On That Silent Night by Jamie Kirkpatrick


Christmas is scheduled to arrive in a few days and as long as its flight isn’t delayed by weather, this will be my last chance to wish you a Merry Christmas. Or, if you prefer, a Happy Hanukkah, a Blessed Eid, or one of the seven appropriate responses to the traditional Kwanzaa question, “Habari gani?” The greeting itself isn’t all that important; the sentiment, however, is.

I don’t know about you, but this has been an interesting year, to say the least. Peace on earth, goodwill to all people seem concepts further away, more illusive, and harder to achieve than ever. Sometimes I wonder if maybe we’d be better off celebrating certain holiday traditions at random times of the year instead of packing them all into the last month. I mean, why should December have all the fun? What about the other eleven other months of the year? Maybe instead of paying taxes, we could roast chestnuts in April or instead of graduating from high school, we could sing carols in June. We don’t really need go to the beach in August; we could drink eggnog and decorate a mandevilla just as well. Forget Halloween; October would be a great month for sending greeting cards with pictures of pets in sweaters to cousins we haven’t seen since 1983, thankfully leaving December open for sitting contentedly in front of a blazing fire with nowhere to go and nothing to do. No melees at the mall, no overbooked flights or lines at the grocery store, no twenty car pileups on the Interstate. Time on our cold, chapped hands, perfect for reading: what a concept!

However much sense this division of festive labors might make, I don’t expect this idea will gain any more traction than a jalopy with bald tires on black ice. Christmas is likely to remain stuck in a December snowbank forever. After all, we have it on the perfectly good authority of several shepherds, a host of heavenly angels, and three wise men that Jesus was, in fact, born on a starry, silent night in Bethlehem on December 25 so that’s where Christmas will remain on the calendar forever. End of story.

Or is it? The sheep in the story think not. You see, in Biblical times, sheep were pastured in the open from Passover (mid-March) until mid-November when, like the rest of us in the northern hemisphere, they were removed to indoor cover. It’s highly unlikely, then, that any shepherds, let alone their flocks, were still abiding in the field as late as December 25. And then there’s the sticky issue of registration. If you recall, Joseph, accompanied by his miraculously pregnant wife Mary, travelled to Bethlehem because of a decree by Emperor Caesar Augustus that they be “registered” in their own city, probably for tax reasons. (Hence, the no vacancy sign at the inn.) While there is no specific record of when that distasteful registration actually occurred, it’s unlikely it would have taken place in mid-winter—snow on the Interstates, overbooked flights, etc. Some things never change.

So why December 25? There’s a certain cachet to mid-winter festivals, that moment when the sun starts its heavenly journey back across the western horizon and the celestial clock resets itself. Pagans would have approved of the timing, coming, as it does, right on the heels of their winter solstice celebrations. Such felicitous scheduling would have made their conversion to Christianity all-the-more appealing; after all, they had already done their shopping.

Tip O’Neill told us that “all politics is local.” Maybe Christmas—and its cousin holidays—is local, too. Local in the sense that Christmas is so much more than a date on the calendar. It’s a feeling each of us can keep in our heart and just maybe, if we’re very lucky, we can make it last more than twelve days.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

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