Snow blown ice particles stung my skin and forced my eyes closed.
Well doesn’t that feel great, I thought bitterly, removed my wool-lined leather gloves, wiped my eyes, and examined the red door they had slammed in my face. The polished brass numbers seemed as cold as the ice. My attempt to reconnect with old friends ended abruptly.
I walked off the three-step porch, and stared up at the front of the gaily-decorated house. Holiday lights neatly outlined the structure sparkling under a thin coating of snow. I read again the large red and green lettering that stated Merry Christmas as if the day, Christmas Day held a special significance for the occupants.
Clearly not, I decided, at least not beyond spiked eggnog and Christmas morning pleasures.
I wasn’t so old I could not recall the feeling, nor was I so young that I still believed that Christmas Day was all about me and me alone.
We often went to church the night before, Christmas Eve midnight service. I enjoyed the singing, the dark mystery of the manger scene assembled off to one side of the nave. Our minister wore a thick black and silver beard, smiled more than most, had a rich sonorous voice that filled the rafters with his words, although, the rafters hung low in the small ancient building.
No longer did I recall the sound of his voice, but I could still picture his face, his wide grin, which occasionally made me believe that he knew something vitally important and that the knowing filled him with a particular joy he alone experienced.
Recalling the church interior was easier. It was old dark reddish brown wood with a low ceiling, exposed hand-hewn rafters, and lighting that resembled rows of flickering candles hung overhead in small wrought iron candelabras.
Well they didn’t really flicker, but childhood imagination made it so on that special night.
The altar was simple, nothing ornate about it, as was the crucifix above. The simplicity made the sacrificed Jesus easier to examine, easier to accept as once having been a flesh and blood man with the courage many since envied but never achieved.
What I enjoyed most was the white altar linens with their rich resonant colors chasing the borders. Every season, each church holiday, new linens would appear. For me the purple of Easter was best.
At the midnight service, few of the normal Sunday congregation attended, but we did not care. Somehow that made it feel more intimate, as if the building embraced us, welcomed us for braving the cold star-encrusted night, the new snowfall and occasional ice to huddle within its ancient walls. From the basement, the sound of the furnace rumbled lightly underfoot as its uneven appreciated heat wavered between rows of pews.
I would sit in a pew alongside my mother, kneeling when directed by a phrase, the minister’s hand movement, while I touched the curved top of the scarred and varnished seatback, wondering how many people had felt that surface before I had. A deep scratch perhaps dug accidentally from someone’s ring as she turned to leave, seemed like a clue as to who was there in earlier times.
Once, I spied tiny initials grooved into the wood just beneath the seatback top, where it curled back, the initials were A.P.C. I tried to fill in the names, and finally gave up and made the three letters into a word, which I recited to myself for days whenever I recalled the moment of discovery.
The old faded red hymnals and songbooks felt rough, heavy with worn smooth edges. Some had small tears in pages at the top or bottom where the page met the spine. More than one person dog-eared corners at favorite songs, I guessed, and several book had names written on the inside front cover, or the rear cover along with “donated by.”
One name that stayed with me was James Matthew Tyler. I had learned in school that President Tyler had cousins who lived in the neighboring town back when he was alive. The family lived there long after.
Is this one of them? I’d thought, but never learned the answer.
After church, we returned home, made hot chocolate, finished decorating the tree with long strands of tinsel, flattening each one before hanging it so it individually moved in the air currents to reflect glittering light from the colored bulbs nearby.
Our tree was scrawny in places, which we turned to face the wall. When completed, all of the room lights went off. The tree’s lights sparkled with renewed promise bouncing off hundreds of tinsel icicles, filling the room with their hope, glowing with promise beneath the angel sitting at the very top. There was magic there and then. I knew it and believed it would last forever.
Backing down the sidewalk, I examined the windows, but did not see as much as a curtain shiver. No one inside cared who might be outside, or if they did, must’ve decided those who braved the elements on Christmas Eve were either insane, criminals or beggars.
God forbid beggars should ring a doorbell on Christmas Eve, I thought disgustedly, and turned to walk to the street.
God may not be dead, I added grimly, but Christmas, well that might be another story.
Wind continued to pick at my hair, flipping strands that hung loose from under my rolled navy blue woolen watch cap. I jammed my hands in my heavy coat’s pockets, and waded through ankle deep snow feeling icy moisture as it began to leak over the tops of my boots.
After my failure to gain entry, I realized I no longer had a goal. Strangers now filled the village that I once called my hometown.
They had taken the time to decorate for the holiday, but each house bore strings of white lights that resembled dangling icicles. White light silhouette Santa and reindeers stood like sentries on nearly every lawn. A few entry doors stood decorated, as large wrapped gifts with bows to obscure the peepholes these strangers felt were necessary.
I saw large balloon-like snowmen, kept erect by a pump that blew hot air into them, at the corner house where once my closest friend lived. The snow around it had melted like an ugly wound to expose the bleakness below.
I kept on walking hoping the wind might at least die down. My car sat parked down by the harbor, several long blocks away.
The best thing for me to do, I thought, is get away from this neighborhood.
With a nod, I turned onto a dark side street. Well, it wasn’t dark but compared to where I had just been the difference was significant.
Only two or three houses wore Christmas decorations. None looked like their neighbor. One had strings of large colored bulbs draped around windows, a fence, and one evergreen tree to the right of its narrow white front door, which had two small windows set in the top. Behind the windows, yellow-white light flickered invitingly.
The second house had smaller colored bulbs, but twice as many as his neighbor as if he wanted to make up with volume what each bulb lost in glow. He had decorated two skeletal maple trees on the front lawn. One sat on either side of the sidewalk, which approached the entryway.
The third house had a candle in each window. I stopped to count and reached twenty-four before seeing the huge lit tree inside the house. It sat behind a high bay window, round and fat in the middle, tapered to the top where an angel treetop sent rays of light outside as if somehow the golden light it created was meant for any person fortunate enough to pass by during the night.
I didn’t know how long I stood watching, nor did I hear the side door open, footsteps crunching along a snow, covered walkway.
“You’re early,” I heard a deep sonorous voice proclaim.
“Early?” I asked without looking at the man who spoke.
“Yes you are,” he said, and I heard something in his voice that quivered emotion deep in my chest.
“Midnight service doesn’t begin for another twenty minutes,” he added kindly.
I spun around, shocked and delighted, stared at eyes that still twinkled but did so now above a silver and white beard. His face seemed the same but age had remolded him with the skill of time and his experiences.
I felt speechless, and my plight must’ve been obvious to him.
“Come, you can help me light the candles. And we’ll need to turn up the heat. There should be some warm cocoa ready too.” He reached out and placed his hand on my shoulder, moved it just enough to cause me to react by turning to follow him, which was when I saw that the side road I turned onto led directly to the old church I once attended as a small boy.
As I walked into the building behind him, the odors and sights sprang back from the distant past, and became the present.
He flipped on the lights, which dimly illuminated the entire building, and as we walked along the aisle, I quickly glanced under the edge of one pew back and smiled when I saw the initials A.P.C.
“Merry Christmas,” I whispered to my past, my present, and laughed lightly when I straightened and struck a match to light the first candle.
Copyright December 20, 2009
Written in memory of all who are no longer with us this Christmas (25 Dec. 2018)