Peace. Joy. Light. Magic. Snow, if you’re lucky. No snow, if that’s your definition of “lucky.” My mother taught me Christmas was about love. But once — hearing sleigh bells, then rushing from my bed to the window in time to see Santa Claus flying over our house in his sled, reindeer crossing the sky as if the sky was a perfect Arctic tundra — I understood it was about magic. Santa’s personal magic was confirmed for me many years later, when one winter in Swedish Lapland, eager to earn my reindeer driver’s license, I took the reins of a canoe-like sled being pulled by a reindeer. Taking off at a gallop, the reindeer raced around a corner to deliberately tip the sled, dumping me onto the snow. That reindeer wanted nothing to do with me. Santa, on the other hand, was in full control of his reindeer. Magic, I’d say. The power to make impossible things happen.
So much on Earth is magic. Love, light, beauty, joy, faith. Even now, understanding as an adult that Santa is a marvelous myth, there is no question in my mind about that Christmas Eve. The Christmas Eve I saw him. What I saw was real. As real as magic. The fact that I understand differently now in no way affects the reality of that moment.
Where I live, there is snow. For me, snow provides a traditional Christmas beauty, and White Christmas always seems an appropriate song. But when my parents moved to Florida and my aunt to Scottsdale, I substituted I’ll Be Home for Christmas in an effort to become more open-minded. And to remember that in celebrating the birth of the Christ child, we celebrate family — or, as my mother put it, we celebrate love. Nobody knows Christ’s actual date of birth, although the consensus seems to be that it was in spring. But December 25, so close to the winter solstice and the pagan celebrations surrounding it, seemed to early Christians a good way of, more or less, killing two birds with one stone. The holiday virtually everybody in the Northern Hemisphere observed to welcome the lengthening of days was handy.
In the eighth century, St. Boniface, an English Benedictine missionary to what is now Germany, happened upon natives of the area making sacrifices to a mighty oak. Oak trees — associated with Thor, god of lightning, thunder, storms, sacred groves and trees, and the protection of humankind — were revered by the people of that time and place. Boniface, however, saw things differently. Wishing to prevent the pagan worship of a false idol, he grabbed his ax (which he apparently always carried) and cut down the tree. Horrified, the people gathered at the oak knew Thor would send lightning to strike Boniface. But Thor did nothing. And the people were converted.
In time, it was said, a fir tree grew out of the fallen oak. Triangular in shape, the tree, seen as representing the Trinity, became the Christmas tree.
Christmas lights, too, have their root in pagans’ ceremonies. Lighting fires on the winter solstice to celebrate the return of light, they passed the custom on to early Christians living in the same winter-dark northern lands. Light in the depths of the winter night — fire, the full moon, the thousand billion stars, light pouring out of the open doorway of a house — is reassuring, warming, inviting. A gift. It was the light of a star that the Magi followed to bring their gifts to the infant in Bethlehem. In Mexico and parts of the U.S., luminarias — small vigil fires — are lit along the route of Las Posadas, a procession commemorating Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. In many more parts of the U.S., farolitos, small paper bags holding lit candles, line neighborhood roadways.
Few lights, though, compare with the light of a full moon on snow. The snow-covered earth becomes as bright as day, but a different kind of day, one hedged in stars and silence and some peripheral mystery of night. I’ve skied in New York City’s Riverside Park and in Montana’s Madison Range by the light of a full moon. Beneath it, snow sparkles like diamonds. (My birthstone is the diamond, which simply makes logical the idea that snow is my inheritance.) The last Christmas full moon appeared in 2015; it will return in 2034, 2053, 2072 and 2091, in case you want to mark your calendars.
A full moon — on snow or desert sand, or its light pooling in forest glades, reflected in lakes or rippled in streams — is a time of magic. But so is a moonless night, when stars get free rein to claim all the width and depth of sky. On a night of gentle snowfall, when neither moon nor stars are visible, the earth offers an irrefutable gentleness. In those moments and hours and days, there is a kind of peace on Earth, a silence, a wholeness, a holiness. I think that’s what my mother meant by “love.” I think she meant that all was well, and all of us were part of that.
One Christmas Eve, finding myself alone, I spent hours engaged in feeling bereft. Then my dog started barking. I discovered him sitting in front of the glass window of my wood-burning stove, sans fire, looking as if he was watching television. Then I saw it, too: a small bird jumping frantically inside the stove. If I opened the door to free the bird, my dog would chase it, possibly even catching it as it exited the stove. I put the dog in the bedroom, returned to the stove and opened the door. Nothing. No movement. No sound. No sight of the bird as I dug around the wood I would light later. Might the bird have found its way up the chimney? I freed the dog, who resumed watching the stove. When he began barking once more, I again saw the bird thrashing around behind the glass. I called animal control. The bird disappeared when they arrived. They left. The bird returned. I fetched my neighbor, an erstwhile safari guide from Zimbabwe. Inexplicably, the bird showed itself. When my neighbor opened the glass door, the bird flew out, landed on the woodpile, hopped down behind it. “It’s easier dealing with elephants,” my neighbor said. “You can’t lose them in a woodpile.”
We lifted logs from the pile until my neighbor could easily reach down behind those remaining. The bird screamed. Getting both hands around it, my neighbor gently lifted it from its hiding place. In his hands, the bird was quiet. I held the door open while he carried it outside. When he opened his hands, the little bird flew into the huge, old blue spruce in the yard. It flew, without wavering, into its life.
Later, I made a fire in the stove and my dog and I ate dinner in front of it. The room and my house were bathed in the radiance my mother called love. Alone on Christmas Eve? Hardly.