An Excerpt from "The Christmas Plains"
[Editor’s Note:Aleteia is pleased to offer this excerpt from Joseph Bottum’s "The Christmas Plains," apoeticmemoir of growing up and celebrating Christmas in South Dakota. Previously published selections can be found hereand here.]
I saw the shepherds and Wise Men once, I think. I had been by myself most of a winter drive, the cold wind whistling through the door and dashboard leaks in the pickup my father had given me. I’d been alone up the red-rock canyon, past the trout hatchery, rimmed with ice, and the gemstone-and-fossil shop, shuttered for the winter. Alone past the Trappist monastery’s roadside stand, where the novices and young monks sell their cheese and honey, fresh bread if you come by early enough, at a long pine table through the summer months, abandoned and dusted with snow that December. Alone over the pass and down into the winter meadow below. Alone across the valley floor of yellow-brown buffalo grass and up into the tree line on the other side.
But as the truck strained, shifting down into second gear to climb the winding road back into the hills, I began to imagine others rode with me, sitting beside me on that pickup’s long bench seat. Talking and arguing, making distinctions, explaining their views, attempting to teach me. I was probably a little crazed by that point. I’d been up for two days, after an exhausting week of travel, and I was trying just to get home for Christmas before I collapsed or had an accident. And somewhere in my sleep-deprived mind, the ghosts came to visit.
Or lecture or contend or clarify or instruct. There was that Irishman, a literature teacher I’d once had, who told me again the story about his thirtieth birthday, when he’d drunkenly flushed his grandfather’s watch down the toilet, shouting to his friends and neighbors, “Time doesn’t matter anymore.”
And Rosemary, a neighbor from my parents’ days in Salt Lake City, with a slow, calm kind of motherly wisdom. The professor from over on First Avenue, too: another Salt Lake acquaintance, who had written a book about urban legends and told me all-American fantasy tales about vanishing hitchhikers and hook-handed criminals: You can always tell it’s modern folklore, he explained, if the story starts with something like “This really happened to a friend of my cousin’s . . .” A quietly insane magazine writer I used to visit, who insisted that the poet Wallace Stevens really had become a Catholic on his Hartford deathbed, whatever his daughter now says. Connecticut’s conversions stun. My second-grade teacher from South Dakota—Mrs. Winton, who’d given me for Christmas a book about a young Sioux boy on a quest to find a rare white buffalo, and she returned to help me, as she had before, through the puzzle I was finding life.
I sat for a while in companionable silence with a ranch hand I had known, as he worked neat’s-foot oil into a stiff piece of bridle leather and gestured from time to time toward the passing hills, as though to remind me of God’s good creation. I tried to answer Avery’s sharp questions about my confused views of theology and the order of this world. A swirling, constantly shifting cloud of witness: Francis, spouting lines of German poetry I didn’t understand, and Richard expounding the Last Supper, and Mary logically ticking off the points of an argument about American schooling, and my aunt patiently teaching me how to wash the dishes when I was young.
The small-town pilot I’d talked with for hours, fogged in at the Detroit airport, who was heading back to Ohio to dust crops in his bi-wing plane. Sally, Uncle Joe, an old construction foreman, that farmer in Alliance, Nebraska, who was so smart about western water and the spring’s snowmelt: Some of them were dead, long slipped away. Others I hadn’t seen for years. But they came, anyway, to visit me on the drive home through the Christmas hills. All that wisdom, all that knowledge, pleading, pointing, shouting at me to see this world as it really is. To open my eyes and just
Actually see, as it happens—for I caught, at an angle through the trees, a glimpse of a dog darting across the road ahead, and slowed just in time to keep from plowing into a flurry of thick-wooled sheep as I came around the bend. Sheep are odd-looking animals in the winter. Odd-looking animals at any time, as far as that goes, and maybe especially in the spring, after the shearing, when they resemble nothing so much as confused recruits, unable to explain how they ended up standing naked in a new-green field. Still, in the winter, they wear a peculiar puffy look, as though they had pulled on multiple sweaters, one over another, and topped it off with one of those Scandinavian knit hats that flop around their ears and droop over their foreheads.
It was there, by the little wooden chapel in the hills, that the sheep stopped me, spilling across the road. I had driven past the building maybe a dozen times over the years, a tiny place painted in those old Forest Service colors of washed-out brown with yellow trim, and I’ve never known who used it for services or why. Never seen the chapel open or alive, for that matter, and if I’d thought about it, I would have assumed it was boarded up and shuttered for the winter.
Still, the lamps were on in the shed-sized church late that December afternoon, in the failing sun of the days before Christmas, and the light appeared to be shining not out, somehow, but in. I know, of course, when I stop to think about it, that the light had to be coming from inside the church, but that wasn’t how it seemed at the time. To my tired, burning eyes, the yellow beams looked as though they ran in the opposite direction: like a beacon, an arrow of light, over the milling sheep, across the little yard, and in through the windows to illuminate, in sharp detail, the interior scene.
I can close my eyes and see it again, in all its precision: The blizzard of white-sweatered, odd-faced sheep, roiling like a confused avalanche across the pavement. A long-haired black dog, streaks of brown and gray in his fur, nipping at the sheep to move, finally move, down the road toward the gate into a nearby field. The herders with their crocks—two of them, wearing thick gloves and stained parkas, whistling directions to the dog. And the people in the chapel, a young women and a middle-aged man dressed in holiday clothes, red and green, putting up Christmas decorations.
Simple things: a plaster crèche, maybe half life-size, with kneeling shepherds and Wise Men bearing gifts, and Joseph and Mary, and an empty manger where the Christ child would lie. Some pine branches from the woods in the man’s arms. A pair of poinsettias, out on the doorstep. A red piece of cloth draped on the wooden pulpit. All of it illuminated by the arrow of light, like the path of a star, that swept across the hills and into that chapel. Then the snowy drifts of sheep were past, the people in the chapel moved out of sight, and I started up again through the canyons, driving home for Christmas.
But in my sleepy, half-crazed way, I had seen it, for a moment—the truth, the universe as it really is, the geography of our souls. You see it, too, don’t you? Christmas isn’t a day or even a season. It isn’t a symbol for our better feelings or the sentimental sum of our memories. It isn’t a celebration, and it isn’t an anniversary. Oh, in a certain sense, it’s all those things, but it’s always more, if only we open our eyes and see. Just see. Christmas is the compass needle that points us toward God. The star shining for the Wise Men. The angels singing for the shepherds. Christmas is the illuminated path across the wilderness of life, our map to this world, and if we follow it—if we surrender, joyfully, to it—Christmas will lead us where we need to go.
Joseph Bottum is a best-selling author of Kindle Singles on Amazon and author of The Christmas Plains (Image/Random House). This excerpt is published by permission of the author and all rights are reserved.