Pine And Salvation At Christmas

Photo by former Warren Times Editor in Chief Jude Dippold

When I was very small and young–maybe 3 or 4–I was afraid of the cold because it would wake me in the middle of the night. I think the great house groaned in the darkness, or sighed mightily, or cursed perhaps as cold settled around and through it. We had no central furnace, only space heaters in each of six apartments. If I stepped out of bed, the wood floors were cold. I’d walk to the window and stand, staring out into the black. Maybe I would touch the ice building up on the leaded glass and trace the frost. Though my parents were in the room next door and my aunt and uncle above me in the upstairs apartment, it was desperately lonely. I blamed the cold.

Substantial cold, particularly, with blowing snow and wind still makes me lonely. I am disquieted by it. At the same time, I often find the bizarre barren winter landscape layered with snow and ice oddly beautiful. I think you have to love that landscape to live in this part of upstate New York.

Sometimes I think it is my existential landscape of self. I argue against it daily with color and music, pets, wild birds, paintings, friends and family. Maybe we all do this. We argue against it too, with the tools of self we were given in youth.

When I think back to my youth here in Jamestown — how I walked from 25 Ivy Street to Fletcher School four times each day, for instance — I wonder how I did that. What did I think of as I walked all those miles? Was I cold in winter? I recall tights and red boots, woolen scarves that itched my nose, a Nordic wool hat that tied under my chin. Just this week, an old classmate William Dennes, posted a photo of a horse drawn plow like those which plowed the sidewalks before we children awoke back in the 1950s on the Southside of town. My former colleague and longtime friend Jane Anderson Jones, who grew up on the corner of Cole and West Virginia Boulevard, said she recalls well waking before dawn to run to her bedroom window and watch the horse passing.

Along that daily walk was the Kidder Memorial United Methodist Church on Cole Avenue. Sometime in the 1950s I began to stop there on my way home from school. I don’t know why. One day, the doors were open, I think, and something caught my eye. We were Presbyterians, so this was not my church. Something drew me in there many a day after school to sit and craft in the children’s room for hours. Once I took a children’s Bible class, studying about Jesus.

Roland Kidder Memorial United Methodist Church.

The church smelled of pine and salvation. We children sat enraptured as the adult group leader spoke and read and asked us questions. I write “enraptured” now in retrospect, the adult woman making sense of it. What I experienced then, as a child of eight or nine, was a hush so tender that fell over the room and hovered over the group of us, that we were forever changed.

Lights went on inside us. We were flooded with love and mercy. It would not be too much to say I felt the presence of grace there. I might say now, we were moved by the Holy Spirit. I was moved by the Holy Spirit. I did not have words for the experience then.

I associate that church forever with Christmas, with multi colored lights glowing in the night, with a tree lit up in the corridor welcoming all the children inside the church. In my memory, a fine choir sings O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining.

When the class was over, we children received gifts of small white leather Bibles with gilded pages. I was surprised and delighted beyond measure. I remember the feel of having that white Bible placed into my hand as if somehow I had earned it. I felt connected to Jesus who hearkened the little children to come unto Him.

Some things, marvelous and fine, become stars within us and light us up on frigid nights, at 3 a.m., that warm us and guide us when we face hardship and loss. The stars within us light our way in the world.

Johnson family Christmas, 1953. Grandpa Ben, Sandy, cousins Al Lager, Martha Jean and Chuck Larson, (back row) cousin Larry Nelson and cousin Nancy Larson. Johnson family archives

So on these cold days, in the lonely days, when the landscape is white and blank and the weather bitter, we turn inward for warmth. It is a time of introspection. Christmas comes for us here in western New York and lights our way in mid-winter. We have the festival of Saint Lucia in our Nordic churches. Our houses are lit with Christmas lights against the darkness. The pines are fragrant and scent us with the season. It reminds us of the Holy story of Jesus and Mary and their journey in the cold to find a place of refuge.

In my ear, someone reads to me of the three wise men with the odd and exotic names and how they brought gifts for a holy child soon to be delivered into this world of frankincense and myrrh. In a humble dwelling on the desert’s edge, the savior was born on the night a light shone down from heaven so bright it lit up the world.

May we carry such things with us. May we kneel down and pray for courage and kindness. I am still that child walking home from the Methodist Church with my white Bible treasured in my palm, trudging through the snow in my red boots towards home.

Christmas 2016 at the Robison house.