A mountain dusk before Christmas

A mountain dusk before Christmas

By Colin McNickle


Comes a time on Christmas Eve when something extraordinary happens on the top of these western highlands marking the way to the Appalachian Mountains. Above and beyond, that is, what already makes this day so phenomenal.

That “something” is the first hint of dusk.

The last-minute shopping is done, though a few “straggler” gifts still must be wrapped.

A few days of firewood have been brought in from the cord piles and stacked inside the basement patio door for the first part of the long holiday “burn.”

Only a low fire has been kept stoked in the brand-new and nearly 2-ton “Stone Beast” of a fireplace most of the day.  But it has been doing yeoman’s work for weeks now, burning a variety of hardwoods and putting a mighty dent in many already frigid days and nights.

The fireplace, its mantel adorned with a manger scene dating back 70 years, will be banked for a time this evening as the short jaunt is made over the river and up into the wood to spend some time with family at brother Shannon’s.

Meanwhile, upstairs on the main floor dinner prep, times two, is underway.

The smells of bread, cookie and brownie baking are starting to give way to the aroma of savory scalloped potatoes soon to start browning on top. And not long after, the delectable sizzle of the finishing searing of a medium-rare beef loin will be the come-hither scent of the mid-afternoon dinner to come.

Lest we forget the steamed fresh veggies.

But already the beginning of the Christmas Day feast is simmering on the stove – a wine-based gravy that, reduction after reduction, will be the final seduction ready for slathering.

Slathering over the 23-pound roast turkey whose meat has been rendered sweet by a pound of bacon. …

Slathering over the stuffing, roasted in the bird as it should be – and in defiance of contemporary trends — for maximum flavor. …

And slathering over the potatoes, boiled in chicken broth and diced onions, then mashed with one part heavy cream and six parts butter.

Glancing outside, it looks as if some of the self-anointed illumination engineers on the mountain are a tad switch-happy on this afternoon of afternoons. Their house peaks and door surrounds struggle to be “aglow” in the daylight.

But many more of the outside Christmas lights on these mountain ridges, awaiting the sunset’s cue, are not yet on; perhaps those neighbors know the majesty of this holy dusk nearly upon us, too.

Inside, tall and fat fresh-cut Christmas trees glow by the upstairs and downstairs fireplaces.

The Fraser fir downstairs beams soft red, yellow, blue and green lights. Among the many decorations that have adorned trees for many decades (and a few close to a century old) are two new additions – miniature civilian airplanes from different eras to compliment a fighter plane from World War II. They all are odes to a late father’s service in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Upstairs, a Balsam fir loaded with many more no-less significant ornaments appears to cast an Eat ‘n Park animated Christmas commercial-like halo with its brilliant lights of white. Someone still needs to find the pickle ornament.

The cats are doing what they do best – five of them are nonplussed not one whit by the import of the day.

Oscar, the patriarch, is out hunting for his own Christmas Eve meal. Or, if luck visits the household, perhaps he’ll offer up a post-dinner snack of vole or squirrel. Ahem.

Otherwise, Midnight lounges on a bed, intermittently snoring. Oreo slumbers on a couch, dreaming of a belly-rub. Winslow, buried in a comforter, is asleep on the loveseat in front of the downstairs fireplace.

And Wyeth? She lies in “guard” on the back of an upstairs loveseat, either trying to figure out which fireplace Santa will use (given their now are two) or ready to “Meow” under her breath that a last-minute package has arrived at the front door, hurriedly deposited by a UPS driver pining for some Christmas cheer at the end of a very long delivery season.

Strains of “The Wexford Carol” can be heard emanating direct from Ireland on the Internet HD radio. A CD player left on low in the downstairs workshop plays The Chieftans “Bells of Dublin” CD. Some smart aleck set it on the “repeat” mode.

As wondrously simple and tranquil as all this inside “activity” is, another minuet of nature is about to unfold again outside.

Cardinals are performing their regular but daring sorties to the seed blocks hanging from the garden fenceposts. Are two nearby dogs out for their constitutional any threat?

A grouping of deer is observing from the edge of the wood, not sure whether to intercede, also watching the dogs but knowing not if the summer-jolting electric garden fence is charged still.

A lone raccoon drinks from the small pond by one of the woodpiles, the beneficiary of a drainage pipe that runs clear, cold and refreshing.

There’s a low rustling in some brush not far away; it just might be that red fox of the wood and some kits waiting for the cover of darkness to raid the seed and sate their thirst.

And Coalie, a normally rambunctious coal-gray Labrador retriever, quietly explores her yard, seemingly respecting the sanctify of the moment of the now-departing afternoon.

But, set now is the sun.

Subtle are the winds.

Sweet is the smell of the crisp air. The smoke from another fireplace caught in the prevailing wind indicates the addition of a piece of wet fruit wood. You can almost hear the sizzle in the smell, if that makes any sense. It’s another reminder to properly bank one own’s fireplace before going visiting.

Then, one by one, the rest of the Jones Mountain Christmas lights flick on. “The moment” is about to end. And the mountain dusk before Christmas  is gone.

Now comes the silent night.

It is the holiest of nights.

All is calm.

All is bright.

“The time draws near the birth of Christ,” Tennyson reminded.

“The moon is hid;

“The night is still;

“The Christmas bells from hill to hill

“Answer each other in the mist.”

Christmas is nigh. And for one brief, beautiful moment, on this mountain outpost so strikingly tranquil, all is right with the world.

Merry Christmas — every one.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).