“Even unto Bethlehem,” New Era, Dec. 1986, 36
Every year, we gathered at my grandparents’ home to hold our family Christmas pageant. The movies of the first event make it pretty clear that I thought it was a great time. But 15 years later, Christmas traditions like ours were starting to look a little stale. At least that’s what I was thinking as I helped my little brother, David, himself a big man of five, into his Wise Man costume.
“I wish I could be a shepherd like you and Daddy, Stevie.”
“Maybe next year, Dave,” I told him, giving him a poke in his tummy, anticipating his laugh.
“Yeah, but this year I wanted to be with you, Stevie, ‘cause next year you might not be here anymore. You’ll be gone on your mission by then.”
“Come on, Davie. Us brothers always stick together. Besides, who ever said I was going anywhere?” The thought of giving up my life for two years didn’t thrill me.
I gathered up my shepherd’s robes, leaving Dave to sit anxiously in his maple rocker beside the fireplace, fingering the gold braid sewn loosely to his bathrobe, wondering about stars and kings and the manger and Grandma and Grandpa’s treats, I was sure. I called up the stairs to tell my mother I was going out to start the car. It was cold. I’d left my gloves upstairs.
I hoped the new little grandson in our family would like his role as the baby Jesus this year. He was the first one who didn’t have to draw his part from the earthenware pot. We used the same ceramic jug year after year for one of the Wise Men’s gifts, and also to pick our parts from. We did the choosing every Thanksgiving. They were just little folded pieces of paper—Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, Jesus. But some years, my last thought before sleep was of my part and who I would be.
There were some pretty strange pageants. The year that Mom was pregnant, she pulled out the slip of paper that said she had to be a Wise Man. My father drew out Mary. He said it ended up being the most moving Christmas pageant for him, even though most of us kids thought it was pretty funny. He said he had begun to understand what it meant to be Mary that year. And even at 14, I got pretty choked up when my pregnant mother appeared to give her gift to the baby Jesus. David was born that January.
It was only about five years ago that we tightened up on the rules and required girls to play girls, and boys to be boys. That was because my older brother’s girlfriend hadn’t felt ready to play Joseph in front of us all the year they were engaged. This year Michelle was the narrator, and my older brother, Greg, was Joseph.
The car windows were covered with frost. I started the engine, then hunted for the scraper.
“You forgot these.” My father’s voice startled me. “It’s a cold one tonight.” He gave me my gloves.
I wasn’t sure where Dad had been when I left the house, and now he seemed to appear from nowhere. He carried robes just like mine, for the jug had decreed us both to be shepherds tonight. With a look toward the house, Dad continued, “Everybody’s ready. Why don’t you drive up front and pick them up?” Turning away, he said over his shoulder, “I’ll meet you down at the mailboxes. Nobody’s had time to check the mail all day, and you know how your mother is about mail.”
I thought to tell him we could just as easily pick up the mail from the car but said nothing. He walked down the road, his shepherd’s robes dragging in the snow a little his steps uneven, his head tilted skyward. Looking at the stars, I guessed. He stopped turned to me and called, “Get going, son. Don’t want to be late.”
I pulled the van up to the front steps, and David came bounding out of the house. Jennifer and my mother followed more sedately. Jenny was to be one of the heavenly hosts this time, but she was having trouble looking very heavenly right now.
“What’s the matter, angel?” I asked, as she plopped into the seat.
“I just hope we don’t run into anyone we know. Do you have a full tank of gas, Steve? I’d hate to pull up at the station and have Jeff see me in this.”
“Yeah, I have to admit, that halo doesn’t look very natural on you. As a matter of fact,” I added, with teasing glee, “the gas tank’s on empty.”
“Steven!” she squealed.
“Don’t worry, angel,” I said in my best Humphrey Bogart. “Just kidding, just kidding.”
Mom was almost to the bottom of the steps, then went back up again to lock the front door. Loaded down with a bag full of gifts, she looked more like Santa Claus than Gabriel. Mom struggled to get the gift bag into the van, then climbed in the back.
“On Donner! On Blitzen!” she called out in a deep voice. David giggled.
“On Rudolph!” Jennifer added.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence!”
We stopped at the mailboxes to pick up my Dad. He folded his height into the car.
“Any mail?” my mother asked.
“Mail! Everybody and his brother must have sent us a card today!” Dad’s hands were loaded with green and red and white envelopes. I turned to smile at Mom. She had complained that she hadn’t received many cards this year.
“Is there one from Boston?”
“How do I know, my dear?” Dad passed the mass of greetings over the front seat to my mother. “I haven’t examined them yet. The day when we get an envelope from Salt Lake City sending Steve on his mission, now that will be a day to investigate the mail.” I shifted the car into gear resisting the urge to return Dad’s inquiring glance.
“I don’t want Stevie to go away,” David whined. “Why does he have to go away, anyway? I’m never, ever going anywhere!”
I eased the car onto the main road that would take us through the familiar streets to the highway. Our Connecticut backroads looked good this year. Delicate strands of lights draped many of the bare trees. At other homes, the lights were arranged precisely, evenly layering their way to the top of the tall pines. Candles flickered in windows.
“There is a card from Boston! Please turn the light on, Steven.” My mother read silently. “She’s still alive, that little lady. Lost her sight in one eye now, but still alive and faithful as ever. Isn’t that nice?”
In the rearview mirror, I watched as Mom reached out and hugged David impulsively. I knew who she spoke of, the little landlady she and my father had lived with, and who had joined the Church while they lived in her house in Cambridge.
“Those are happy, happy memories, aren’t they, John?”
“The very best,” my father replied. “Maybe you’ll have memories like those in a few years, Steven.” I said nothing for the rest of the trip.
We arrived at my grandparents’ house right on schedule. That was important, for my grandpa was somewhat fanatical about time. Greg and his wife had arrived early, as usual, their car parked close to the house. The woods were silent.
“Hello Pop-pop! Hello Nanny! I’m here!” David called, trudging up the front steps in his moonboots and Wise Man costume. The door opened, and Grandpa stooped to hug the king. My mother struggled up the steps with her bag.
“Good grief, daughter! What have you got there?” Grandpa said. “We were supposed to go light on the gifts this year.”
“I tried. I really did.” But books are heavy, I thought to myself as I swung the van door shut. Books were my mother’s traditional Christmas gift.
We settled into the living room, enjoying my grandma’s impressive collection of goodies and the warm cider. I listened as I ate. Greg was having problems in his law firm and Michelle was worried about being a new mother. She left the room to nurse her crying baby.
My grandpa looked much older to me tonight sitting before the fire. I hadn’t been up to see them in months, too busy with commuting to school and doing my work. Grandpa asked me about school and about my plans. I told him my plans were kind of tentative right now, but that I loved my pre-architectural program. I knew he was waiting for me to say something about a mission, and it hurt me to know I was disappointing him. He opened his mouth to say more, but seemed to change his mind. He stood to poke the fire. Michelle came back with the baby.
“Well,” Grandpa began, “are we ready to get on with the pageant? We can talk more later. This is our 15th one, isn’t that right, Mother?”
We stood and bundled up once again, slipping our costumes on over our coats, walking out to the accustomed Nativity spot on the front lawn. The moon was a thin sliver in the sky, the stars without number.
Grandpa had gone to extra work this year, I noticed, as I walked by the familiar manger. He had improved the temporary stable in honor of his first great-grandson, putting in real walls to block any wind. Michelle laid her son gently in the cradle, assuring grandma that he wouldn’t get hungry. Grandma, dressed in Mary’s robes, opened her arms to Michelle and gave her a hug.
“Thank you, my dear. Thank you.” Grandma took her place near the crib, and Greg joined her as Joseph. Michelle had sewn some new robes for him, and he looked quite apostolic in his cotton beard. But he always looked that way.
I took my place a little further down the hillside where the lawn curved gently. Grandpa had thoughtfully provided wood for a fire for us shepherds. My father arrived with matches. The ready warmth was reassuring.
Michelle began her narration of Luke 2, and I repeated the words with her in my mind as she spoke. They were an unavoidable part of my memory after 15 years of seasonal repetition.
Funny, I thought, as our little fire popped and hissed, that taxes started the whole business. And the swaddling clothes. What did that word mean, anyway?
Michelle began the verse about the shepherds, and I got ready for our cue. “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid” (Luke 2:8).
I cowered in the frozen grass, playing the part of the frightened shepherd to the hilt. It was more fun that way, to ham up the telling for David’s sake. But an uninvited feeling overtook me. It set my heart to pounding and it made me feel quite weak, for I realized that my cowering was real, and I knew it like never before. I was afraid of the glory of the Lord.
Michelle’s voice continued as my heart thumped quickly. “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11).
I didn’t hear the part about the babe in the manger, and I barely could make out the form of my mother, standing over me with wide-spread arms, for tears brimmed my eyes, then ran in hot tracks down my cheeks. I rubbed them off, their wetness beading up on my gloves. My mother’s words penetrated the hot glow in my mind.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14).
Michelle’s even voice continued to reach out from across the lawn. “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another …” (Luke 2:15).
Now it was my father’s turn to speak. He extended his hand to help lift me from the snow, but I turned my head away from his outstretched hand, not wanting to let him see the tears on my face. But there was a catch in his voice, too, as he said, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us” (Luke 2:15).
We walked to the manger together. It was a short distance, to be sure, but something had signaled the start of another, much longer journey for me. Side by side we walked, my father companion and I. And we made haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe, lying in the manger.
How could I stand it, I thought as I looked. The much beloved faces of my grandma and brother, the newborn babe so still in his bed.
I knew then what I would do. There was nothing left to do but go and make known abroad concerning this child and his church. My father and I returned to our fireside, and I knew that he knew what had happened in me.
Michelle read the words about the Wise Men, and David slipped in the snow and tore some gold braid from his gown. But Grandpa, fellow Wise Man, reached to help him, and he said David’s face shone as he gave his gift to Jesus. But I missed all that. In the dim glow of our fire, all I could feel was the strength of my father as he held me, the warming joy of our tears spilled together. I would miss him for the next two years.