Perhaps she noticed my absence. More likely, she felt a draft from the partly-opened door and came out to investigate. Whatever drew my grandmother onto the porch that cold Christmas night, she discovered a quilt-wrapped, shivering, unhappy litle girl huddled on her front steps.
“Well, for heavens’ sake,” she said.”What’s the matter? What are you doing out here?” “I don’t want to go home,” I said. “Of course you don’t,” she said, sitting down next to me on the step. “It was a nice Christmas. Did you have fun? Did you like your presents?” Unwilling to look at her, I murmured the complaint voiced by generations of children. “I wish it wasn’t over.”
A front porch in winter is no place for conversation, but she didn’t move, and seemed to be thinking. Finally, she said, “But it isn’t over. Not yet. Let’s go in the house and have some cookies.” As she parted the sea of relatives in the front room, someone — a parent, an aunt or uncle — said, “What’s going on?” “We’re going to the kitchen,” she said. That put an end to the questions. Everyone knew better than to interfere with Grandma when she had something on her mind.
While she got speculaas from the pantry, I filled my glass with milk, and we settled in at the table. “Did you watch for Santa last night?” she asked. I had. “Did you see him?” I hadn’t, of course, but there were those presents: as much proof as I needed that he’d stopped by.
“What if I told you there was something to watch for tonight?” I stopped in mid-dunk, milk dripping from the corner of my cookie. “What?” “Miss Luksetich says that if you watch in the east every night at midnight until the Feast of The Three Kings, you might see the Star of Bethlehem.”
I’d never known my grandmother to lie, and Christine Luksetich was one of her best friends. It was worth pondering. “Really?” I said. Grandma sounded a few cautionary notes. “You have to look right at midnight, so you might not see it. It could be cloudy, or you could fall asleep. But if you keep looking, you might see it. It’s there.”
Entranced, no longer reluctant to leave Christmas Day behind, I started picking up my gifts: more than eager to return home, scurry off to my east-facing bedroom, and begin scanning the skies.
I didn’t see the Star of Bethlehem, of course. I didn’t see it the next year, or the year after that. Given my grandmother’s fondness for Swedish troll stories and Christine’s German/Croatian heritage, it occurred to me that their reappearing Star of Bethlehem might be a legend akin to tales of animals who talk on Christmas Eve, or of oxen kneeling in their stalls.
Still, I watched: scrutinizing the skies each year to see if something might appear. And then, it did. One night, there were only the usual faint twinkles in the eastern sky above our cherry trees. The next night, a brilliant star shone there: pulsating, glimmering, so bright it seemed to light the snow-covered countryside. For as long as I could stay awake, it never moved. The next night, it was gone.
With the deep, pure certainty of childhood, I knew that I’d seen the Star of Bethlehem. Still, I told no one: neither friends, nor parents, nor even my own grandmother. No one could have convinced me that I didn’t see it, but I was reluctant to be ridiculed, or tempted into an argument.
Over time, the memory faded, and my habit of looking eroded. Most years found me otherwise occupied in the days after Christmas — traveling, or visiting, or cleaning up kitchens — and if I remembered at all, I gave the skies only a cursory glance.
But this year, halfway between Monument Rocks and the Cimarron Grasslands, I stopped to admire some cottonwoods edging a small Kansas lake. Pleased to find autumn color at last, I began taking photographs. As I reviewed them, I found a brilliant star shining through the cottonwoods’ leaves, and the years fell away. Remembering my vision of the Star of Bethlehem so many years earlier, I thought:
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Star follows us, just as surely as the Wise Men followed the Star?
It was a fanciful thought: as fanciful as tales of kneeling oxen and talking animals on Christmas eve. On the other hand, “fanciful” can be a polite way of describing events we imagine to be impossible.
Unwilling to appear naive, stupid, or silly, few adults still cling to such legends. And yet the barns beckon on Christmas eve, and hills laid bare beneath winter skies still shimmer, awaiting Bethlehem’s star. This year, I’ll look again: holding a memory close, and rejoicing in the knowledge that others, too, have been followed by that star.
Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold,
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh, the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
“Christmas Poem” ~ Mary Oliver