I love stories. Just begin “Once upon a time,” and my ears are perked. The song “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Edmund H. Sears starts like a story and I love it dearly, along with all the other Christmas carols. When I hear Christmas music, even before Thanksgiving, I experience a feeling of peace and wonder and nostalgia. Some carols remind me of specific wonderful times and I’m transported to the scents and smells and sounds of that experience. For instance, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”…..
Who knows it was really midnight when Jesus was born? But it could have been. It was at least night because it says in Luke that the shepherds were keeping their flock “by night.” Anyway, when I was nine years old I wasn’t worried about theology or philosophy either one, but I absorbed the story and enjoyed singing the words that etched themselves into my heart for later perusal: “It came upon a midnight clear, That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth To touch their harps of gold:…”
The night Jesus was born, I considered, could have been a night such as the one when I, along with several of my brothers and sisters, took a very special Christmas Eve walk.
My two playmate brothers, Charlie and Stanley (the other three had already grown and left home), had been building a small house in our woods that fall of 1951. They had allowed five-year-old Suzanne and me to help–that is, up to a point. As soon as it was “dried in” when we could have really enjoyed it, they put us out. We were forced to find our own amusement. Hopeful that the hammering and sawing we heard might just mean the boys were making us a present, we tried to think of something we could give them in turn. Mamma helped us hem handkerchiefs after we’d given up on our success in pottery and aircraft construction.
Christmas Eve finally, finally, arrived. Mamma and Daddy banned us from the Hall about 5:00 that afternoon so they could bring in the Christmas tree and decorate it. We could hear swishing and sliding as they wangled the tree in, hear Daddy instructing Mamma, “All right, now, up she goes,” and Mamma then eying its straightness with “No, to the right, little to the left, there that’s good. Here’s the string. Catch!” We knew, though we were not supposed to look, that Daddy was now tying the tree to the balcony rail.
Even the oldest girls, Pat and Ginger, home from college, were not to see the tree until the candles were all lit and Daddy blew the trumpet. In fact, the girls were in charge of feeding us all our supper. But no one was hungry except Stan who was never full. Suddenly, instead of prodding us to eat our bread and milk, Pat was putting on her big coat, fluffing her hair out over the collar and grabbing coats for Suzanne and me. Somehow everyone else seemed to know what we were doing, but it was a mystery to me.
“Oh, Suzanne, where are your mittens?” asked Ginger.
“In my coat pocket with mine,” I said. “Her coat doesn’t have pockets. Anyway, our mittens are so full of holes our fingers are sticking out.”
“Well, that’s a good thing,” said Pat helping Ginger fit them on us. “If it weren’t for the holes they’d be too little. Hmmmm. Too bad you two don’t have new mittens. That’s a shame.” She sounded a little as if she were telling a joke but I wasn’t getting it.
It was a moonlit night with a dome of stars overhead, so clear it felt almost as if they were pulling my eyes right out of my head. Jackie started singing It Came Upon a Midnight Clear as we trailed down Sunny Lawn, across Sand Flat, and crunched in frozen ruts of an old road that wound around Tulip Hill. I could almost imagine one of those angels appearing in our path, “bending near,” especially when Pat said in a hushed voice, “There! Do you see that one bright star?” We looked where she pointed and sure enough, the brightest star actually did have a shining longer point like stars on Christmas cards.
We were so intent on studying the stars, Suzanne and I, that we didn’t notice Stan, Charlie, and Jackie running on ahead leaving us far behind. The cold crept into my holey mittens and I fisted my hands to warm them. It had gotten pretty dark in the deeper woods and I stayed close by Pat’s side, glad when she took one of my hands in hers. At least that one could be warm. Suddenly Ginger said in the most startling voice, “Halt! Look through the trees! What is that?”
For a tiniest second I thought, The angel has come down! Then I took a deep breath of cold air and realized the light, like a tiny pinpoint through the trees, was exactly where that little house should be, the one from which we’d been exiled weeks before. I let go Pat’s hand and, suddenly fearless, dashed ahead.
The Little House as we began to call it had been furnished and decorated by Jackie and our brothers. It was the most fantastic playhouse anyone could have imagined. There were curtains, wallpaper, stove, quilted doll-size bed–and a window with a sill on which a candle gleamed. I can remember this very minute, all these years later, the pounding excitement in my chest. It was a gift of love that would last long after the walls caved in and the shingles disintegrated.
It was time, then, to hurry back to Stone Gables house and line up for the Christmas tree, the youngest, Suzanne, in front. I can taste a piece of hard candy right now, feel the warmth of new mittens, and smell the tantalizing scent of a brand new book.
And in the distance I hear the tune to It Came Upon a Midnight Clear…