For Christmas was, is, and always will be, a clear cold, night
A Clear, Cold Night
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Some say that Christmas is too secular, that the glitter, music, gifts and family dinners are really not what the holy day is about. They hold that the Baby Jesus has been forgotten in the cacophony and confusion of commercial Christmas. They say that it is only about the birth of Christ. Everything else, they say, is a distraction or, even worse, sacrilege. Others say Christmas is not a holy day, but a day for family, friends, and presents—that Jesus was an historical figure, whose life should not be celebrated any more than the birth of Gandhi, or Mohammed. They believe we should not say “Merry Christmas.” We should, they say, celebrate “Winterfest,” or “Winter Solstice” instead. They argue that talking about or singing about Christ is not politically correct. They want a politically and religiously sanitized civil holiday that inspires no one and therefore offends no one.
While Christmas is first and foremost a celebration of the birth of the baby who would save us, to deny that Christmas is also about family and presents, music and lights, decorations and merriment, is also wrong. Was His family not at the first Christmas? Did visitors not bring gifts to celebrate His birth? Did shepherds not visit the Holy Family on that day?
Were the skies not filled with angelic song? Did the stars not dot the sky on that first night, like twinkling lights? Do these secular symbols not add to the mystery and joy of the event? Wasn’t Santa Claus a descendant of Saint Nicholas—a kindly man who was famous for good works? Is not a saint merely a human who led an exemplary life, lived the ideals that Jesus taught and did good works in His name? Exactly what is wrong with a jolly old saint who does acts of charity, spreads love and joy, and gives to children? Is this not exactly what Jesus wanted us to do? But, for me, it was much simpler than all this. I knew what Christmas was. Christmas was, for me, a clear, cold night.
I grew up in a small Midwestern town during the 50s and 60s. There was never a better place or time to grow up. Of that I was certain. And my perfect childhood was never more perfect than at Christmas. I had a Peter Billingsley, Christmas Story Christmas every year. I was that chubby little kid with the horn rimmed glasses and nerdy clothes with the three buckle snow boots who wished for and got the Red Ryder BB gun on his ninth Christmas. My mom always told me that “being poor” was the best thing she and Dad ever did for my brother and me. But if we were poor, I never knew it, for my childhood was a happy one. My folks knew how to keep Christmas well. They saved all year so that they could pile presents under the tree and make Christmas day a joyous time for two little blond haired boys who waited behind the bedroom door at 5:30 in the morning anxiously awaiting Dad’s annual proclamation: “Well, it looks like Santa has been here again!” And there on the floor beneath the magnificent Christmas tree, illuminating the house and warming the living room with the radiant heat of 500 lights, and adorned with glass balls and plastic icicles, lay the cap guns, rocking horses, Radio Flyer wagons, sleds, paint sets and stereoscopes, chemistry sets and board games that would provide hours of endless enjoyment for us. Each year my folks vowed to cut back, and each year they never did.
Christmas was a time of oyster stew, a sip of Mogen David wine that we got once a year to toast the season; of peppermint, wintergreen, cinnamon, bergamot, anise and clove oils wafting through the house as my mom boiled sugary water to make six flavors of the wonderful hard candy that we looked forward to each year. It was a time of pfeffernusse cookies, sandalwood incense that Dad loved to burn in celebration of the mystery of Christmas, and red and green candles that adorned the living room. It was always a time of joy and merriment, of sights and sounds and fellowship with friends and family in a cozy little house that exuded the spirit of Christmas.
But Christmas did not end with the opening of gifts at o’ dark thirty in the morning. After the presents, it was off to church and then to Eddyville to Grandpa’s house for Christmas with the aunts, uncles and cousins. At Grandpa’s there was yet another big tree, sitting on the old wooden floor in the sun room that smelled like a pine forest. Under the tree at Grandpa’s were bowls of apples, oranges, candies and of course, more presents for the kids. Then it was Christmas dinner with pile of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, sage dressing, rolls and salads. There was heavenly pecan, pumpkin or mince pie made with lard crust, cranberry tarts and cinnamon apples. If they eat in Heaven, Christmas dinner at Grandpa’s is what the angels eat. After dinner, the adult males slept on the nearest couch or overstuffed chair, kids played and adult females got to pick up the mess. I did not understand the equities of the situation, but it was a yearly ritual re-enacted for decades at Grandpa’s house.
These magical times took place in the dead of winter. It was Christmas in Iowa, and I knew no other kind. Every Christmas I ever remember was cold and white. I wanted snow for Christmas, and reveled in the thought of newly fallen snow for Christmas. I felt sorry for those in moderate climes who never knew the frosty bite of a windy December’s day, or the beauty of a newly-fallen snow that covered the world at night and reflected the silvery glow of the moon and the stars. I felt sorry for those who had unofficial Christmases without snow, and without cold. Christmas on the beach or Christmas in the desert simply was not Christmas. Christmas required snow and a clear, cold night with the stars up above. And each Christmas night, when the presents were boxed up, and the noise and the blessed confusion of a Christmas dinner subsided and the house grew quiet, each clear cold night, I repeated a private ritual that I did since my childhood.
Late at night, when the rest of the world slept, I would step outside into that clear, cold night. In the magnificent cold stillness when all was calm and all was bright, I would stare up at the night sky, watch the stars, and imagine that first Christmas. At the end of the day, all that remained and all that was important, was the wonderful mystery of His birth. Watching the night sky each clear, cold Christmas night, I was connected in a profound and personal way to that first Christmas night which unfolded under this same sky. I could see the same stars that shone on Him, that illuminated Bethlehem that first night; that led the Three Kings on their journey bringing the first Christmas gifts to the child, that lighted the paths of the shepherds in the hills who hurried down the rocky hillsides to see the source of the great commotion. I could see the same night sky that formed the backdrop for the hosts of angels who filled the sky to sing the first carols, heralding the birth of the Son of God. This clear, cold sky is the thread that binds me to that first Christmas and to each Christmas thereafter. Earlier generations of believers doubtless looked at this same night sky and owned the mystery in times past just as I do now. This same sky is constant, peaceful and still. It binds me to all of the people living and dead who I loved the most and with whom I celebrated Christmases past. This sky fills me with wonder and allows me to own the mystery of the humble birth of the child who was sent to save us. The one so mighty in stature yet so humble in birth, was born on such a night under this same sky.
So, at midnight, each Christmas from now until the end, I will step out into the clear, cold night and once more own this magnificent mystery that fills me with wonder and awe and takes me back to the best of times with the people I loved the most. I will once again stare with wonder and awe, and once again experience the true meaning of Christmas. For Christmas was, is, and always will be, a clear cold, night.