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She Celebrates Christmas with Her Hens

A fifth-generation chicken keeper brings Christmas to her “girls.”

Author Lisa Steele at home with her chickens
Credit: ©Katye Martens Brier
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Which came first: the chicken or the egg? For me, there’s no question. My chickens came first, and in many ways, they still do. You see, my “girls,” as I call the hens, changed my life. And not only by giving me more eggs than I knew what to do with.

Before they came along, I’d worked on Wall Street and lived the big city life, a blur of five-star restaurants and cocktail parties, but it wasn’t for me. I’d grown up across the street from my grandparents’ chicken farm in Massachusetts, and my parents had kept a few chickens in our own backyard.

My great- and great-great-grandparents had been chicken keepers in Finland. So when my husband, Mark, and I decided to move to a farm in rural Maine and raise 12 hens of our own, I finally felt at home.

Hens require a certain amount of sunlight to lay eggs, and some farms expose their hens to artificial light to keep them laying year-round. I prefer to do things naturally. That means I cook a lot of egg dishes while the hens are laying at full capacity during the longer days of spring and summer.

I preserve cartonfuls to use while the girls are on holiday—because I need my Christmas eggnog! I’d love to tell you I use an old family recipe brought over from Finland, but the truth is, I used tips from magazines and TV chefs to create my own egg-cellent version.

Other family traditions endure. When my grandparents emigrated to the United States, they continued to honor Saint Lucia’s Day on December 13 as the start of Christmas season. Saint Lucia was said to have visited persecuted Christians hiding in the catacombs, lighting her way with a candlelit wreath on her head, her hands laden with provisions.

Our family wove the Saint Lucia custom of girls in white dresses carrying candles and wreaths into our Christmas celebrations. As a girl, I sang in the choir at the candlelit Christmas Eve service at my grandmother’s church. My favorite hymn was “O Holy Night,” when one star stood out among the others.

That first Christmas in our new home, I decorated with the candles and wreaths of Saint Lucia. We strung garland inside and lights outside. The only house in sight had to say merry Christmas! I had an extra wreath and hung it on the chicken coop.

Mark and I sat down to enjoy a glass of eggnog at the window, our handiwork complete. I looked out at the chicken coop and that one extra wreath. “But we can’t see our Christmas lights from in here,” I said.

Problem solved when I strung the coop with twinkling lights. My girls clucked a little bit but didn’t seem to mind my sprucing up the place. It seemed a shame not to have a tree in their run. So I cut down a sapling from the woods and decorated it with apples, a nutritious chicken treat.

In Finland, it’s tradition to feed wild birds on Christmas morning. Families don’t eat until the birds do. My chickens definitely benefit from my heritage. One year, I spent an entire afternoon stringing a long garland of popcorn, grapes, raisins and walnuts. I won’t do that again: It took the girls exactly four seconds to peck the precious garland to the ground.

Now I stick to hard-boiled eggs, radishes, cranberries and Brussels sprouts, which are much easier to string and last a lot longer to keep the hens entertained. For hardy tree decorations, I fill pine cones with peanut butter and roll them in sunflower seeds. Sometimes I make edible coconut oil ornaments with pops of color from fruits and veggies.

My hardworking girls have as merry a Christmas as Mark and I do. A walk out to the coop on a snowy day is magical. Even better on a clear night. Mark was in the Navy and knows how to navigate by the stars. He points out the constellations. We talk about the wise men who let the heavens guide them to the straw-filled stable where Jesus was born that “O Holy Night.” I like to imagine that chickens were there too.

Try Lisa’s recipe for Spiced Eggnog at home!

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