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Another Christmas Passed

Bill Meredith

"…mama in her kerchief and I in my cap
had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap…."
Clement Moore, 1823

(January, 2014) Several years ago, when the effect of global climate change on our local weather was becoming obvious, I created a calendar with a new season. Autumn was defined as ending on The Day the Leaves Come Down. That signaled the beginning of the new season, yet to be named; it would last until The Day of the First Real Snow, when winter would officially begin. The length of the new season would be flexible, at least for a while until the climate changes became stabilized. This seemed to me like an eminently sensible arrangement; after all, the old seasons were invented back when everyone was outside a lot, farming, harvesting, hunting, or cutting wood, and in those days everyone knew about equinoxes, phases of the moon, and astrological signs. But nowadays everyone is indoors watching TV or playing computer games in the evening, so nobody knows when the seasons change anyhow… they aren’t even related to daylight-saving time… and very few folks can even define "equinox" any more. So I thought the new calendar would be readily accepted, and I published it in this paper’s predecessor - The Emmitsburg Dispacth in 2000, to celebrate the Millennium. I even offered to sponsor a contest to name the new season, but, sad to say, there were no entries. In fact, the whole idea of a new calendar was a big disappointment. So far, I think I’m the only person who goes by it.

Nature, of course, ignored both my calendar and the old one, and this year passed with its usual irregular regularity. Sometime in August the average temperature began dropping steadily by 2 ½ degrees each week, while the actual daily temperatures bounced up and down like a ball of silly putty as frontal systems passed. On the whole it was cooler than usual, and in the rest of the world there were droughts, floods, typhoons and tsunamis, but here in Emmitsburg nothing much happened. Then, despite public indifference, The Leaves Came Down on November 7 and the new season arrived. For a month it lived up to its lack of a name… nothing much happened… but then, on Sunday, December 8, The First Real Snow came. It began falling about 10:30 am, and by noon we had over five inches. Church was cancelled, and the snow came down in big, soft flakes that stuck to the trees and made you want to sit by the window and watch it pile up while you dreamed of the good old days. The new calendar worked. By evening we had over 8 inches of snow. The equinox was still two weeks away, but it was winter, and it was beautiful.

Folks of my generation cannot watch a scene like that without thinking about Clement Moore’s poem, "A visit from St. Nicholas." I wonder if children now memorize it as I did, and whether they understand any of its imagery. I guess they still hang stockings, although most of them can’t do it by the chimney with care, because most homes don’t have fireplaces any more. The poem was published 110 years before I was born, but when I was a child its language and imagery still made sense. The old house Grandma lived in actually had a mouse hole in the living-room baseboard, and you could usually hear them stirring about at night. Most houses, at least where I lived, lacked central heating; there were open fireplaces in every living room, and the flue led directly up the chimney, so it took no imagination to see how Santa got in. There was a mantel over every fireplace; it always held a clock, some candlesticks or oil lamps, and a picture or two, and its front edge was perforated by pinholes that had supported Christmas stockings in years long past. When it snowed, and it always did, the roof would remain covered for weeks because there was no heat from inside to melt it; Santa’s sleigh could land there quietly. Most families had a car then, but the unpaved country roads were often impassable, so every child had seen a team of horses pulling a sled loaded with sacks of grain from the feed store, or hauling hay from a haystack to the barn. My uncle actually had a sleigh, built like a buckboard with runners instead of wheels; he kept a riding horse named Ginger, and a set of harness with bells. A lot of people still slept in nightcaps and wrapped hot bricks in towels to keep their feet warm at night; sometimes if you left a glass of water by the bed it would have ice in it by morning. I wouldn’t want to go back and live like that again, but it sure made great memories. I wonder what the kids who are growing up now will have to tell their grandchildren about.

When you get a snow like that, it gives you a chance to experience what a silent night really is. The traffic noise abates, and for a while you only hear the things that are supposed to be there, like the great horned owl that hooted in the woods behind our house. If you bother to look, snow can also remind you that even when you live in town you have to share the environment. There were deer in the yard; I didn’t see or hear them, but they left tracks for me to find the next day. Our chipmunks dug a tunnel under the walk in front of the house and spent the past month stocking it with sunflower seeds from the bird feeder; they settled in for their long winter’s nap, but after I shoveled the snow off the walk, the sun warmed it enough to wake them, and they came out and left a few tracks. Squirrels, of course, are everywhere; they couldn’t get past the barrier I put on the pole that holds the bird feeder, so they climbed up to the window sill and jumped to it.

For those that survive, there is a lot to learn when it snows. A young squirrel, probably born late last summer, couldn’t jump across the four-foot void from the window to the bird feeder, and hadn’t learned yet that she must dig into the snow to find seeds that were spilled on the ground. She sat and shivered miserably until one of the older ones dug a few holes; now, two snows later, she digs clumsily, always in the same place. The Cooper’s hawks that chased pigeons and starlings around town last summer produced two young ones that are hanging around now; they are clad in brown feathers, but will molt into gray next spring if they survive. They are full-size and fly like bullets, but still miss their prey more often than they catch it. The male came tearing around the corner of the garage the other day and struck in the middle of a flock of sparrows under the feeder. A cloud of snow and sparrows exploded in all directions, like fragments from a hand grenade, while the hawk sat there in his impact crater, empty-taloned, with a look of frustration on his face. I hope he learns.

By the time this essay reaches you, Christmas will have passed and a new year started. We expect about a dozen assorted children, grandchildren, and in-laws for dinner; I hope the snow will fall everywhere except on the roads, and they all can make it. We will burn a mighty yule log in the fireplace, and if any small visitors appear I will show them the tracks of birds, rabbits, and squirrels in our yard, and tell them how Christmas used to be. I will remember friends and family who are no longer here, and Pogo, who said, "…for Christmas is a life-long dream, and dreams, the stuff of years. The gentle journey wanders on, through laughter, love and tears." May it be so.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith