There was no room for them in the inn. A recent storm reminded us quickly of a Christmas when we needed shelter, and we found there was no room for us at the inn, or any inn. The biblical analogy ends here.
We had enjoyed a wondrous Christmas with our three granddaughters and family. Filled with seasonal joy, we bade farewell and got aboard our conveyance to begin a 50-mile trip to our own abode. Simultaneously it commenced to rain, and the rain, in reaching the cold highway pavement, became ice, which in these parts is slippery and slidey and no fun at all.
We had not gone far when we were aware of our serious mistake, but we had gone so far it would be as tedious to return as go o'er. We continued at a reduced and cautious pace, and the conditions got worse. Then we made a dismal discovery.
We passed roadside inns, known now as motels, and while they all had rooms, units, cottages with no parked automobiles in evidence, every one of them had a lighted sign out front with the unkind words, "NO VACANCY."
We tried. None had a night bell, none had a light burning for us, none had hospitality. All had vacancies.
We had advanced about 30 miles when we came to the Siesta Motel in the cultured town of Brunswick. There, a light was burning for us, the sign said "VACANCY," and before I descended to ask for shelter, a young lady opened the door for me and said "Bienvenu." In Brunswick, 8 out of every 7 people speak French. I willingly paid her, and more willingly we retired. We had come 30 miles under dangerous conditions entirely because no empty inn had room for us.
I've often considered how our Christmas images have changed from the actualities of Bethlehem in the days of Herod the King. Mary and Joseph had no string of motels, miles long and 50 rods apart, to turn them away. I'm an old hand at stables, and they didn't have our kind of stable there either. Did they keep milch cows and draft animals then? Was there a pig pen handy?
We're told the shepherds were abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. That's not the same as a fold under a roof, with the wooly animals warm in their huddle. Lambs don't usually come till several months after Christmas, and the shepherd must be there in the fold at lambing time, not on the hill. It doesn't get that cold in the Holy Land either, and a Christmas in our northern pasturage is another matter. Was the new baby really asleep on the hay? Did they make hay as we do?
The cattle, our Christmas song tells us, were lowing. A snug tie-up with cattle lined up at their stanchions is a peaceful, happy place. Tight against winter's severity, it is warm with animal heat and not at all a bad place to be, other things considered.
The song says the lowing waked the babe. I imagine not. Cattle don't low all that much. They gurgle and rumble some, from the rhythm of chewing their interminable cuds, and when a cow swallows there's a silence easily heard at a distance. Then Bossy brings up another cud and begins to chew again. The stable at Bethlehem, however it was in those times, was not the kind of stable I knew.
After evening chores, when I had my two pails of new milk, I made a last look about to be sure I hadn't neglected something. I blew out my lantern, hung it on its nail, picked up my pails, and, careful not to step on Cicero, the barn cat, I'd follow him to the house for the night. I must admit it was pleasant in the tie-up, and if anybody wanted to he could move the milking stool against the wall and lean back in relative comfort to be as glad as were the beasts.
In reverse, everything was all right, too. Come morning, I'd pick up the washed and empty milk pails, and perhaps wade in a foot of snow to the barn, Cicero close at heel and protesting. Cicero hated snow and went along only because he got his nappie of new milk and was highly paid.
INSIDE the barn, I now came to the door into our tie-up. It was cold out here, but the minute I opened the door I got the warmth of a Down-Maine stable, and until I lit the lantern all the cows were down and still keeping night watch. Tell me now, did you ever watch a cow stand up? How about a whole row of cows, all standing up together?
A cow gets up back-end foremost, and then brings her front legs up. It makes a comical sight, and when completed a cow stands in total wonderment that she has succeeded. But that passes, for she knows that morning is here, and the lighted lantern means her morning ration of dairy feed will be set before her at once.
Now, cows talk to themselves, confidentially and with low murmurs of gratitude for good care and a protective home. I have never known a happy cow to repine and find fault. Here, in gregarious and serene solitude they are content, and will not be expected to step out this cold day and wade about in the snow.
I'm sure we wouldn't find the old inn at Bethlehem to our liking today, but I'm also sure you won't find an old Down-Maine tie-up either. But you will, I assure to a-plenty, find many a motel along our Maine highways where units are empty but the sign out front says NO VACANCY. I say this without purpose, as a wise man no longer keeping cows or driving about.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society