I've loved this poem since I was young, maybe because I was young when I first read it, and it wasn't so archaic fifty years ago. But you can make your way through the language. The Jesus story I was introduced to as a child emphasized Jesus as a shepherd. On the wall of the Baptist Church Sunday School was a large poster of him carrying a lamb. I gather that the folk story Hardy is referring to said that the animals all kneeled at midnight on Christmas Eve. Hardy expresses a sort of sadness and doubt; but he hopes. He wishes. It is surely relevant that his country, Great Britain had entered World War I in August of 1914.
by Thomas Hardy (1915)
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 believe
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
“Come; see the oxen kneel
“In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
I found the photo below on this site with the explanation that it was an outdoor nativity scene, and one morning a dog was found sleeping comfortably in the manger. (It does seem to have kept "the baby" awake.)