We watch the trees die every year. They shed. They imitate the sunset and pile their darkness in the yard. It is a thick darkness that you can sit in, lie in, fall in. And it smells. Those leaves, the windblown evidence of death and dying, come down with scent. It is the smell of death, the the first fruits of rot. It is glorious.
Breathe it in; it’s food for the lungs. The carnage is devastating. Whole blocks lie buried beneath the remains of oaks and maples and pines. Children wade through the accumulated death. Men rake it up and bag it. Fall has made its mark. Life is drained. Light now wanes. The comforting breeze of yesterday now bites at naked necks.
Then comes the frost. The ground grows hard now that the trees have given up their dead. The gathered leaves lie cold and colorless waiting to be buried—or burned. But the great sleep truly comes when the sky turns white and falls. Trees are shrouded, the ground is hardened. Every tomb is white washed. The world lies covered, hidden, dead.
We put on coats and walk in the silence. Everything is moving but there is a stillness about it all. When the sky falls, it does so quietly and muffles every complaint. As it falls, we can see our last breath but we cannot see our next one. The cold taunts us. Perhaps that last one was the last one. The barren trees give in to the taunts. They are pessimists. “It is time to die,” they say, and they sleep. Perhaps they are wise in their own way. They have been around for a long time.
Frigid darkness overtakes the world. We put on bright colors and sing. We stack the dead trees. We set fire to that touched by the cold stroke of winter and laugh at the death around us, “Where is thy sting?” Then we drink our chocolate hot.
The darkness comes early now. The sun is always brief. The hours between today and tomorrow are mostly shadows. Morning finds us before the sun; we work, then wander home in the dark. Darkness is proud. He prides himself in his completeness. He haunts the flickers of the smoldering trees, smiling through the cracks between the flames. But we defy his pomp. We wrap our houses in small but equally stubborn lights. And we sing more. We drink more chocolate.
Frozen and gray, we should give the world up for dead. But we refuse. We have parties. We compose songs of defiance, both sacred and trite, that we only play during the dead time. Death takes; so we give. We buy things unnecessary for those who have no need. And in our giving we are filled. Death binds and covers; we mock him. We wrap our gifts in easily torn paper and pile them under a well lit tree. A tree that winks at us. A tree untouched by winter’s chilly embrace. “O grave, where is thy victory?”
When death lies heavily upon the world, our lives are thick with joy. We smile because we know that there is something that Death has long since forgotten, or perhaps has never truly known—Christmas.
The world was full of emptiness, hopelessly mourning, when a man was born. Even as a tiny infant he was too big for the grave, for the darkness, for the rot. He looked on the dead world and smiled. He came, not hurriedly, but in his own time. He saw the world covered in that cold, white shroud. “She is not dead. She merely sleeps.” “Talitha cumi.” So we put on our red and green and eat even more chocolate, belt out our boisterous carols, roll the snow into men, and giggle at our creations. The sky fell white, trampling life with those frozen flakes. We add sugar and milk and eat them for dessert.
This is not the first winter. This is not the first time that the world has traded sweat for shivering agony. Every year, Death sends out the autumn winds to chase away the summer sun. And once again he comes riding in from the north. But then there is always Christmas. Death melts. Easter comes.
A dark, Roman winter once long encumbered the world. Too heavy to shovel, too cold to breath. But Christmas came, the stars sang, shepherds became sheep, and Rome began to thaw.
Europe slept the long sleep of death. Men drank in darkness and breathed out despair. Folly was their wisdom and wickedness their delight. Pagan dancers bathed in blood blindly worshipped moons and mountains. And trees.
But small boats came with noble men bearing Christmas. They cut down the sacred trees and took them inside.
But as night follows day, winter again came to Rome. Her brightly colored leaves floated to the ground waiting to be raked. Her branches offered no fruit to the hungry and gave no shelter from the howling winds. Her glory became her shame, and the fetid scent of rot filled the air. The frost returned, and the ground hardened. Nothing grew in Rome.
That winter was long and cruel, the way that only winters can be. But then someone heard carols off in the distance. A German monk woke to find that it was Christmas. A man too big for the Roman winter had been born. He wrote his words, he sang his songs, he took a wife, and he taught the world to laugh again. Spring came with a fierce resurrection. The sun came into view with a scorching heat. The world melted, winter lost its grip, the rotten leaves of Rome thawed but were never gathered up. They still lie there; cold, dry, dead.
The world has known Christmas. We have tasted Spring. We have smelled the roses in full bloom. We have experienced Autumn. We have watched the petals fade and fall. Some of us are awake, though drowsy. Some places are asleep again. But a happy few are heating chocolate and bringing trees inside.
Europe has but a flickering candle to fight the bitter cold. Byzantium lies in deep darkness; frozen now for centuries. Asia is an Easter garden. It’s Springtime in Africa.
We look out the window at the frozen stillness and we smile. We brought our tree inside. We have stockings filled with excess. We have stubborn songs of joyful resistance. We have laughter and hideous sweaters. We are not like those pessimistic trees who gave up their leaves to the northern winds. We are not like those faithless nations that resigned to the winter. We see the cold death all around us, we lie down, and make angels in the snow.
Winter and Death hold much of the world between their icy fingers. But neither are permanent conditions. There is always the hope of Spring. There is always the promise of resurrection. There is a man too big for the cold. Too big for corruption. Too big for the grave to hold. There is always Christmas.
We give our gifts, tell our stories, and sing our songs. We gather around our rescued trees. We remember the tree that rescued us. Now what? We heat our chocolate, laugh at the cold, and wait for Easter. Easter is but Christmas in full bloom.
**Adapted from the author’s collection of essays, God, the Universe, and Everything Else