As a child I loved December best of all months. It held the most important day of the year: Christmas. Everything was good in December. Nights so cold the snow squeaked under foot. Air so clear the glittering stars hung just above the trees. Snow so high it drifted against the windows.
It's easy to forget the irritating parts of childhood on a farm. The barn that must be cleaned every day. The cow that calmly stood on your frozen toes until you screamed and beat her flanks. The metal latches of gates. Stuck. Until you took off your mittens. Horses that waited for an open gate and gleefully escaped through the deep drifts.
Still, I loved December. While helping with chores, we fell on our backs into sweet hay. We fell on our backs into drifts and made snow angels while chopping wood for the stove. While the stock tank filled with water, we slid on the ice nearby. We badgered our father until after the milking he joined us as we played at hockey on our crude ice rink. In the cold black night we laughed until breathless and cried when we cracked our knees on the ice. Sometimes we froze our faces. Once my brother came in with white patches on his cheeks. As he warmed up he screamed in pain: "Feel them! They're crunchy!" We kneaded his cheeks and surely the ice crystals broke just like thawing hamburger.
Every year Dad told us we couldn't afford Christmas and weren't even getting a tree-which, in our case, was free! All we did was drive into the forest with tractor and trailer and chop it down. It was a relief to arrive home from school and find it on the porch at last.
Our tree glowed softly with blue lights and sparkled with silver tinsel. We loved it so. We all vowed to have one exactly like it when we grew up. When it was first lit we ran outside in the dark to see how it would look through the window. We knew people would stare in wonder as they drove by.
On the 23rd of December, we waited for our grandparents to come with presents. They lived 36 miles away and always drove a new Buick. We considered them very rich. They always brought us two gifts each: a new pair of slippers knitted by grandmother and a toy. This was unbelievable extravagance. As the day wore on, my father would tease us: They might not come. It was going to be 35 below zero. It was going to blizzard.
We helped with chores, anxiously watching the evening sky and the thermometer as it sank lower and lower. Few cars drove by our house that far out in the country. When headlights grew in the distance we prayed over and over to ourselves, "Make it be Grandpa and Grandma."
At last someone would yell, "It's them!" And we would run from window to window, laughing and somersaulting off the couch. They had come after all, and loaded with gifts! We arranged them around the tree, shaking boxes and admiring the beautiful bows placed on every one. It was still another 24 hours before we could open them, and our fingers ached to tear off the wrappings.
On Christmas Eve day the hours dragged slowly by. We found nothing to do until the boys helped with evening chores and the girls stayed inside to help with supper, which was eaten after gifts were opened. All afternoon an enormous ham sizzled in the oven. Home-baked beans bubbled with a sweet molasses smell. Fresh whole-wheat buns warmed near the oven. Stuffed celery and home-made pickles were set out. Best of all were the shiny black olives that gave a little squeak on your teeth as you bit down.
We arranged sweets of all kinds-cookies, nut breads, chocolate fudge-and wondered how long we would be tortured with waiting. We tried to remember that Christmas is truly about God's sending Jesus to earth, but it was hard.
Grandparents and guests arrived around 6:30. The grown-ups visited for a million years, discussing the most boring things. Crops. Hunting. Farm prices. Sick neighbors. Recipes. Finally they agreed it was time. But first the Christmas story must be read-although we barely heard the words.
That year my grandparents gave me a gray felt skirt with a pink poodle appliqued to the front. Its rhinestone eyes gleamed and a leash led from its neck to the waistband. When I twirled, it stood straight out and nothing could have been more fashionable than that.
As an adult I look back on these memories with fondness. But I am glad that, sweet as they are, they are not all my parents bequeathed to me. They began our inheritance-a light that broke into our lives and continues even now to penetrate the darkest corners of life with hope. It is the very present joy and mystery of a baby born with the power to bring us eternal peace with God.