Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In those years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
As we grow older, we know that the Christmas story as it is presented to us as children is probably not true fact in all its minutia. Did oxen really bend down and kneel at the birth of Christ? Probably not. They're oxen, they were probably busy enough just being oxen. As a child though, as Hardy puts it, "nor did it occur to use there to doubt they were kneeling then." Doubt and wonderment are at the heart of this poem. It was a "fair fancy," the Christmas story.
Today though, if someone came to Hardy and told him, "Look, the oxen have knelt down!" on Christmas Eve, he would go with them into the gloomy night, with that hope in his heart. Despite our doubt, we are often overcome with wonder. That's a big part of Christmas for many people who grew up Christian, I imagine. We know that our Nativity scene and story are not founded in reality, but we feel that wonder so associated with the season regardless.