My son turned 12 this month, and he marked the occasion by taking a horseback ride at a local stable. During his hour on the trail, I stayed behind in the stable alone, savoring a rare bit of solitude in the midst of the holiday season.
Nothing that morning really spoke of Christmas. The weather was warm and sunny and clear, a far cry from the snowbound scenes depicted in Currier and Ives. Not a wreath was in sight — no garland or tinsel, holly or ribbon. The air smelled not of cinnamon and cloves, but dust and leather and manure.
But I felt more Christmas spirit during my time at the stable than at anywhere else this year. The lowly surroundings seemed like a creche brought to life.
Sitting among the empty stalls, I enjoyed the same kind of quiet I sometimes get while visiting a church during those odd hours when no one else is there.
My mind wandered back to a favorite passage from “Charlotte’s Web,” E.B. White’s celebrated children’s story. It’s also about the serenity one can sometimes find in places where animals stay:
“The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell — as though nothing bad could ever happen in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft overhead.”
The feeling of well-being in White’s story eventually gives way to something more complicated. There’s great joy in “Charlotte’s Web,” but it’s tempered by the knowledge that even in the best of times, death is a part of life.
That’s why the Christmas story has remained so emotionally compelling for centuries, even among many of those who aren’t devout Christians. The narrative about a little boy born in a manger gains its meaning from the knowledge that, in the future, the child will have to confront a terribly unfair and violent world, a place where bloodshed is all too common.
The Christmas story offers the hope that against the darkest forces of the human spirit, kindness, generosity and wisdom can prevail. It’s a message the world has desperately needed this month in the wake of a school shooting that claimed the lives of many youngsters looking toward the holidays.
Christmas is approaching once again in a deeply broken world. But the nativity of biblical tradition reminds us that the world has always been broken.
We’ll always need the hope that Christmas brings. That such hope can be found in a stable is unlikely, I know, but then again, all miracles are.
Contact Danny Heitman at (225) 388-0295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.