The dusk before Christmas

The dusk before Christmas

Comes a time on Christmas Eve when something most extraordinary happens at my house. Above and beyond what already makes this day so phenomenal, that is. That “something” is the first hint of dusk.

The last-minute shopping is done. But the delivery trucks still are running the ridges making last-minute drop-offs. There’s a hint of jolliness in the weariness of the drivers; they know their busy season is almost done (though St. Nick’s begins in a few short hours).

Ample firewood has been cut, split, stacked and covered outside the basement double doors, the gateway to “The Stone Beast.” That’s the large fireplace, now gainfully employed for a third year, that will not fall flameless again until New Year’s night.

This year’s wood menu is heavy on oak and plenty of Osage orange to ramp up the Btus. But there’s ample ash, elm, hickory and a splash of locust, too. The wood stacks make one warm just looking at them in the receding daylight.  

The dips, deviled eggs and libations are chilling in the fridge. So, too, are the beginnings of the fixin’s for the Christmas Day feast. This year the family will be spread out a bit — dinner in two homes because of lingering concerns over Covid and vaccinated vs. unvaccinated statuses.

But both homes will feature the traditional turkey and stuffing with mashed potatoes – one part potato, three parts butter and cream, as per usual. Lest we forget, too, the fresh green beans steamed just right, the long-cooking wine gravy and homemade rolls and pies.

When family arrives and they remark that the aroma of the Christmas fire, roasting turkey and simmering gravy make them pine for “the days of yore,” the chef will quip, “That’s how we measure success ‘round these parts!”

And you can bet that the cats of Jones Mountain will be keeping a careful eye on all, people and food.

Speaking of the cats, Oreo, Midnight and Oscar are feeling quite chipper again as Christmas Eve descends after sharing bad colds (or was it Covid?) over several weeks.

So, too, is Wyeth, adjusting well to medicine prescribed for a newly diagnosed heart condition. Sister Winslow, hardly nonplussed by it all, has been practicing walk-by leg brushes in anticipation of plenty of holiday visitors’ attention.

Some of the junior illumination engineers on the mountain are a tad switch-happy this late afternoon. Dusk is not yet official but their outside Yule lights already are on.

But most of the outside Christmas lights remain off; those neighbors obviously know the majesty of this moment in time, too.

Inside, the Scots pine and Colorado blue spruce Christmas trees are aglow in white and colored lights, respectively. A rustle of air from a closing door sends the mini blades slowly rotating inside five “Twister” decorations on the spruce.

The original “Twisters” have adorned McNickle family Christmas trees going on seven decades. A few newly acquired “Twisters” – at a premium, mind you – have been joining them the last few years.

Strains of a Christmas song — “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays,” Perry Como, circa 1962 — can be heard from the stereo.

A Lionel “Polar Express” passenger train stands ready to circle underneath the basement tree. It’s a marvel of modern technology, what with its electronic bells, horns and even Tom Hanks’ voice bellowing, with the push of a button, familiar lines from the holiday movie classic.

But it’s only a stand-in this year that next year will be replaced, finally, by a newly built, six-line N-scale train platform, complete with a working roundhouse, if not a few surprises.

As wondrously simple and tranquil as all this inside “activity” is, a delicate minuet of nature yet again has begun to unfold around the gardens and back wood as the last light of the day fades. It’s like a silent movie to the cats, watching intently from inside.

The cardinals are fully engaged in one feeder as woodpeckers partake of a special blend of seed and nuts at another. Woodpeckers “crave” it, the packaging says. So it appears. And those always entertaining “upside-down” nuthatches are performing again, too.

There’s family of chipmunks running in and out of a burn pile, enjoying the fruits of deer labor. As those deer nibble on leftover corn cobs from discarded garden stalks, Chip ‘n’ Dale & family wait for any dried kernels to fall into the nesting void they’ve created.

It’s a neat trick that will provide for all quite well this Christmas. But note to self: Roust the critters from the pile when burn time comes again.

It is all these moments of the day soon done that are as fleeting as they are special.

And now, setting is the sun.

Subtle are the winds.

Sweet is the smell of the crisp air, though a tad milder this year.

But the hint of smoke from the chimney indicates that the fire tender has just thrown on a well-seasoned piece of locust. It is pungent punctuation yet comforting at the same time. The only “Great Resignation” here is the promise of a cozy night before the fire.

One by one, the rest of the ridges’ Christmas lights flicker on. On Jones Mountain, a lighted blow-mold shepherd and his sheep watch over the Nativity as the three wise men bow before the Christ child and his parents.

A camel and a cow rest nearby. A pair of carolers standing under a flickering light post fall silent to revere the scene. Santa and Frosty observe from afar as toy soldiers stand guard at the perimeters.

But the moment – that so special moment as the final light of day wanes — is about to end, And, then, the dusk before Christmas is gone.

Silent night.

Holy night.

All is calm.

All is bright.

And as Tennyson reminded:

“The time draws near the birth of Christ;

“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 (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).