Posted by: trevormeers | December 25, 2010

Shadows of Christmas

Last week, I had some fun at the expense of animal characters standard to every Christmas pageant. But with the endless Christmas season finally finding its way to the actual day, it’s time for a little more serious reflection, inspired by a Meers-family experience that doesn’t show up often in the “very special episodes” on TV this time of year.

I’ll wake up Christmas morning knowing that I probably didn’t discover the perfect meaningful gift for my wife. And I doubt I’ll wrap up a 10-step plan for melting holiday family tension. But there’s at least one aspect of Christmas that I have dialed in. While much of America stumbles around for the season’s true meaning in the wash of bow-topped SUVs and NBA stars stopping in at soup kitchens, I’ll pull on a coat and take an evening walk of about 75 yards across my parents’ barnyard.

The scale model that sits on my parents' shelf within view of the real deal outside.

It’s a short trip to enlightenment. Just down the porch steps, past the swings slowly turning in the winter breeze and around the south corner of the old corn crib still wearing the red paint I put on when I was 15. Back there, in the bluish-white light of a mercury-vapor star hanging 20 feet up on a telephone pole, stands a real-life stable, stocked with donkeys all shaggy and brown (well, at least one is brown). Sometime this Christmas, I’ll lean on the cold iron tubes of the fence and watch the donkeys methodically sweep the snowy soil with their fuzzy lips, sucking up whatever leaves remain from their serving of last July’s alfalfa.

Their names are Chimi and Changa, in keeping with my parents’ tradition of naming their donkeys after Mexican food. (In a nearby corral live Sopapilla, Churro and Salsa.) Both have grown old on this farm, pushing 30 years now by my guess. Chimi is gray, with black rimming his nose, “like he’s been eating out of a bag of charcoal,” the wrangler told us the day we bought him. Changa wears the traditional brown and moves with Eeyore-like resignation. I’ve always attributed her heavy-lidded attitude to her foal dying back when I was about 12, but that’s probably reading too much into it.

When I listen to the two crunching their feed, plumes of steam rising with each whumpf sound from their noses near the ground, I’m spending time with more than a couple of aged donkeys living out their years in a Nebraska lean-to stable. I’m visiting beasts laboring under a heavy load of legend. In the high-desert basins where Chimi and Changa came from, they’re known as burros, descendents of donkeys brought by the Spanish conquistadors. There was hardly a Western trail that their kind didn’t walk under heavy burdens. The stories say, for example, that burros retiring from a mine were released at night so that their eyes, dimmed by years underground, could gradually adjust to the rising sun.

Over the years, their famous stubborn streak–which is more like intelligence to those who know them–has made a lot of enemies. Muhammed apparently disagreed with donkeys’ style enough to decree that if a donkey passed in front of a praying Muslim, it would nullify the prayer. If a donkey was braying, he said, it meant the animal had just seen a devil. (My parents’ yard must be crawling with devils around 7a.m., when the burros start calling for their morning grain.)

Chimi models the cross marking shared by his donkey brethren around the world.

But the most important burro legends speak of a young man who called on them for a ride long ago. As Chimi and Changa browse along the fence, I reach down and drag a finger along the long strip of dark hair running down Chimi’s spine. Another stripe lays across the first one, forming a cross draped on his shoulders. Every donkey around the world wears the same mark. Legend says the stripes date to the Passion Week. On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on the donkey’s back. A few days later, when the city had turned on Christ and sent Him to the cross, the donkey refused to abandon Jesus and followed Him to Golgotha. Witnessing the Savior’s agony, the donkey turned his back, but couldn’t bring himself to leave. As he stood with his head bowed, looking away, the shadow of Christ’s cross fell on the donkey’s back, burning itself there forever.

People attributed serious power to this mark for a long time. Some folklore held that you could cure fits and convulsions by trimming hair from the donkey’s cross and hanging it around a child’s neck. Our enlightened age has lost interest in such stories (but I wish this one were true, since my family could use such a cure and has ready access to burros). But as I stand in the near-silence of the donkey pen at Christmas, the story comes again to the surface with its old force. Chimi and Changa and all their predecessors offer silent witness to the full circle of the world’s greatest tale. The donkey carried Mary to Bethlehem. He almost certainly was near the manger. He carried Christ into the city. And the donkey, as the legends tell it, saw Him die and complete the work began with His birth on the first Christmas.

I haven’t found a legend telling us the donkey was present for the final chapter, when the tomb’s stone rolled away. But he’s here now, his coat grown thick against a Nebraska winter, the dusty stripes still showing. And while we shouldn’t confuse legend with Biblical fact, the donkey’s stripes, whatever their true origin, are a convenient reminder of the Christmas story that the world must remember as far more powerful than any myth.

Changa shows the gray of a life that's run from desert to barnyard.



  1. Thanks, Trevor! I hadn’t heard the story about the markings on a donkey’s back.

  2. I love this story! Thanks for the reminder about the cross on the donkey. I had heard it before.

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