Danny Heitman, At Random: A pilgrim walks toward Bethlehem

Walking just before dawn in late December, I get to survey the neighborhood Christmas lights before they wink off for the day.

All around me, households are slowly stirring to life as homeowners lurch toward their kitchens for the first coffee of the morning. Once awake, my neighbors unplug the strands of bulbs that line their porch posts and oaks and shrubbery, creating a constellation of brilliance through the long winter nights. The lights will return at dusk, but right now, it’s time to let the rising sun guide us through another busy stretch before Dec. 25.

I notice things on my walk that escape me when I go down the street by car.

At the corner, for instance, I see that the little house nestled behind a huge oak tree shimmers with yuletide decorations, a sign that the house is now someone’s home.

A developer bought the house a few months ago and upgraded the rooms and yard — modernizing the kitchen with a wine cooler, landscaping the yard as flawlessly as a museum diorama, and trimming out the property line with a new fence.

The only thing missing was people. The place reminded me of the seashells in a tourist shop — shiny and perfect but sad, somehow, because their centers are empty of life.

But the disappearance of the “For Sale” sign and the arrival of a jack o’lantern on the porch stoop a few weeks ago told me that the house had found a family. Someone will be spending their holidays under a new roof.

Walking is one of the best ways to appreciate Christmas, I think. If the shepherds of the Nativity story wanted to see what all the fuss was about in the city of the blessed birth, they probably got to their destination on foot. It’s the right speed of travel to appreciate the stars, to clear the mind, to cultivate wonder. You can’t imagine the figures of the first Christmas arriving in an SUV.

But walking isn’t always easy on winter mornings. There’s the small matter of getting out of bed, which can be sheer drudgery when the sky is still black, and the day’s early headlines are even blacker.

Our alarm clock radio is tuned to a news station, so the first words my wife and I hear each morning come from Washington, Afghanistan, the great capitals of Europe. Usually, the reports involve bloodshed, bickering and the routine villainies of the criminal class. Instinctively, I sink deeper beneath the covers in self-defense.

But Christmas reminds us that bad news has always been around, which is why the good news of the first Christmas was so welcome. When the angels of the New Testament announced tidings of great joy, the message resonated because then, as now, joy was too often a scarce commodity.

Christmas comes at the right time each December, as we’re in the low valley of the year, casting about for something to quicken our step toward spring.

Or so I’ve been trying to tell myself as I stroll the neighbrhood each morning.

At daybreak, I’m covering familiar city blocks. In my own way, though, I’m walking, walking, walking toward Bethlehem.