Christmas starts with C-H. So does the word “chores,” and, as any farmer or rancher can tell you, the two terms go together. There is no day off if there are animals to tend. Learning that lesson 33 years ago was one of the most unusual of the many I have learned since becoming the city-girl wife of a rancher, but it certainly wasn’t the last.
Planning my first-ever Christmas Eve dinner party was easy. The guest list couldn’t exceed six friends because I only had eight place settings of crystal, silver and china. (Nowadays I just stack another set of dishes under the best ones and figure people should just be grateful they have a plate and food to put on it, because nothing we do is for only eight people any more.)
The house was decorated and polished to a high sheen. The dining table sparkled with never-before-used wedding presents. The Christmas tree took up a huge amount of space in the living room and I was especially proud of the perfectly hung tinsel, which shimmered on each and every branch, a feat that had taken most of a day.
I had been cooking all afternoon. An hour before my guests were due to arrive I showered and changed into a (forgive me, it was “in” back then) Christmas green velour jump suit. As my husband stomped in from feeding cattle, I shoved him off to the bathroom and inspected my handiwork with deep satisfaction.
Then with an abrupt knock, my father-in-law walked into the house with a newborn calf under his arm—a dripping wet, shivering, barely alive calf. December is not the time for calves to be born; they are not supposed to make an appearance until mid-to-late January, so this specimen was undersized as well.
As the calf dripped water and other less mentionable fluids onto my sparkling clean floor, Fritz told me its sad story. A heifer had given birth on the creek bank, decided she’d had enough and simply walked off. As the newborn struggled to find her feet, she toppled into the creek. A passing neighbor saw it happen, jumped the fence and snagged the calf. He took the baby to Fritz and Fritz brought her to me.
By the time we had the almost-orphan rubbed semi-dry and settled on an old blanket in front of the wood stove, that velour jump suit had a number of unusual stains on it. Navel-swabbing left me with a streak of iodine and I had large damp patches from moving the little one into position by the stove. Another streak of calf slobbers dribbled down one of my legs. Its first appearance as a fashion statement was also to be its last.
I kept dashing back to the kitchen to check on dinner and then out to the living room to succor the calf to the high amusement of my father-in-law and my husband who had emerged from the bathroom to see what the commotion was all about. Fritz departed to his own calf-free living room, sure the baby was in good hands, just as the first of our guests arrived for my no longer quite so elegant evening.
As each couple arrived, I handed them a drink in one hand and a towel in the other and told them to make like a Mama cow and rub our extra guest until she was warm and dry.
Emily Post and Martha Stewart may have the perfect answer for that last minute guest who disrupts a carefully planned dinner party, but they never had a four-legged charmer warming up nicely and spreading the aroma of wet cow hide across their dinner table. My solution was to pour drinks liberally and act as if I was completely accustomed to having slightly soggy cattle in my living room.
Dinner was a rousing if somewhat disjointed success. It was served to a damp, high-spirited group who kept jumping up to check on the baby. Her bumbling attempts to gain her feet were the chief topic of conversation at the table. The table, the Christmas decorations and the food took a far back seat to the brown-eyed darling on the hearth.
I was in the kitchen putting the final touches on a Baked Alaska (page 742 in The Joy of Cooking, another wedding present) when the calf made it to her feet accompanied by the cheers of our roped-in rubbing crew. She took a half dozen wobbly steps and toppled into the Christmas tree, bringing it down on top of herself with the merry tinkle of breaking glass ornaments and whoops of excitement from the male half of the guests.
By the time we had extricated the bawling calf from the tree boughs and light strings, she, the tree and the Baked Alaska were a bit worse for wear.
We ended up sitting on the floor creating an eight-person, makeshift calf corral, scooping slightly melted ice cream and overdone meringue into our mouths with one hand while we fished tinsel off the calf and floor and lobbed it back in the direction of the slightly crooked tree with the other.
Before the evening was over, the calf had her first meal with the help of a rubber lamb nipple and eight inebriated foster parents. As she collapsed onto her round little tummy in front of the stove, we all joined her and spent the rest of the evening debating the perfect name for the newest family member.
Holly spent that night and Christmas day in the house before moving to a deeply strawed stall in the barn with her own personal heat lamp, better accommodations than those the Baby Jesus had, according to my father-in-law. In the fullness of time she became the matriarch of my own small herd for once Fritz brought her to me, she was mine to keep.
I have had many wonderful Christmas presents over the years, including my second son who was born several years later just after midnight on Christmas morning, but the memories of that very lucky calf and the friends who helped save her life that night are a lasting gift we treasure and share with laughter every Christmas.