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I don't remember where I heard it, but when I was 9 years old and living on the farm, someone told me that at midnight on Christmas Eve the animals talked.

It could have been my dad's cronies in caps and five-buckle arctics who would stop by the barn to shoot the breeze, kidding me and smiling at the old man as they did it. Or I could have heard it from somebody at school, or in something my mother read to me and my younger sister out of the newspaper.

I wanted to know, because we had animals.

We lived on Circle Drive Farm outside Buffalo, N.Y., named for the circular driveway that first took you by our house, past outbuildings and finally past the barns. Almost every structure had internal framework held together with wooden pegs pounded in 100 years earlier.

The smaller barn was my principal place of employment. As my mother and father labored in the big barn milking the cows, I joined in next door a bit later each morning, feeding and watering our bull (he was too full of himself to have a decent name), three pigs (once little), and eight heifer calves, one of which was a pet that I had helped bring into the world.

I named her "Tug" because I used a block and tackle on her rear leg, gently keeping the tension as directed by my father who had most of one arm almost entirely up the birth canal trying to free the other hoof. All the while the mother Holstein was bellowing encouragement, or cursing us in cow. I'm not sure which.

Tug was supposed to come out headfirst, as you might see at the Miracle of Birth building at the Minnesota State Fair. When Dad worked the other leg free she suddenly slipped out so fast she dragged me down with her as the rope went slack.

"You might as well clean off her nose while you're down there," my father said grinning, drying off his arm with a burlap bag. Tug and I bonded right there. She was the animal I most wanted to hear from on Christmas Eve.

On the other days of the year our animals communicated in grunts, barks, moos, clucks or in body language all farmers recognize.

The menacing toss of a head and the scrape of a hoof was consistent with what I already knew about the bull, for example. And the wink of a lengthy eyelash on a cow — any farm girl or boy will tell you if pressed — easily equals any eyeballing movie star. Which begs the question of who learned what from whom.

But tonight was going to be different. Santa Claus? Gotta wait. This was mythic-scientific!

So rather than catching the holiday edition of "Gunsmoke," I bundled up my things and headed for the door. Mom said they'd be up awhile if I changed my mind, and shouted "Merry Christmas!" at me as I walked the drive back to the barn.

It was a modern manger scene. I had my sleeping bag spread on hay, flashlight, watch and a Classics Illustrated edition of "A Christmas Carol," thinking Tug and I could book club that one if we ran out of things to say.

Nine p.m. … three hours to go. Head propped against Tug's stall, I turned the pages and read to her. She was still there, listening, her head over the stall door; the other calves curled in warm straw. All was calm.

I looked up and wished Tug a merry Christmas and her eyes blinked at me. Her pink and black nose appeared to lift as if she was about to say something, when suddenly everything went dark.

Next thing I knew, sunlight was washing through the windows, and Mom, Sis and my father were standing there in front of me. Pop, wearing new coveralls, looked at Tug, then asked me how it went. He didn't seem surprised when I told him I slept though the big reveal. Then he said, rubbing Tug's neck, "There's always next year, right?" It's something farmers still say about most things … and about a night another 9-year-old might want to try.

Charlie Maguire is a songwriter/performer whose first audience were the cows in the barn. He lives in Minneapolis.