This week brings with it a trio of pretty important annual milestones for lots of folks. First came the first official day of winter, followed quickly by Christmas Eve and Christmas day.
While the designated first day of winter might not be as obvious down here on the gulf coast as it is in, say, Maine or Montana, it still calls forth images of skeletal winter trees, drab gray skies streaked with smoke from chimneys, and geese hightailing it toward warmer climes.
Down here might actually be the warmer climes those birds are heading for. Even so, there’s still something magical about the arrival of the season that contains the end of one year and the beginning of another.
I love winter because it’s both celebration and plain time (called ordinary time in some liturgical calendars); it’s one year burning down to smoldering embers and the next one flaming up again to start anew. Winter is as close to the alpha and the omega as we get in a season.
It’s also, for me at least, absolutely brimming over with countless memories. Like cold walks through austere winter woods or beside gray waves breaking on a frigid beach. And carrying split firewood from behind the garage to the front porch with my father when I was a boy, and of my mother seeing to several simultaneous cooking projects in her warm, cozy, frosty-windowed kitchen.
The artist Andrew Wyeth, whose haunting paintings of bleak winter scenes rival the seascapes of Winslow Homer, had this to say about his own fascination with the season: “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”
Baseball Hall of Famer Bill Veeck, who at one time or another owned several major league teams and was famous for his publicity shenanigans – he once hired a dwarf as a pinch hitter to wreak havoc with the opposing pitcher’s strike zone – put it more succinctly.
“There are only two seasons,” he said, “winter and baseball.”
The first one of those began this week, no matter what the thermometer says. And now comes Christmas Eve and Christmas day.
Whatever your religious persuasion, or lack thereof, you have to be at least a little moved by this pair of days, sacred to billions of the world’s population, that are given over completely to peace, hope, and joy.
Christmas Eve, for me, isn’t just a vigil commemorating a miraculous birth, but is at the same time calling each of us to perfect those things – peace, hope, and joy – in ourselves.
But that’s a tall order, perhaps requiring a little divine assistance of the prayerful variety. One of my favorite prayers, because of what it says and the precise wordsmithing employed to say it, ends like this:
“Be with us as we sing the ironies of Christmas, the incomprehensible comprehended, the poetry made hard fact, the helpless Babe who cracks the world asunder. We kneel before you – shepherds, innkeepers, wisemen. Help us to rise bigger than we are.”
Amen to that.
I’m pretty sure the “bigger than we are” bit has nothing to do with overindulging on holiday foods. Surely it’s about us – whatever our religious leanings – becoming bigger, and better, at how we treat each other, how we count our blessings, and how we behave ourselves.
It’s about opening up our hearts in a cold world.
Isn’t that ironic? The warmest feeling we can experience comes at the coldest time of the year.
And maybe that’s the best thing about the last – and the first – season of the year.