With Apologies to Those Living in the Southern Hemisphere

The word is coming in to us from around the country these days: eight inches of snow in Chicago, a foot and a half in Michigan, so much snow in Las Vegas (Las Vegas!) that they had to close the airport. The snow was falling steadily during the Seahawks game in Seattle on Sunday; since then, that city has accumulated even more. If the “Observed Snow Depth” map on Intellicast.com is telling the truth, then Seattlites currently enjoy upwards of eight inches of the stuff. And Intellicast.com can be believed, so far as I can tell: it reports that, south of West Virginia, we have No Snow At All.

A glance outside my window tells me pretty much the same thing.

This is to be expected. I live in North Carolina, after all, and Nowhere Near the mountains. We Just Don’t Get Snow for Christmas in these parts, and we never have, in my experience.

Many people are, I’m sure, perfectly happy about this. Many of the people living near me here in Durham are people who relocated to this area from Somewhere North, and one of their reasons for being here was this exactly: to get away from the snow. I have nothing to say to these people.

But I think most people would like a little snow– if only a little– for Christmas. It’s the Christmas carols, maybe, or the picturesque greeting cards that made early impressions on childish minds, or the ideal if frozen images from Currier and Ives. Christmas is meant to be cold and white. The white steeple rising from the white vale, light glowing through the stained-glass panes, and all around it the dark and crisp and clear night. A New England Christmas somehow informs the expectations of most Americans, even if all our lives we were raised in Phoenix. It’s just supposed to snow at Christmas.

Thirteen years ago this month, we anticipated Christmas in Switzerland. We were there for only three months, and lived for that short time on the first floor of a house in a small town in Appenzell. I think there is no flat space in all of Switzerland, but our canton and town sat in the still-steeper region of the Alps’ foothills, and the side yard of our house fell away from us at a gentle and definite slope, pouring down into a valley obstructed from view by more houses and trees. Miles away the earth came up again, and the hillside– visible from our kitchen window– was covered with a small town similar to ours: all red roofs and charming roof-lines and, in their midst, the tower of a church steeple. The snow came and went many times over the course of our three months there, but as December closed in the snow came to stay. While our world looked nothing like New England, the Swiss snow– covering the mountains and hills and coating the evergreens– was entirely and even more than appropriate.

We have nothing like that here.

Rather, while snow coats Everything Everywhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line, we have cloudless blue skies and temperatures drifting upwards. We are promised the sixties on Christmas day– a temperature I would accept with pleasure in April but not, so much, right now.

About two weeks before Christmas break we enjoyed temperatures even warmer. It was warm out, really and truly Warm. One evening I was closing the bathroom window that had been left open all day to let fresh air inside. My hand was on the sash and I was about to push it down when I heard them: crickets. Singing. In December. Honestly.

Shocking, isn’t it? To waste this much cyberspace (and your time) on grumblings such as these. It’s weather, for crying out loud! No one controls it. And I should be grateful for these cloudless skies. I should be thankful for temperatures that, while downright Cold in the early hours, still allow my morning walks to occur without my risking frostbite. And there is much– so much– to be grateful for in the architecture of the trees, and the way the sun’s low light glosses the branches, and the patience of the wind’s song in the dried-up leaves of the oak and beech trees.

But I can’t get away from the metaphor in my head: the light of the world born in the darkness. Somehow snow and cold seem right for the birth of the Christ-child. The shortest days of the year, the encroaching dark, the snow that muffles sound so that we seem so utterly helpless, so completely enclosed. It is into this mute helplessness that He comes, the bleak mid-winter of our private selves. We are a people that want saving, and winter– like no other season– shows us this. His light in our darkness.

See what I mean?

Oh, I know I’m crazy. Who can complain? In my classroom at school we had the windows open; students ate their lunches outside. It was shorts and flip-flops all over again. Who can beat weather like that? At the end of the day I took my coffee mug into the kitchen, a windowless and somewhat airless space that houses, among other things, a soda machine that makes the whole room smell faintly of plastic. I turned on the faucet to wash my dishes.

A little shot of detergent in the running water, and I was gone– far away to my kitchen in Appenzellerland, waiting past dark for Bill to come home. Something in the fragrance of the dish soap took me, suddenly and unexpectedly, so far away, and there I stood at the kitchen counter, staring out the window.

The sun’s light was long gone behind the mountains and snow covered the entire world. Trees and houses that moments before stood close to me now disappeared entirely, while away across the valley lights shone out from the other town on the other side. I was familiar with the pitch of those roofs; I knew well the way the buildings were situated. And now, in the darkness, in the snow, the lights of that town– reflected and maybe magnified by the snow– glowed with a quiet earnestness. I turned off the light in my kitchen and just stood at the sink and stared.

In the bleak midwinter,
frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him,
nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter
a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

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