Horses have played a huge role in history and helped shape the world we live in. But when it comes to Christmas, they haven’t much of a presence, other than a few Christmas songs and the odd sleigh ride.

Sure, the Welsh have their somewhat creepy Mari Lwyd, and yes, in some countries, good ol’ St. Nicholas rides into town astride a white horse and there are Boxing Day fox hunts. Overall, however, horses take a bit of a backseat when the merriment of the festive season rolls around.  

Until recently, horses have always played a huge role in my Christmas. But those days are gone and frankly, I don’t care for this time of year anymore. Since my mom died, it’s a day that I hope passes quickly so I can forget about it for another year.

I know admitting to the above isn’t in the spirit of things, but there is no sense pretending otherwise.

Christmas Past

I was talking to a friend the other day about how magical Christmas used to be before adulthood crept in. We recalled the early mornings, presents and strewn wrapping paper. Family visits, crowded living rooms and awkward hugs. Roasted potatoes, cranberry sauce, Christmas crackers and of course the paper hats found within. Flaming plum puddings, eggnog and laughter. There never was a better time than Christmas Day.

Christmas morning in the Berry household was no exception. Our day started in the barn as my mom insisted that the horses be fed and cared for before I got my Santa present. And as much as I wanted to see what had arrived while I was asleep, going to the barn to see my pony was anything but a hardship.

She and I would walk down to the barn with the dogs running ahead and the cats trailing behind. We’d have pajama pant legs tucked into our gumboots and barn jackets done up over flannel tops. Dingy gloves with bits of hay stuck to them kept our hands toasty, and worn-out toques doubled as warmth and hair control.

There was always a lightness to Christmas morning. Knowing we didn’t have to change out of our pajamas and that we could fill our faces full of chocolate and cookies without judgment. It felt reckless but earned. Then the excitement of presents, “Whatever could be in that box? Paddock boots maybe?” And starting the best day of the year seeing the eager faces of the horses’ first crack was the icing on the cake.

Extra carrots were added to their grain and while they ate, we opened their stockings.

“Oh look, Pentwyn, you got an apple. You can have it with dinner. Or right now. Want it now? Course, you do.”

“Oh, and David, you got some sugar. You lucky devil.”

Pretending we didn’t know what was in the stockings and believing that the great reveal was remotely interesting to the horses was silly, but we did it every year. That’s the thing about Christmas, nothing is silly.

The barn chores were done over the discussion of the day’s agenda and my guessing what Santa might have brought. I knew it would be something horsey, but that is all I knew.

Once the horses were outside enjoying the snow and the stalls were clean, I’d run into the house to cast my eyes upon my biggest present of the day that would be waiting for me in front of the fireplace.

When I was five it was a very large stuffed horse, I named Dashaway. At six, I got an ill-fitting green blanket for my pony Winsome, and when I was seven it was a handsome pair of purple chaps. At least I thought they were handsome; in retrospect, I’d say I was wrong.

Winsome tolerating the ill-fitting Christmas blanket. I look pretty darn pleased.

Our stockings were next. Mine was filled with the usual socks and chocolates but down at the bottom, I might find a red mane comb or a red hoof pick. All very sensible stuff.

The rest of the day was spent lounging around and pretending to help sort dinner, peeling potatoes and that kind of thing. You see, we ate our Christmas dinner mid-day because, by the time we finished eating and cleaning the dishes, it was back down to the barn for evening chores.

Dogs in front, cats behind and me and my mom in the middle fiddling with our gloves, chatting about how full we were.

Bran mashes were on order, of course. My mom and I would cut up apples and carrots and one of us would stand hovering over the feed buckets that were lined up on the floor, patiently waiting for the cold, slow-flowing molasses to trickle into the mash.

The steam would rise as you bent down to give it all a stir with some old wooden spoon that had been robbed for the house. The smell of the bran mash filled the barn, and the horses would paw the ground, keen to get their warm sloppy dinner. 

My mom and I would watch them slurp up their food and laugh at all the mash on their nose and face. We’d give them all a Christmas hug before turning out the lights and heading back to the house in the dark.

It was now time for presents.

Everyone always felt my mom and I did things strangely on Christmas Day by not opening presents until the horses were fed and tucked in for the night. But my mom always felt that the animals must come first and only once they were comfortable, could we sit down and truly relax before we spoilt ourselves with presents.

And so it was for 48 Christmases. Even after I sold my last horse in my mid-thirties my mom and I kept the same routine. It’s just the way the Berry family did things. 

Christmas Present

This is my third Christmas without my mom and my 28th without my dad. This year, for the first time, I will spend the holiday with three goldfish, two budgies, two rabbits, nine goats and three cats. Christmas Day at the animal shelter is the perfect way for me to wile away a day I no longer care for. No more parents. No more horses. No more presents. Just the same love and devotion for all creatures, great and small and that’s enough for me.

Wishing you all a very merry day.