Snow and warmth walk hand in hand in the distant memories of those first Christmases in my life. Snow, piled high in towering mountains at the end of the driveway by the vigilant plow who came in the darkness of the early morning with his bright headlights and clunking scrape scrape on the frozen ground. Snow, that fell softly down in great flakes and landed on the dark-haired back of the little Peek-a-poo, Smidgen, as he pranced around in the big backyard. Snow, that gilded the Currier & Ives Christmas scenes that naturally occurred in modern Vermont and forever baptized the ideals of Christmas in my own mind.
I did not feel nor remember the cold of those deep winter days. The house was warm, always warm. There was a wood stove in the living room, it’s windows glowing with the brightness of fire. Deep in the basement there was a furnace which every now and then my mother would descend to stoke with wedges of seasoned wood piled on the basement floor in readiness. My bedroom upstairs was warm and the bathroom was warm. Perhaps the only place that hinted of the below zero weather outside was the mudroom with its windows and cold outside door.
It was Christmas Eve. The short day had easily given in to the deep, country darkness. Fresh snow lay on the ground and outside the sky was clear and shining with a million glittering stars uninhibited by any city lights. Pushing my nose to the dining room window I could see off in the distance a lighted star affixed to the top of a silo. I loved that star. It was a glowing symbol of familiarity and comfort in the midst of darkness, long, long hours of darkness. I stared at it wistfully, feeling a deep sense of belonging.
Mom was in the kitchen, an even warmer room. Steam from the stove mingled with breathe from the two dogs and the hot dishwater in the sink which fogged up the windows that looked out to the road. Dinner might soon be ready.
I stood in front of the wooden frame couch gazing at the Christmas tree which now towered in front of the sliding glass doors. There were strings of white lights wrapped around the wide-spreading green branches. Single stalks of wheat tied with red ribbons hung from branches and a crocheted star rested against the very top of the tree. Last night I had been allowed to hang a few of the wheat stalks on the tree as mom read scripture verses about Christ being the light of the world, the bread of life, and our everlasting king. There were presents under the tree which dad said we would open that evening. It was on Christmas Eve that Christ was born, therefore that was when we should open our presents. It seemed as though many hours still stretched until present-opening time.
In just a few minutes dad would arrive with Bertha. I liked Bertha. She lived two miles away in the next town in an old house with a wood stove in her kitchen to cook on and a tiny pantry just inside the back door. I can still smell that pantry and see the light from the window as it reflected off the red tin of ritz crackers as Bertha pulled out a handful for me to enjoy. The smell of stale biscuits and old grease mingled with the crackers. My dad was afraid of Bertha’s apple pies — made with real lard and cooked in the wood burning oven and then left for days, maybe weeks, on the pantry shelf. Later I would be told that Bertha had been a school teacher, never married, and had lived in that house since her birth in the late 1800’s.
Tonight she would come to our warm house and sit by the tree with the colorful granny square blanket tucked tightly around her legs. My little girl antics would make her eyes dance and her mouth curl into smiles.
The evening seemed very long, perhaps because the light left us just about the time my afternoon nap was over. Somehow there was time for dinner, and time to drive to the neighboring village for the Christmas Eve service.
The snow was piled high outside but dad warmed the car for a good 20 minutes before we left and then carried me straight into the church where we found a seat in the old wooden pews. It was warm in the church with plenty of heat and I could smell the familiar church smell of stale coffee and mildew. There were candles burning and people laughing and hugging one another as they made their way to their seats. I remembered the carols from last year — the order of service and carols never changed. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel opened the service. I didn’t hear it often. Perhaps this was the only place I heard it. I loved the minor tones and the mournful melody. I wanted to sing it over and over. But the service moved on into Joy to the World, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.
Just as the service seemed to be dragging we came to my favorite part. Baskets of candles were passed down the pews. I was allowed to carefully hold my own little white candle stuck into a round of paper. The lights were turned out and slowly one flame began to light another as the congregation sang in a cappella Silent Night. I didn’t want the moment to end, just like I never wanted to take the last bite of an ice-cream cone, or come in from playing outside, or stop my play to go take a nap. Couldn’t we let the candles burn just a little bit longer?
Back at home Grandma arrived, her hair tucked up in curlers underneath a large scarf. She sat in the big chair next to the fireplace and showed me the plate she’d brought with her. Forgotten Cookies! How I loved these strange cookies that appeared only once a year. Grandma offered me one and I bit into the sweet, dry meringue that held walnuts and chocolate chips, luxury foods for me. I was glad Grandma let me have a second cookie. For some reason it is the memory of these cookies that remains with me and not the memories of opening presents.
The coffee table now held a tray with slices of date nut loaf and another loaf with the most intriguing bright red and green bits of fruit in it. I knew these had come from my mom’s friend in the next village. They too were a treat, but it was the cookies that I deemed to be the best of all.
Suddenly I felt so very tired and the heat of the wood stove made me feel far too warm. I was almost glad when mom said it was time for bed. I kissed everyone goodnight and followed mom up the wooden staircase to my bedroom at the far end. Mom turned back the old quilts for me so I could climb inside, laying my head down on my favorite little “pill-yo” as mom tucked the quilts under my chin. She flipped on the great plastic goose nightlight that stood guard by the side of the bed and sat down next to me to sing my bedtime lullaby, always the chorus of “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” My eyes were heavy and there was no time to think. I let myself be gently overtaken by the warm stillness of the night.