I love Christmas Eve almost more than I love Christmas Day. I love the air of mystery, the anticipation, the hush. I love the crisp snow, and the stars. My love of Christmas Eve has a little, but not much to do with family and friends, although I love them and don’t want to imagine Christmas or Christmas Eve without them. Part of Christmas Eve, whether I go to church or not, is a private anticipation and inner preparation. One Christmas Eve, when I was 16, I stayed up late finishing up the mittens I was knitting for my sisters. I sat in my room, the house was quiet, my sisters and my parents were asleep. I knitted and listened to the midnight Christmas Eve service from some Catholic church whose name I have forgotten being broadcast on the radio. It was 1962. My radio was a blue plastic clock radio that my parents had given me for my birthday several years before. The light in my room was the only light on in the entire house. Because we live in the country, I could see almost no other lights and no cars came down our dirt road that night.
For years, I have cherished this memory because of the way I was alone with the music and the way I could anticipate the joy and hubbub of the morning to come.
Clearly, I have had many other Christmas Eves since then. One at the Santa Barbara mission where the manger scene included live animals (not a live infant) and where palm trees swayed over the ancient church whose interior was lit only by candles and decorated only by evergreen boughs. Another Christmas Eve, when my daughter, ( first born child) was 6 weeks old, when I sang, as part of a small trio in the Christmas Eve service in a dark, and formidable Episcopal Church in North Philadelphia. We were supposed to have been a quartet, but the soprano got sick, so we did some quick rearranging, and as the alto, I same most of the melodies. I sang “Once in Royal David’s City” that night, never having sung it before. I learned later, that although we sang many, many carols in my childhood, “David’s City” was one that was part of my mother’s Sunday school tradition that she did not pass one. After that service my husband, and baby and I went back to the new house we had just moved into the day before. We admired the small pile of presents resting at the base of our grandfather’s clock and allowed ourselves to open one. The night before, Dec 23, while the baby slept upstairs, and while my husband was on duty as a resident at the Children’s Hospital in our city, I had unpacked kitchen boxes and had come across the menorah. The 23rd was the last night of Hannukah. I found the box of candles and lit them all, their warm light filling the kitchen as I put away pots, dishes, coffee mugs. It was a moment of private reflection, not unlike listening to the mass in my room 13 years before.
So, now it is Christmas Eve morning. It is still dark outside and the wind is blowing. My husband has gone off to exercise at the YMCA, my grown sons are still asleep, as are my daughter-in-law and my two granddaughters. Yesterday, my elder son got early and went hunting. He brought back a small white-tail buck that hung for most the day in the backyard. It is now cut up and in a cooler. At some point this week, we will have fresh venison for dinner. My 9 year-old granddaughter will take a deer hoof back to England with her for “Show and Tell”. Later today, the 9 year-old and her uncle, the hunter, will excavate the large pile of snow that they created in the back yard yesterday, to create a snow cave where they will sleep tonight. Skye says it’s an experiment because usually Santa leaves her one present at the end of her bed (a ploy, I know, on the part of parents to keep her occupied so that they can sleep just a little longer). Skye is testing to see if Santa will find her in the snow cave and leave her a present at the end of her sleeping bag. While she and her uncle built a snow cave last Christmas as well, she wasn’t brave enough to test Santa and she slept inside on Christmas Eve.
This year, because I am recovering from knee replacement surgery, I have baked no cookies, I have not planned meals. I have actually sung few carols. I have watched others put up the tree. I have told the little girlies about the ornaments that I had on my tree when I was a little girl. The hubbub has swirled around me while I have sat with my leg up wrapped in ice packs or have gone to PT.
However, as I sit in bed, early on this Christmas Eve day, in the predawn darkness, I can still feel the hush in the air. There’s a pile of presents in the corner of my bedroom that one of my boys (young men) will carry down to put under the tree later. I know what most of them are, and I revel in the surprise that some of them will bring.
I hear in my head the words to the contemporary Welsh carol, “Poverty.” “ Whose love still is able to show us that stable, where lowly in a manger He lay”. I am surrounded by love this Christmas Eve. My husband, my sons, my daughter-in-law, my granddaughters… the rest of my family..and I am surrounded by the love expressed in this morning’s wind, in the dark and starless sky, by the willingness of a small deer to give up his life for our family. I will not go to church tonight. The service is too late, I will be too tired, the roads are too icy… but I know that just a few blocks from my house, glorious music and the story full of anticipation and hope will ring out in the church down the hill.