Another dusk before Christmas
There comes a time on Christmas Eve when something extraordinary happens. Above and beyond what already makes this day so phenomenal, that is. That “something” is the first hint of dusk.
And though we each experience it in different locales, and some of the details obviously vary, there is a constancy in the experience that is peaceful to the core. As long as we open our eyes to it, that is, to take a moment to partake of it.
I experienced this grand snapshot in time for the first 21 years of my life in the countryside of Southeastern Ohio. Then, for nearly 30 years, in suburban Pittsburgh. These days, I do so in a place I’ve come to love, not far from the childhood abode, in a place I’ve dubbed Jones Mountain in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia.
So, sit back with your favorite holiday libation or other treat as the blank canvass is painted with another dusk before Christmas.
The last-minute shopping is done. Some of the cats are lounging on various beds and overstuffed chairs. Others are out for the count in the basement on two sets of summer furniture cushions placed in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. This time next year, there will be a new and large stone fireplace to warm all their slumbers.
Through those windows, by the way, they can see the stack of ash and apple wood that, once split and fully seasoned, will help warm their purrs for Christmas 2019. More wood will follow.
The buffalo chicken dip, deviled eggs and other goodies are chilling in various fridges. So, too, are two plum puddings received just this week, air-express from England. The latter will be the perfect dessert to cap the perfect feast of roast turkey with all the fixin’s at brother Shannon’s the next day.
On this late afternoon prelude to a journey over the hills and through the dales to a Christmas Eve gathering at brother Scott’s, the traditional roast beast, seared crispy brown on the outside and tantalizingly medium rare on the inside, has been devoured. As have been the traditional “1:4” mashed potatoes (that ratio representing one-part potatoes to four-parts butter).
And in what surely must be a universal and timeless act of holiday stealth, somebody’s sneaking a dip of the extra homemade dinner rolls into the boat of what’s left of the wine gravy, simmered with painstaking slowness.
“Shoot!” that somebody blurts out, realizing an incriminating trail of gravy drips will have to be cleaned up post-haste to thwart discovery.
Outside, some of the junior illumination engineers in the neighborhood are a tad switch-happy — a mixture of white and multi-colored lights on the boughs and buntings of their door surrounds already are on.
Across the way, the window wreaths already are illuminated by small spotlights. Window candles, those beacons to weary travelers (i.e. Mary and Joseph looking for a suitable shelter to welcome the birth of the Christ child) are glowing as well.
But some of the neighborhood’s outside Christmas lights remain off. Perhaps, just perhaps, these neighbors know too the majesty of this very special moment.
Back inside, the tall and fat evergreen glows softly as its lights show off precious family decorations, many old and some new; some purchased during overseas travels, many secured here and there but nowhere necessarily special.
And the same small light bulb that brightened the “Nativity scene,” as it was known in childhood, now spotlights the old Stone & Thomas Department Store figurines in a stable made of cut branches by paternal grandfather “Pop” in the middle of the last century.
My, how time flies.
The days of listening to old Christmas songs – lightly snapping, crackling and popping on a turntable with a dime on the tone arm to prevent skipping – are long gone. The old tunes still are played, of course, but these days they are conveyed through a high-tech Internet radio, live from studios just about anywhere in the world.
On this day of days soon to become that night of nights, Der Bingle & Co. are coming from an Irish broadcast that raises money each year for the less-fortunate among us.
My, how small the world has become.
The cats now have stirred, sensing that the day turning long is something different. They’re not sure why but they feel a growing reverence in the air. And out of respect for that, they appear to have put aside any ambushing, chasing and hissing, albeit temporarily.
In fact, two of them – Wyeth and Oreo – can be seen sitting side by side at the front storm door partaking of the arriving magic.
As wondrously simple and tranquil as all this inside “activity” is, something of a minuet has begun to unfold outside as the dusk draws nigh.
Follow the deer tracks, not in any snow but in a soggy mountain foothill, and you’ll soon come upon a group feeding at the tree line of the leafless wood. They’ve found the remnants of a buckwheat patch planted in the summer to bribe them away from the gardens.
From time to time, sensing they’re being observed, they pause to turn their heads, carefully watching for danger, if not a human handout. Sent a nod and wink by their potential human benefactors, they soon know they have nothing to dread.
Some squirrels are quenching their thirst in a mini-pond regularly replenished by a drainpipe carrying away this year’s plentiful rains. A stray bluebird, odd to see this time of the year, makes careful sorties in and out of the water, watched curiously by a pair of cardinals (indeed a true couple, what with one colored brilliant and the other muted) high in a bare tulip poplar.
And a fox, who newly revealed himself just a few weeks ago, thinks he’s concealed in the waning daylight at the wood’s corner. Ever the opportunist, he’s trying to determine if there’s something in any of this for him. Disappointed, his silhouette slides further into the waxing darkness; he’ll slink back into the picture soon enough.
But, set now is the sun.
Subtle are the winds.
Sweet is the smell of the crisp air.
It now is being punctuated by the scent from several fireplaces. Their tenders are stoking them for the early evening burn, a wonderful mix, the prevailing breeze confirms, of locust, cherry and something that hints of a musky oak.
Soon enough, the proverbial “Ma’s” in their “kerchiefs” and “Pa’s” in their night “caps” will settle in for the first of many “long winter naps” atop this windy outpost.
Then, one by one, the rest of the neighborhoods’ Christmas lights flick on.
The dusk before Christmas suddenly is gone. But as one wonderful moment ends, another begins. And Christmas has come to Jones Mountain once again.
All is calm.
All is bright.
“The time draws near the birth of Christ,” reminded Tennyson. “The moon is hid; the night is still; The Christmas bells from hill to hill; Answer each other in the mist.”
Merry Christmas, every one.
Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (email@example.com).