December 24, 2022
As my family has grown and spread out across Minnesota and even the country, holidays have taken on a life of their own and are often celebrated on days other than the official holiday. In the beginning it was due to my brother’s (Navy veteran) deployment and leave schedule, but these days it has more to do with the much younger generation work schedules, in-law commitments and babies.
Such was the case, at least in the planning stages, this year. Nieces, nephews and their respective immediate families now have to travel longer distances to arrive at the Christmas host and so the plan was to celebrate our family Christmas today – on Christmas Eve. As a child we had always spent Christmas Eve with dinner and presents at my maternal grandparent’s house where my immediate family made an early exit to attend church services. As the only religious group on that side of the family you can imagine how disappointing it was for us children to leave the fun of Grandma’s house to go to a dreary church service, but sometimes church can surprise you. More on that later, but for now back to this year’s celebration.
Presents were all wrapped, my contributions to the Christmas meal purchased and ready to bake and then Mother Nature stepped in with a rare but ultimately deadly December blizzard. Most years it’s a toss-up as to whether we will have a white Christmas in Minnesota, but this year Mother Nature left no doubt of it as snow began falling before Thanksgiving and never stopped. Just days before Christmas, the southern third of Minnesota (my frame of reference), was catapulted into a winter storm watch, which changed to a winter storm warning, which then changed to a blizzard warning. To be fair, the weather folks had been warning about the event for days in advance, but it’s Minnesota and I live in town where usually blizzards are just an annoyance. What started as 3-5 inches of snow was followed by brutal wind chills (-30 to -400F) which was then followed by two days of 40-50 mile an hour winds.
For those not familiar with blizzards, a combo of blowing snow and freezing cold are the basis of a blizzard. The subsequent white out conditions make it super dangerous to be out on the roads. Still most Minnesotans think they can still be out and about, but this storm was different. City, County, and State plows were pulled from the roadways and almost every highway in the southern-third of Minnesota was officially closed. To travel on the road meant that you were on your own and if you had to be rescued, the emergency responders would charge you for having to risk their own lives to come and save the dumb person who ventured onto a legally closed road in life-threatening weather conditions.
My weather obsessed truck driver father didn’t raise any foolish children and the decision to cancel Christmas was the right one. Dinner ingredients went into the freezer, presents will remain wrapped under the tree, and we will now all stay home in our respective houses and watch the Vikings game today. It’s not how we would choose to spend the day (other than the Vikings game which would have happened no matter where we were gathered), but it is the safe option and after the game is over, or maybe before for those who are more ambitious than I feel right now, snowblowers will be fired up, shovels primed and we will begin to dig out from the mountains of drifted snow that blocks driveways and sidewalks. It will be another winter day in Minnesota, but one that we will talk about for years to come. The great Christmas blizzard of 2022 will take its’ place right alongside the Halloween blizzard of 1991.
So that’s Christmas for my family, but we all know that the real reason for Christmas is something much more important. Even though Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, the highlight of the holiday will always be Christmas Eve church services; the services I left my cousins and grandparents for on Christmas Eve as a child. Young and self-centered, it was something the kids in my family dreaded because while the cousins were still having fun and playing with their new toys, we were dressed in our church finest sitting in a hard pew trying to be quiet and respectful. Let me tell you it didn’t always happen! I resented the heck out of having to go, until one service that I will never forget.
In our church, most sermons were relatively staid affairs that children tended to tune out. I remember spending a lot of time doodling on the bulletin waiting for the Christmas hymns that I loved to sing. But the year when I was maybe eight or nine was different. That was the year Reverend Gayle Miller changed my life.
On this particular Christmas Eve, Reverend Miller’s sermon was a story and maybe that’s why this author was so enthralled with it. He told the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of one of the wise men and he painted such a vivid story I will never forget it. Starting with the wise men leaving their families to travel through the hot desert on uncomfortable camels in heavy robes in the middle of the night to some dinky little village because a baby was being born, his descriptions of their trip were detailed and at times funny making the story captivating. Looking back at what was such a departure from his normal sermons, I realize Reverend Miller was determined to capture the attention of every member of that congregation who were more used to hearing bible readings.
I sat up straighter in my pew and hushed my sister and brothers, hanging on every word coming from the man in the pulpit in front of me. And even though I knew exactly how the story would end, it was as if I was hearing it for the first time. That night, and truthfully every Christmas eve service since, as the congregation held lit candles in our laps singing the words of Silent Night to end our service, there were tears in my eyes. New toys forgotten, church finally had true meaning for me. It took a few more years before church was translated to faith, but Reverend Miller had laid the groundwork for my life.
Reverend Miller was a nice man with a nice family and we loved him in our church, but in time, as so often happens in any church, he had another calling and he moved on to another congregation. He passed away in 2006 and I never had a chance to tell him how much that one sermon had meant to me.
Why do I share this with you all? It’s so you understand that Christmas is more than just a date on the calendar. It is a reminder of what is good about our lives; a reminder that the true reason for Christmas can and should be celebrated every day of our life. Reverend Miller opened my eyes to that.
If you are lucky enough to be with family and loved ones tonight and tomorrow, please take a moment to stop and, whatever faith you believe in, say a prayer of gratitude for the many blessings you have received.
For whatever part you have played in my life, even if it is just through social media, thank you for being one of my many blessings. Merry Christmas to one and all!