Homemade wreath at our back door.

As sustainable farmers and shepherds, Christmas time is a reminder of hope and joy, and it is also a reminder of our role as stewards of the earth, animals, and people in our care. The imagery of the infant bringer of life and light and his tender mother is mirrored on the farm and amongst the wildlife all around us.

Just as baby animals and their mothers need tending and protection, so too did Mary and the infant Jesus. How fitting that their place of refuge was in a shelter for livestock – we are all creatures of birth, death, and renewal. All are worthy, all deserving of love and care.

This morning, I was thinking on how the lessons of stewardship at Christmas time were passed along in our family – from the smallest act like leaving carrots for Santa’s reindeer as well as his cookies and milk to greater lessons in how our choices can impact the environment for good.

Before 2000, when Mom and Kara and I moved up to the farm full time, it served primarily as a get-away for the family. We would visit at different times of the year, but we always came up for Christmas. Because Mom was often on call with her medical practice right up to the holiday, this often meant packing the car Christmas Eve for the long drive north across the snowy Wisconsin landscape.

Grandma and Grandpa would already be there, with a warm fire in the fieldstone fireplace, and big hugs. An essential family project for the holiday was to harvest a Christmas tree for the windowed porch, and we’d bundle up like colorful snowmen and trundle out into the woods around the hayfields.

Instead of looking for a “perfect” tree, Grandpa would use this as an Aldo Leopold-style foresting lesson. Not only did we need to learn how to identify the right kind of tree, but we also needed to look for a tree that was suffering – especially a cluster of trees growing too close together. If they remained in this way, the cluster would smother each other, and none of the trees would flourish. From this selected cluster, we then had to determine which tree was likely to be least successful, and that would be the one we would take. By taking the struggling tree, this would open up light and air and room for the others, so they could flourish.

Pruning one tree per year is a tiny act in the greater stewardship of forestry, but it was a critical lesson in our relationship to the forest – not as something from which to simply take to benefit one’s own wishes, but to use the opportunity of the desire to have a tree inside as a way to relieve suffering in the forest.

Our trees were admittedly of the Charley Brown sort, but that was taken on with cheer as a decorating challenge rather than seen as not measuring up to consumerist standards of what a Christmas tree should be.

Still today, when I gather balsam boughs for making wreaths to adorn our doorways, I choose trees that are mature enough to be trimmed and only take branches near the forest floor. These are branches the tree will soon be sloughing off anyway, so we are not stealing from its potential to continue growing strong.

Christmas on the farm has also always been a time for stewarding the songbirds. Grandma always loved having the birds visit a feeder, but bears in our area can be a special challenge with feeders.

Grandpa’s solution was to erect a telephone pole in the yard in front of the picture windows of the farmhouse, clad it in sheet metal, and affix the bird feeder on top. After adding an extension once an especially tall bear had still managed to knock the feeder down, the new feeder has reigned atop its pedestal ever since.

It’s a long ways up, so fortunately it’s a large feeder that can hold nearly 5 gallons of sunflower seed!

At Farmstead Creamery, we also enjoy feeding the birds – hummingbirds throughout the summer, and seed-eating birds once winter has set in and the bears have holed up in their dens. It’s a joy to watch the gleeful chickadees, nuthatches, hairy woodpeckers, red polls, finches, and others who come to visit. Even the naughty blue jays are joyful in their splashes of color.

Another wild-feathered friend that has been visiting the farm this year is a male pheasant. He likely escaped from a hunting event and decided our farm was his best hideout. Fezziwig, as I like to call him, has a special affinity for our Kunekune boar Benji, and Kara makes sure to sprinkle a little feed outside the pen just for him.

These small kindnesses act as reparations in the face of how much destruction, death, and chaos our species has rendered against the earth and its living creatures. Just as baby Jesus will soon be hunted by Herod’s angry armies, forests are cut and habitats decimated. Where we can, as best we can, may we all embrace the spirit of Christmas that calls us to be shelter and support – to be the stable and the kind people who supported the journey of the Messiah and his family.

Wishing for you peace, joy, beauty, and health this holiday season. Merry Christmas, and we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com and 715.462.3453.

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