It was to be a quiet Christmas, with our farmhouse deep in snow and a blizzard bearing down, tracked by radar from the Kansas prairie. Treacherous road conditions cut us off from civilization. At noon on the day before Christmas, a dim sun rose, rimmed with a dark circle — an ominous sign. Bitter winds blew from the east. Our son made it home in time to help us bring wood on the porch. Bedtime came early that Christmas Eve. I felt the old house shake as gales blew across the field. Snow drifted on the windowpanes and piled up on our door posts in shapes spooky as sheeted ghosts. Pulling blankets over my head, I fell into a deep sleep.
I awoke on Christmas morning to a new world, filled with glistening light under the rising sun. Gone was the brush pile, now covered with a white dome of snow. We sipped hot coffee and ate fresh cranberry bread, gearing up for shoveling. The air was crisp and clean under a cloudless blue sky. Thanks to the strong arms of my son, we cleared a path to the car and leaned on our shovels. We looked at each other and knew what we would do that afternoon. We would strap on snowshoes and hike in the woods behind our house.
I felt exhilarated by the woods after a blizzard. I listened to the swish of my snowshoes through powdery drifts. Dark-green fir trees stood laden in dazzling crystal snowflakes. Wisps of wind blew snow off the branches into my face. We plowed through deep drifts and stopped at an old pine tree. I heard scratching high up in the uppermost branches. A little critter looked down at me. It was a flying squirrel that leaped off the trunk and swooped in front of my face. It startled me.
Startle is good on Christmas morning. After all, the Incarnation is a shocking event. God became Man and dwelt among us. Catholic convert and novelist Annie Dillard agrees. She hears bland sermons, observes lackadaisical parishioners and feels puzzled, wondering if people believe a word of the Gospel. She writes, “It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
That night I turned on the white candle lights that sit on our windowsills. Colored lights twinkle on our Christmas tree, decorated with ornaments, reminding me of a birth in our family or the death of a loved one. Even as a child, these rituals made me think of the interplay of darkness and light, of good and evil that played out on that first Christmas day. Even as Jesus lay in the manger, Herod made plots to kill him. The Holy Family had no time to linger at the stable. They fled for their lives.
It is all so fabulous and strange! I snowshoed in the winter woods, touched by the beauty of God’s creation, surprised by the wonder of Christmas Day.