Our exceptionally large family, numbering between 30 and 40 bodies that particular weekend, had been caught off-guard by a heavy, crippling, December snowstorm. Since the trip back into town seemed far too precarious, we decided to gather from the house, and our cars and trucks, all the blankets and bedding we could ﬁnd to accommodate a massive, intergenerational sleep-over!
Around 9 p.m., with the snow still swirling and the wind still howling, the power went out.
Since the only remaining heat source was a wood-burning stove in the living room, the adults decided to sleep in the heatless back rooms so the children could have enough space to arrange themselves around the stove which had cast a warm and mesmerizing spell of ﬂickering ﬁre-light over the room.
I was delirious with joy.
What a wonderful turn of fate it was to be surrounded by these people, this warmth, this assurance that our little house in a sea of snow would keep itself aright through the ebbs and swells of this dark night!
The giggles and whispers were beginning to taper off when, suddenly, the back door ﬂew open and the sound of a man’s heavy boots and labored breathing entered the house. From my vantage point on the ﬂoor, I could see–making its way through the kitchen and then toward the living room–a large, hunch-backed form.
I held my breath.
“Hey, Buck!” it said. “Help me out here.”
One of my uncles, already making his way through the maze of children, responded, “Here, Dad … hand her to me.”
My grandfather lifted a newborn calf–the silhouetted “hunch” I’d seen–from his shoulders and handed it to my uncle. “Weʼll need a little room by the ﬁre here,” he whispered.
With some minor adjustments and compacting of bodies, a place was cleared and a blanket laid by the ﬁre for our new guest. Within minutes the calf stopped shivering and seemed quite content with his new digs.
The room was rich in earthy textures. The smell of wet calf, the squeaking wood ﬂoor, the lingering coolness from the brieﬂy opened door, the body heat of 20 or so children stacked together like herringboned bricks, the ﬁrelight, the iced-over windows.
In the midst of calamities both real and imagined, in the heart of a dark, cold night, our lives were bound to each other by more than blood. By hand and heart we were keeping each other warm, sacriﬁcing for each other, welcoming the cold and frightened into our company. We had no power, no immediate path of escape, and barely enough heat.
But we had everything. We were liberated from all but the need to be a family and to take care of one another. With the calf, we had all been born that night into the true heart of Christmas.
As Christmas day draws near, I pray that the miracle we celebrate–the birth of Jesus Christ–would remind us of two very simple, yet profound truths: that we are loved, and that we belong to one another.
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it! (John 1:3-5)