Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
Hardy’s attitude to Christmas is interestingly ambivalent. Unusually for someone of his era, he was decidedly agnostic about religion, and most of his poems that touch on the subject reflect that. This is no exception, and The Oxen goes to the heart of what Hardy considered the myths of Christmas that are unquestioningly accepted by children. The first stanza tells of the myths being handed down by the elders, and the second recounts how, as a child “Nor did it occur to one of us there to doubt” what they were told. But, of course, Hardy doesn’t believe in the old folk tradition that cattle kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve in honour of Christ’s birth, and the start of the third stanza expresses his opinion that few would be willing to weave such a “fancy” now. And yet, the power of the myth is strong enough that, invited to believe it again, he would still hope – even against hope – that it might be true after all. This isn’t merely a wish for the Christmas story to be true, but a hankering after the certainties and simplicities of childhood when myths didn’t need to be challenged.