My Indiana childhood Christmases were happy, with lots of parties with our extended family. In contrast, my home was a quiet place at Christmas until I was 8. That’s when my brother finally arrived. I remember many evenings during Advent, lying by myself in the darkened living room lit only by the tree with its lights reflecting onto the deep snow outside the big windows. I would happily sing along to carols playing on the stereo, and wonder so deeply about the baby Jesus and the Holy Night and the Kings who followed the star from afar.
This picture of myself is one of my deepest memories of Christmas, one that largely disappeared from my life when I got married and had five children. My mother laughed every year as we waded through the piles of wrapping paper late Christmas morning, the 5 girls whipping circles around everyone with new doll carriages, begging to roller skate in the hallway. My mother is a quiet, measured, and saintly woman, but she enjoyed the shenanigans and would exclaim, “Karen, you thrive on chaos!” It made me laugh. But then later I would wonder if all the cooking and shopping, and the big family gatherings that I had wanted in order to create such perfect memories for my family had cheated my children of that quiet place of reflection on the birth of our Lord, such as I had experienced.
Then, an idea. On a very cold and clear Christmas Eve Day, I secretly arranged a crèche in a far corner of our back yard, around the side of the house. I lay dried grass in front of the scene, and made a path of candles from the back door that wound around the corner of the house to the front of the crèche. I told the girls that day if they were very good, they could stay up late and wait for the baby Jesus to be born.
When it was late enough for the streets to empty and the stars to come out, hard and glittering in the cold, we read the Christmas story. I asked my husband John to distract them, while I went to light all the candles. Then I told everyone to put on their coats, and we would go see how the Holy Night really was.
When we walked out the back door they girls were chattering, what are we doing, what is going on, but when we walked off the patio and saw the path of candles glowing in the night, they became hushed. I whispered, “We must be very quiet so we don’t disturb the baby Jesus.” And when we rounded the corner of the house and they saw my mother’s old chalk crèche and stable with the familiar figures flickering in the candlelight, they were transported. They all knelt in front of the manger and touched the infant so carefully, not saying a word the whole time. With tears in my eyes I turned toward my husband, and his eyes, too, were brimming. We stayed in silence by that crèche for many minutes, until everyone’s teeth began to chatter. Still, no one wanted to leave, and when I motioned that we should return to the house, we all walked back in silence, pondering the mystery of what had happened one night so long ago.
To this day, that experience is one of my children’s favorite memories, and my husband’s absolute favorite memory.
Our oldest daughter arrives today from Germany with her husband and 2 of our granddaughters. Our house will be hectic tonight once more with 2 other grandkids coming for a sleepover. The “Rainbow Unicorn Club” will no doubt be tearing around the house, madly wheeling doll carriages, and this time, our grandson, Xavier, will be in the mix wheeling about with some matchbox cars. But I have other plans for their Christmas Eve, plans for a journey that will take us back more than two thousand years to the birth of that sweet baby, Jesus, who grew up to become our savior. And we will find that its quiet center is still only as far away as our backyard.