Merry Christmas

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2: 8-12 NIV

Sometimes, I pull my wool hat down over my ears and go for a walk. Moving out of the neighborhood, I get the courtesy bark from the neighbor’s dog, a curious examination from a couple of squirrels and am nearly trampled by a rampaging buck in rut. He smells a doe somewhere, he just ain’t too sure about where. He disappeared into the tree line at a full gallop, so excited he probably ran into a tree and knocked himself out. The leaves are gone from the trees. The air is a little crisp, but for a few flurries, we’ve seen no snow. Houses and lawns are decorated for the season, some a bit overdone. Christmas cards are going out and coming in. The new Christmas movies are out. I’ve seen none destined to be classics like It’s A Wonderful Life, which we’ll watch for the bazillionth time. For the next few months, we’ll wonder if the angel got his wings whenever we hear a bell. We worry some about presents. What we might get, what we’ll give. The thought that used to go into them doesn’t always now. Getting something homemade is practically unheard of. Now, we savor the warmth of the plastic gift card we receive and worry if we spent enough money on the gifts we gave.

I can see smoke drifting up lazily from chimneys in the distance and smell the oak wood fires burning in fireplaces and wood stoves. It isn’t there, but my mind tricks me into smelling the spice cake my mother used to bake this time of year. I think about getting a big hunk of it fresh from the oven while it’s still steaming. Nothing tasted quite like that, especially chased with fresh milk or hot chocolate. I walk a little deeper into the woods. Nothing smells quite like the woods this time of year. The dead leaves I kick up while walking have a unique, earthy aroma. A squirrel skitters up the side of a tree right in front of me. He stops, safely out of my reach and watches. I come upon a wild holly bush and stick myself plucking a leaf from it. I make a pinwheel from the stiff holly leaf by putting the sharp points between my thumb and finger and blowing on it just hard enough to make it spin. I think of walking through the hills in the snow with my brother many years ago searching for a Christmas tree. I think about a wild sled run. I find a sturdy oak to lean against, pick a twig from a nearby branch and pluck it between my teeth. I survey the rolling hillside. The houses in the distance are visible only because the trees are naked of leaves. I ponder what might be happening in each. In one, Christmas cookies might be baking. In another, maybe they’re trimming the tree.

In my mind, the house is dark. Daylight’s not yet broken. My heart is beating slightly faster than normal. It’s Christmas morning. I slowly move the blankets away and begin to tiptoe toward the living room where the Christmas tree is. I step on a creaky floorboard and freeze, eyes wide. I listen, afraid that I might encounter an old elf gentleman and frighten him away. I peek into the kitchen and see that the cookies dutifully left on the table are gone. Then, in the dark, eyes still wide, heart still racing, I approach the tree….

I’m walking along the street in Chicago. A country kid in the city. I’ve never seen so many stores and all of them decked out for the holiday. Some have signs that say Xmas. I wonder why they’d do that. The sky is gray. The city is gray. The wind blows some newspaper down a slush-covered sidewalk. A panhandler begs for money. It doesn’t seem like Christmas. Something is missing, replaced by an X.

The air has chilled some so I flip the collar up on my down vest and I’m on the other side of the world walking a Christmas Eve post. I’m barely 19 years old. Sure, I have plenty of buddies around, but I’d trade it all for five minutes in that kitchen eating Mom’s spice cake. Then I think, because a few of us are willing to be here, many can be there at home. That thought perks me up some as I look into a glistening star filled sky and snug up the GI wool scarf around my neck. The clear night makes it colder. I wish it would cloud up and snow. Silent Night plays in my head.

It’s Christmas Eve. It’s nearing the end of the Church service and we light candles, each of us receiving the flame from the last Advent candle – the Christ candle. As the sanctuary lights dim, we raise our candles and sing Silent Night. There’s an incredible feeling of peace and hope.

From Su and I to you and yours. Have a blessed Christmas.

Copyright © 2004 J. D. Pendry American Journal