The Christmas story: Sheep have always played a prominent role in Christmas imagery

December 24, 2012 10:34:25 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


For those outside the Christian faith, that sheep would be the most prominent animal in Christian imagery might seem an odd choice. 


Yet, from the first book of the Bible (Genesis) to the last (Revelation), the use of sheep and shepherds are dominant metaphors. There are 438 references to sheep, lambs or shepherds in the Bible. The first murder victim, Abel, was a shepherd (Genesis). And Jesus is almost exclusively referred to as "the lamb" in Revelation. 


That sheep would emerge as an icon of the Christian faith seems unlikely. After all, there is nothing particularly heroic about sheep. They are singularly docile animals and are exclusively prey: They are defenseless and dependent on those who care for them, the shepherds. 


It is not as though sheep do not have endearing qualities, though. Sheep are remarkable for their gentleness, for example. Reports of rogue sheep simply do not exist. 


Among Christians, the metaphor works. In the Christmas story, the baby who was born will become "The Good Shepherd,'' born to save his defenseless flock. 


In fact, the Virgin Birth, a tenant of Christianity, sets up the essential tenant that permeates the faith: Christ as both lamb and shepherd, fully human and fully divine. 


It is notable, too, that in Luke's account of the birth of Jesus, shepherds are the first privileged guests in the celebration of the Christ child's birth. For non-Christians, this, too, seems a surprising turn in the Nativity story, because if sheep suffer from a lack of heroic status, shepherds fare only slightly better. 


Historically, the job of shepherd has never been viewed as a prestigious occupation. Garrison Keillor, in his marvelous retelling of the Nativity Story, referred to them as "the parking lot attendants of the ancient world.'' 


They would seem to be the least likely guests to the celebration of the birth of a king. 


In the secular world and its history, sheep and shepherds have long played an essential, if less than glamorous, role. 


Until the mid-19th Century when cotton became "king,'' wool was the dominant fabric for clothing. It remains popular today, noted for its warmth and durability. Sheep ranching is a viable part of the U.S. agricultural economy, particularly in the West, and throughout the world. 


Because there are no large-scale sheep ranching operations in Mississippi, the most common encounter with the animal in this area is likely to be at 4-H shows. Of course, sheep are also prominent members of the manger scenes such as the one at Memorial Funeral Home in Columbus, where the two large sheep are scene-stealers (and often Baby Jesus stealers -- they have an irreverent tendency to use the plastic Baby Jesus as a chew toy). 


Probably the closest approximation to a real sheep-ranching operation in this area is found off of Highway 388 near Brooksville where Pedro Rodriguez currently tends a flock of about 40 adult sheep and 34 lambs on the 10 acres adjacent to his home. That number includes a two-week old lamb who hangs around the Rodriguez's modest ranch-style house, waiting to be fed. 


"They're not much trouble,'' said Rodriguez, an immigrant from Mexico who works for one of the big cattle operations in Brooksville. "About the only thing is when you have a lamb like this one, who won't suckle for some reason. We have to bottle-feed him.'' 


Rodriguez, a father of five, said that his family helps tend the sheep. 


"But, really, there's not much to it,'' he said. "I work sun-up to sun-down, so really all I do is let them out to the bigger pasture to graze in the morning. Then at night, I bring them back in. It's not hard; they follow me right in and out.'' 


Although sheep ranching in Mississippi is limited, Rodriguez said the animals do well in Mississippi's climate. 


"I'll feed them hay from about mid-December through March, but after that they graze,'' he said. "The only other thing you have to do really is keep them wormed and, if it's been really wet, treat them for foot-rot.'' 


Rodriguez raises a variety of sheep whose wool is not of commercial quality. 


"I raise them for their meat,'' he said. "It takes about two or three years to get them ready for sale, depending on how they grow. Of this group, I'll keep three or four for breed stock. The rest I sell when they are big enough.'' 


Because his main job in working on a cattle ranch, Rodriguez maintains a pretty small sheep-raising operation. 


"I guess if you have a couple hundred acres and the time, you could do alright raising sheep around here,'' he said. "They're pretty easy. They don't really cause any problems.''

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]