem: adoption! Unlike larger mammals, mother birds are not terribly particular about which babies are “theirs.” A good mother hen will look after and brood any chicks she can get her wings around. We saw this happen frequently in Illinois, when on occasion we had multiple brood hens in the barn at the same time. It was actually fairly amusing to watch as days passed, and the brood of the less interested hen gradually shrank while the brood of the more aggressive/interested hen gradually increased. I still remember one hen that ended up with something like eighteen chicks streaming across the yard with her (which was actually too many — even she couldn’t keep track of that many chicks, and they kept getting lost. And I kept venturing out to help, because there’s nothing quite as forlorn as the peeping of a stray chick stranded in the tall grass).

We’ve observed something similar with ducklings. We’ve had several ducks of various breeds successfully hatch a nest of eggs, with even greater variability in mothering ability. The Muscovies have been by far the best setters and mothers, with Cayugas a close second. The Khaki Campbells are not bad at setting, but we have yet to see one successfully mother her hatchlings. Every Khaki that has ventured off the nest with a brood has quickly lost every single duckling. Khakis don’t look back to see if the ducklings are keeping up, and they don’t respond to distress calls from little ones who have fallen behind. We got to the point where we would immediately remove any ducklings a Khaki hatched, and either give them to a mother Cayuga (assuming we had one with new ducklings) or brood them ourselves under a heat lamp.

BTW, I don’t say any of this to diss Khakis or Muscovies: they have their place, and Khakis are extremely good egg producers. We had a lot of Khakis when we were producing duck eggs commercially in Illinois, and at one time had a good flock of Muscovies. But we’ve chosen Cayugas as our primary homestead duck because their egg production is respectable, they are good natural setters/mothers, and they get to a nice eating size. We ultimately decided against Muscovies in part because the females are too small to make much of a meal, but also because Mrs Yeoman Farmer thinks those “caruncles” the males have on their faces/heads are disgusting to look at (not to mention the bizarre social behavior that Muscovies engage in when they’re together in groups. I still keep a few Muscovies, just for fun (and where MYF doesn’t have to look at them), but they’re now too old to good for much of anything.

We’ve never had very good luck getting a non-broody hen or duck to accept and mother baby birds — but geese are different. Earlier this year, we bought several goslings from a hatchery and brooded them under heat lamps for some time. Then, when we turned the goslings loose in the pasture, something amazing happened: our two older Gray Toulouse geese swooped in and adopted all eight of them. They proved to be excellent mothers, and took great care of the brood all summer. They were extremely protective, and dutifully led their charges to fresh grass and water (and stood guard attentively as the goslings grazed). The lesson we took from that incident: next year, we will put the goslings in with the mature geese much sooner. Perhaps not as brand new hatchings, but hopefully after significantly less time under the electric heat lamps. I may also try giving the geese a few ducklings at the same time, to see how that works out.

Because adoption need not be limited to the same species! We’ve had real life “ugly ducklings” hatched on our farm; one of the hens laid an egg in a duck nest when the duck was taking a quick break. Chicken eggs have a shorter incubation period than duck eggs, and the chick ended up emerging along with the ducklings. He/she managed to keep up with the web-footed siblings for several days, but the problem was when Mother Duck took her little charges through puddles. We eventually had to remove the chick for that reason, but it probably would’ve worked out alright had the mother been a hen and the adopted bird been a duckling. And I bet a goose would be an even better mother to a duckling than a hen would be.

A final thought, for those of you interested in hatching your own eggs: try to find a broody bird to do it for you. We’ve never had much luck with the commercially-available incubators. We did get some chicken eggs to hatch in them, but usually the temperature ended up a little too high or a little too low (or both, when the air didn’t circulate properly). But we never got turkey eggs, duck eggs, or goose eggs to hatch; waterfowl eggs have special humidity requirements (picture a mother duck sitting back down on the nest after taking a quick swim), and humidity is difficult to adjust in most of the more affordable incubators. We decided a long time ago to give up on incubators altogether, and either purchase baby birds or let a broody hen/duck hatch them for us.

Breaking a Broody

A reader poses a good question in the Comments section for one of the posts about our broody hen:

We’ve got a broody hen and I don’t know what to do with her! My neighbor has told me I need either a bucket or a trap to get the hen ‘off the cluck’.

It is indeed hard to break a hen of her broodiness. Once she’s in full brood mode, she’s already stopped laying eggs. If you can catch her on the first day, she should start laying again in seven days. But if you don’t catch her and break her until the fourth day, it’ll be another 18 days or so before she begins laying again. We basically let our hen brood this time because (1) we had enough other hens to keep laying; (2) we had a bunch of fertile eggs we didn’t need to eat; and (3) it’s too much work to break a hen of broodiness — and we’ve never had much luck doing it.

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens lists several tips for breaking up a broody hen (p. 181):
  • Don’t let eggs accumulate in the nest
  • Repeatedly remove the hen from her nest
  • Move or cover the nest so she can’t get in
  • Move the hen to different housing
  • Put the hen in a “broody coop,” which is a hanging cage with a wire or slat floor, for a few days.

How hard you work to break a broody hen will depend in part on why you’re raising chickens in the first place. If your egg production is tight, and you’re interested in nothing but eggs, and you have just a few hens, you’ll want to do everything you can to break her. You may even want to cull a persistent broody hen, if broodiness is a trait you do not want in your flock.

But for us, in our situation, raising chickens has always been about more than maximizing egg production. We’ve fortunately always had enough “extra” hens, and have always had roosters running with them, so we can allow broody hens to remain broody. Broodiness is a trait that we actually appreciate, and it gives us another “teachable moment” in homeschooling our children. The kids are learning that chicks don’t come merely from a hatchery; nature has a beautiful and mysterious way of ensuring that the cycle of life continues itself without our mechanical intervention. Also, there are few things as fun or entertaining as watching a hen escort a brood of chicks around the barnyard, keeping them close and showing them what is good to eat.
We’ve also wondered if there may come a time when it’s difficult to obtain chicks from a hatchery, or when hatchery chicks become prohibitively expensive. For that reason, we’ve wanted to have some heritage breeds of chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese that will be capable of “getting the job done” without our help, and ensuring that we will always have some home-produced supply of meat and eggs. The birds haven’t always been successful in brooding and raising their own young. We’re just glad that, in a pinch, we have some brood-capable birds we can work with.

Alias

Yesterday, we received a bill for the medical services which Yeoman Farm Baby received as a newborn in the hospital. As his adoptive parents, we knew we would be responsible for those expenses; fortunately, the total was less than what we’d been bracing ourselves for.

Reading the “patient data” section of the bill, I remarked with amusement that YFB’s original name — given him as a placeholder by the birth mother — was the one used on the bill. Let’s call him “Miller, Ronald J.” for the moment (although that name is a total invention). I commented that it will be nice when the baby is no longer known anywhere as Ronald J. Miller, but only by the name that we have given him.

Mrs Yeoman Farmer then pointed out that the baby, in various documents, is already known by a great many different names:

  • Ronald J. Miller
  • Baby Boy Miller
  • [The names we have given him] [Our last name]
  • Baby Boy [Our last name]
  • Yeoman Farm Baby

To which I remarked, “The kid has so many aliases, you’d think he was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.”

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer simply lifted the baby so she could make eye contact, smiled, and — addressing him — said, “Yes! You are without a doubt the most wanted baby in the whole world. Aren’t you?”

Yes, indeed. But readers of this blog already knew that.

Boots

We had a nasty winter storm move in last night. There wasn’t much snow, but the temperatures dropped from the upper thirties yesterday afternoon down to about 10F overnight, with winds approaching gale-force speeds. The snow we did get has been blowing and drifting everywhere, and the roads have a good coating of ice on them. Getting into the upper thirties yesterday seems to have melted the snow we got over the weekend…and going into the teens last night turned that stuff into ice. Especially with the winds and the whipping/blowing snow, I’m not venturing off the property today. I’m just glad I brought plenty of firewood in yesterday, ahead of the storm; the wind has now deposited a fairly substantial snowdrift in front of the wood pile.

Unfortunately, when you have livestock, it’s still necessary to venture out to the barn a few times a day no matter what the weather. (But the Yeoman Farm Children are happy that the goats are not in milk right now.)We’re keeping the barn doors closed tightly, and the animals have generated enough body heat to keep their downstairs area in the mid-thirties. The big bonus of that: their water has remained liquid.

But, milk or no milk, I’ve had to go out to the barn. And it’s impossible to express how thankful I was this morning for having made a certain investment: good boots. When we first moved to the country, my temptation was to cut corners and buy cheap rubber boots from Wal Mart. We quickly discovered, however, that cheap boots are no bargain. When you wear boots every time you go outside, those boots take a lot of abuse. Cheap rubber boots literally fall apart after just a couple of months of getting that kind of use. And even before they become completely unusable, they leak moisture; there are few things as uncomfortable as wet socks on a ten degree morning in Michigan.

The solution we settled on long ago: invest in a good set of high quality boots. Yes, they cost substantially more at first — but they easily pay for themselves because they last so much longer. My favorites are made by a company called Muck, and they’re available for sale at most feed stores (the company’s website has a dealer locater that will help you find a place nearby). There are places that sell Muck Boots online with free shipping, but their prices don’t seem much better (if at all) than the local feed store. I’ve never bought these things online. Besides wanting to support a local small business, I also like being able to try the boots on and make sure they fit comfortably. They are a big investment, and I’d be miserable for the next year if they were a little too tight or a little too loose.
Muck makes several models of boots, depending on the application, but all of them are very solidly made and with care should last a full year on the farm. We usually get the Chore model, in either mid-calf or “high” height. The taller ones are heavier, and can make your legs feel tired more quickly after a long day of walking around, but on a cold day with blowing/drifiting snow they are sure nice to have.
When you’re thinking about moving to the country, boots probably aren’t high on your list of things to acquire. They certainly weren’t on our radar. But good boots should be among the very first investments you make. And in our experience, it’s hard to go wrong with anything from Muck.

Best Mother Hen

The decision to allow the broody hen to incubate some chicks, despite the impending cold weather, is turning out to be a very good one; thanks again to all who wrote with encouragement to allow her to do so. The most recent post I published about Henny Penny and her chicks was based on information from the neighbor who was watching our farm while we were out of town for Yeoman Farm Baby’s adoption. (I got the hen set up in her new nest before the adoption trip, but the chicks didn’t start hatching until we were gone.) It turns out, she managed to hatch six of the seventeen eggs she was sitting on — which is not bad at all, given the terrible weather (and the fact that other hens laid five additional eggs on top of her original twelve, which made it more difficult for her to incubate them and led to different hatching dates for the various eggs).

The six chicks are doing very well, and have already grown to be noticeably larger than newly-hatched chicks usually look. (Which makes sense, because they began hatching two weeks ago.) The chicken tractor has proven extremely effective in keeping the new little chicken family together, ensuring that food and water are always close by, and protecting the chicks from being trampled or scattered by other animals. Thanks again to Rachael for reminding me of the value of using a chicken tractor to enclose a brood hen.

Just how good of a mother is Henny Penny? The temperature got down to 15F both Friday night and Saturday night, and to 23F last night — normally a death sentence for featherless baby birds. But when I came out to check on them each morning, all six chicks were peeping happily. Henny Penny had ensured that all six spent each night in the shelter of her warm body, providing the featherly protection that they are still trying to grow for themselves. The only thing I needed to get for them each morning was fresh water; their waterer was naturally frozen solid.

A mother hen is fascinating to watch, and can entertain us for hours with the way she clucks at her little charges, puffs herself out, and hovers near her brood. It’s especially fun to go out to the barn late at night, when all is quiet and dark, and just spend a moment listening to the deep, reassuring clucking noises she makes to the little ones that are nestled beneath her. And to remember the passage from the gospel about Christ wanting to gather the children of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings — and to allow myself to be gathered in that way, and to trust that His own protection and providence are infinitely more effective than that of any hen on any farm on earth.