Watching a Christmas Star

Daystar
Like so many others, I sought out the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in last night’s evening twilight. Less than a degree apart, their shining presence brought to mind a favorite experience from childhood, retold here for a new Christmas season.

Perhaps she noticed my absence. Perhaps she only felt a draft from the partly-opened door and rose to investigate. In either case, drawn onto the porch that cold Christmas night, my grandmother discovered a quilt-wrapped, shivering, and entirely unhappy litle girl huddled on her front steps.

“Good heavens,” she said.”What’s wrong? What are you doing out here?” Surprised by her question, I confessed the truth. “I don’t want to go home.” “Of course you don’t,” she said, lowering herself to sit next to me on the step. “It was a nice Christmas. Did you have fun? Did you like your presents?” Unwilling to meet her gaze, 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 my grandmother seemed lost in thought, and reluctant to move. Finally, she said, “But it isn’t over. Not yet. Let’s go in the house and have some cookies.” As she led me through the sea of relatives that had flooded the front room, someone — an aunt or uncle, or perhaps a parent — asked, “What’s going on?” “We’re going to the kitchen,” she said, and that ended the questions. Everyone knew better than to interfere with Grandma when she seemed bent on a mission.

While she brought cookies from the pantry, I filled my glass with milk. We settled in at the table,  and I waited to see which direction the conversation would take. “Did you watch for Santa last night?” she asked. I had. “Did you see him?” I hadn’t, of course, but the heap of presents in the living room provided all the proof I needed to know 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 bottom of my cookie. “What?” Busy with her own cookie, Grandma said, “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. Wisely enough, Grandma sounded a few cautionary notes. “You have to look right at midnight, and not a minute before or after. 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 headed to the living room and began 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 that year. I didn’t see it the next year, for that matter, or the year after that. Given my grandmother’s fondness for Swedish folk tales and her friend Christine’s Croatian heritage, it occurred to me that their reappearing Star of Bethlehem might be a legend akin to tales of animals talking on Christmas Eve, or 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, 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. I told no one — neither friends, nor parents, nor even my own grandmother — although no one could have convinced me that I didn’t see it. Still, 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 no more than a cursory glance.

But one year in Kansas, halfway between Monument Rocks and the Cimarron Grasslands, I stopped to admire some cottonwoods. A brilliant star, created by sunlight shining through leaves, erased the decades. 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?

This year, it was the same sun but a different tree which brought that childhood experience to mind, along with the fanciful, centuries-old legend of kneeling oxen and talking animals.

‘Fanciful,’ of course, is our polite way of describing events we imagine to be impossible. Unwilling to appear naive, stupid, or silly, few adults admit to clinging to such legends. Still, barns continue to beckon on Christmas eve, and hills laid bare beneath winter skies shimmer still, awaiting Bethlehem’s star, and those with eyes to see.

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

 

Comments always are welcome.
To read Thomas Hardy’s poem about the legend of the kneeling oxen, please click here.

92 thoughts on “Watching a Christmas Star

  1. It’s good to see you provided a link to Thomas Hardy’s similar-in-spirit poem “The Oxen.” Your phrase “those with eyes to see” recalls an earlier poem, Emerson’s “The Rhodora,” with its famous line “…if eyes were made for seeing, / Then beauty is its own excuse for Being.” And your word fanciful is a reminder that fancy is syncopated form of fantasy.

    1. I’d never heard the term ‘syncopated’ used to describe the formation of a word. I had to look it up; now it makes sense.

      When I read “The Rhodora,” something about it seemed familiar. Finally, I remembered that I wrote my own somewhat-similar-in-spirit etheree about a violet hidden in the woods. Maybe I was looking with Emersonian eyes that day.

  2. A Christmas wish: That everyone would find and polish a special memory from their past, something intimately wonderful, to keep like Piglet in a pocket to wrap the fingers of the mind around and give one comfort when the world asks hard things of us.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Ann. I have some wonderful Christmas memories, and this is one of them. Recalling such a special experience is a gift that always delights.

  3. You had a wise grandmother, Linda — legend or not. She knew what to say, how to say it. And it stuck, all these years. It has been too cloudy for us to see the grand conjunction here, but I caught about a 30 second glimpse last night before more clouds covered it up. The planets had separated a bit, so not so tight as before. But just as beautiful, if fleeting. The Mary Oliver is frosting on the cake of already beautiful words and thoughts. Merry Christmas, my friend. Let the star follow you.

    1. She was wise. Remember, she was the one who showed me that green and blue really did “go together” by showing me the trees against the sky. I still haven’t written the very best story about her, which involved my dad and his siblings, and which happened years before I came along. I ought to make a run at that.

      A Merry Christmas to you and Rick, and of course to Lizzie. It’s an odd year, but some traditions endure — like my annual viewing of A Christmas Story tomorrow, and probably a few times after that.

    1. If ever we needed a star, this might have been the year. Of course, there are other stars waiting to light the darkness, too — and we’ll never be able to predict where they might be shining.

  4. As children, we are anxious to believe. Then, as we “mature,” those beliefs often become folk tales, or worse, untruths.

    I played one of the three wise men in Mrs. Estes’s 4th grade class Christmas play, and helped paint the Bethlehem star on the brown paper mural we taped to the blackboard for the backdrop. Over the years, the belief that Magi had seen and followed that bright star to a stable in Bethlehem morphed into just another biblical story that I had to reconcile as, “…anything is possible.”

    Seeing the conjunction and understanding its scientific explanation was confirmation that all those childhood stories have a basis in truth, especially if we just let ourselves be children.

    1. When I was driving through Comfort recently, I happened to glance at the life-sized nativity in the town’s park. A mother and three children of various ages were there, and the kids were being allowed to play among the figures. One child had taken a liking to the three kings, and was enthusiastically hugging one of them, while the others appeared to be trying to ride one of the camels. I was right there with them, and grinned all the way into Kerrville.

  5. A wonderful story and a wise, wonderful grandmother. My best Christmas memories involve visiting grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Oklahoma with crowded Christmas mornings and long, long games of Monopoly. And we even saw a white Christmas a few times, a real treat for a Houston boy. The stars on those cold, clear nights made the Star of Bethlehem live for us all.

    1. I often regret not realizing how special my grandmother was until long after she was gone. Like you, we were part of a family that gathered, celebrating with American enthusiasm and Swedish traditions. We never played Monopoly at Christmas; jigsaw puzzles took over the kids’ table after dinner. I still laugh when I remember the aunt who refused to leave until the puzzle was finished. Of course, the nature of the activity hardly mattered — it was the being together that was important.

  6. This is a heart-warming Christmas story and it made me dig in my memory to search for a similar experience. Suddenly it dawned on me how deep our childhood is buried in the hustle and bustle of our adult living. The star of Bethlehem was shining brightly that your lovely story has triggered in my mind. Merry Christmas!

    1. Pulling out those childhood memories — and adult memories, too — is a great Christmas pleasure. I still hang ornaments on my tree that were used on our trees in the 1940s and 1950s. Each one brings those years to life. I hope your Christmas is a happy one, Peter, and that your memories are just as sweet!

  7. I love that Mary Oliver poem (what Mary Oliver poem DON’T I love?). Thank you for sharing it. Alas, we didn’t manage to see the grand alignment (or whatever it’s called), but last night Mike called me outside to see them so close together, which was pretty darned cool to me.

    I used to listen to Victoria Williams some – she has a VERY quirky voice, so she’s not everyone’s cup of tea. On one of her albums she has a song about the animals talking. I think. I just googled, but I can’t remember the name & none of the song titles jumps out at me. If I can find it I’ll come back & link it for you.

    1. Quirky’s the right word, but I like quirky. Her voice reminds me of Iris DeMent’s. I’m going to have to listen a couple more times to catch all the lyrics, though. Usually I can find them online to follow along, but I couldn’t find them for “Kashmir’s Corn.” Have you heard DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be”? I think you and Mike both would like it, and the premise of her song works as well for Christmas as for life in general.

    1. ‘Fancy’ sometimes feels heavy to me: like an over-decorated cake or too-frilly dress. But ‘fanciful’? It seems light, ready to dance away — perhaps to join the talking animals.

    1. Just now, it’s cold as can be — at least, by coastal Texas standards. The front that roared through last night dropped temperatures by 30 degrees, and it’s still blowing a gale. No matter. I’m home, and warm, and grateful that I’m here. I’m happy to drink coffee and process photos, and enjoy listening to my upstairs neighbor playing her piano.

      A Merry Christmas to you, Jean. Just think of all the gifts you’ll be unwrapping through the course of the next year!

  8. Feast of The Three Kings ??
    I have some research to do..

    My education concerning legends of the Christmas such as the kneeling of the oxen is sadly lacking…

    Thank you so much for sharing the story, poems, and for the links to more information… not everyone had a childhood as yours.. rich in such stories.

    1. Ah — the Three Kings, aka the better-known Three Wise Men. Those fellows with their camels (or their horses, more likely) always have been favorites of mine. I suppose it’s because I understand their impulse to just get up and go, following that star. Can’t you hear their friends and neighbors? “You guys are nuts. Why don’t you stay here, and go down to the pub with us?”

      I did have a rich childhood, and like most children, I appreciate it more now than I did then. My parents weren’t perfect, and I certainly wasn’t, but we knew we belonged together, and that might be the best gift of all. Merry Christmas to you, Patti — I hope despite all we’ve had to cope with this year, it’s a fine one.

    1. Well, common wisdom may suggest that “seeing is believing,” but it’s equally true that believing can lead to seeing. That’s been true for me in recent weeks. I’ve always believed in the essential goodness of people, and recent evidence has supported that belief. Experiences like that make the season especially bright.

      1. To a large degree we create what we see. Then we see what we create and it creates a positive feedback loop that can lead to amazing places and visions. I too believe in the essential goodness of people and I have been seeing many examples of it. May the new year bring you health and sanity to the world. Merry Christmas.

  9. Your post has filled my heart with joy this morning! I feel a kindred spirit with your grandmother, as I enter into the feast, remembering those mysterious events of the past. It seems that Now dissolves into the kairos time in which the Child in the straw fills past, present, and future. As I go about my own version of crying on the porch, serving cookies and milk, kneeling at the manger and searching the skies, I hope I can live in the glorious reality that you’ve reminded me of here. Merry Christmas, Linda!

    1. I’ve always thought that Oliver’s dissolving Now is Kairos: not a tick on the clock, but an event-filled moment, expanding to contain both past and future. Beyond that, there’s no question that “living memory” is real, and Christmas certainly is a time that memories live with new vibrancy. As you help to create memories for your family to draw on in the future, enjoy those from your past — as well as that special past event we celebrate.

  10. I really enjoyed your story with your grandmother. Beautiful post. I will miss being in the family horse barn on Christmas Eve and Day as I am not able to go to my parent’s house. One of my annual traditions is going to the barn in my party clothes to run the horses in for the night. The poem made me think about that.

    1. There’s something special about Christmas in the country, and about sharing the night with nature. I have a friend who always visits her horse on Christmas Eve. She says they always have a fine conversation, although most people couldn’t hear the horse’s side of it. Despite all the changes this year, I hope you and your family — and the horses — have a satisfying Christmas.

    1. Thanks, Becky. Some of her wisdom was hard-earned, but I didnt’ know anything about that until much later. All I knew of her as a child was love, and protectiveness, and — cookies!

  11. It is so refreshing to read that childhood memories can hold such treasures which nudges us along each time we recall them. A lovely post and so much there. We are so lucky to find solace in the words that you write so well, Linda.
    Thank you and the best seasons to you.

    1. Different countries, (sort of) different ages, different experiences — but the same humanity. Remembering families and traditions can be tinged with various emotions, some of them negative, but the remembering’s always valuable. I hope you enjoy your Christmas, and the new gifts that are waiting for you!

  12. Treasured childhood memories can emerge sometimes when we least expect them. Thanks for sharing this one. I could picture the whole scene and the feelings you must have had. May your holidays be special!

    1. It’s fun, isn’t it? We never know what the trigger might be: Proust had his madeleines, I have my bayberry candles, the taste of cardamom — and stars. Sometimes we don’t need something new to make our celebrations memorable. Sometimes, the old does just fine. Enjoy the season, and enjoy your own memories!

  13. Treasured memories that leave hope – even to a slight glance to the sky to see, “Is the star still there?” Yes, it is there. On call for another miracle just in case the Creator needs it again.
    Linda, your writings have added much to my year of blogging “gifts” I appreciate you very much. Thanks. Have a Merry Christmas and continue dotting the earth with you gold dust.

    1. Haven’t we had fun over the years, Oneta? This has been a season of miracles for me, and I hope for you. I’m talking quite concrete, observable miracles, too — not magic, but miracles of human care and connection. I hope your season’s filled with the same, and that we share another fine year in 2021. Merry Christmas to you and your whole brood!

  14. You would think a farm girl like me would have heard about the kneeling oxen and talking animals. Better late than not at all I say! I believe it was a science teacher who advised that Jupiter was generally thought to be the star of Bethlehem, and I have always looked for it in the evening sky. I smiled as I read about your grandmother’s wisdom, and how important practicing traditions of our native heritage can be. My mother never carried on with the Danish customs that her parents celebrated at the holidays. Your stories always take me back to the memories of my own young thoughts – and times where life seemed simpler, having greater depth. I wish you all the love and joy of the holiday season, Linda.

    1. It’s true that adult complexities can make childhood seem simple in retrospect, but even as children we faced complex situations: like coping with the reality that Christmas Day ends! I’ve often thought that learning to use our problem solving muscles as kids helped to strengthen them for solving larger, future problems. My grandmother certainly was a model for problem solving, and I’m glad I had the chance to learn from her.

      Over the years I was told that Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and even the moon was the Christmas star. A lot of people tried to explain it, while other denied it. None of it bothered me, since I knew the truth — the star was out there, seen or unseen. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

  15. A wise and kind grandmother, a little magic, and fresh cookies make so many things feel grounded and safe and hopeful among such a sea of uncertainty as the expanse of “after Christmas” can be to a child, or any of us.
    There is so much anticipation and activity and heart, and then it passes, and without the next thing to look forward to, one could easily become cold and unhappy on a front porch. (Mine was cold and unhappy on a porch roof outside my window with apple juice, and my kind wise grandmother thousands of miles away.) But I got her at Christmas two years ago, at my house, with my kids enjoying her love. My youngest’s lasting memory from that was that, after dinner, she groaned good-naturedly, that she’d eaten too many noodles. Ha!

    1. When I grew older and became more sensitive to the liturgical calendar, learning that the twelve days of Christmas had meaning apart from the song was quite a revelation. With the Christmas season beginning on December 25, rather than ending then, and going on until January 6, a lot changed. I didn’t worry about getting cards out before Christmas day itself, and I stopped taking my tree down until Epiphany. Now, I waffle a bit, and tend to have it down by January 1, but it doesn’t have to be stripped the day after Christmas. Why not let the season stay? There’s so much in life that works against our joy, why should we do it ourselves?

      1. Exactly!
        I don’t start “Christmas” until the second, as my husband’s birthday is the first. So I extend until at least epiphany to get the most out of the cheer and delight the decorations bring.
        I was watching a show on Netflix based in Spain and it lead me down a rabbit hole about certain folks in Catholicism who don’t do presents until the 12th night and Christmas is a gathering and feasting holiday.

    1. I think ‘keeping’ Christmas is important every year, but perhaps even moreso this year. I can’t help remembering the wonderful lines from Dickens: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” Merry Christmas to you and yours, Allen.

    1. I’m so glad you experienced it that way, Ann. I hope that your Christmas was a good one, despite all the differences and difficulties that came our way. Perhaps the coming year will be a better one — Merry Christmas!

    1. Actually, I’m convinced I saw the star because it was there, but I’ll not quibble over that. This year, there wasn’t a star, but a flock of angels was scattered across the Texas hill country. The best part is, I know their names and have the receipts — I’ll tell you about it some day, once things have settled down. I’ll say this: because of a few angels, I had one of the most amazing Christmas days I’ve ever had.

  16. As I read about your going into your grandma’s pantry, I remembered my grandma’s pantry. It was a real, walk-in one, and in my memory I could almost smell the scents wafting in from the kitchen. Thanks for your story – can’t wait to read about the angels.

    1. My grandma’s pantry was walk-in, too. It was narrow, with shelves to the ceiling, and even if you couldn’t find a homemade cookie there, Archway iced oatmeal and windmill cookies always had their niche. Every time I see them in the stores, I smile. As for the angels: I’m inclined not to write about the complicated tale publicly — at least, not until I can find a way to eliminate any possiblity of some people involved in it being identified. I’ll see. It’s a heck of a story.

  17. Happy Christmas! Today is the Fourth Day of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, for those of you who still count Christmas from Dec. 25th to 12th Night. Mama’s family was high church Episcopalian and observed Advent and the 12 days of Christmas.

    I watched “Lucy Worsley’s 12 Days of Tudor Christmas” last night on PBS, which was very interesting. I wonder what the Tudors would have thought about the Christmas Star, if it appeared in the skies at the time. Omens and signs!

    We were able to see the Grand Conjunction. I’m glad I caught it, as I won’t be around for the next one except in spirit. We clouded over for a few days. I didn’t think to look last night, though I know Saturn and Jupiter are moving apart. It is still cool to see.

    1. Here I am, getting all caught up. I’m all in favor of observing the Twelve Days, as well as Advent. During my Methodist childhood we gave a polite nod to Advent, but the twelve days weren’t much more than the song, and the annually revised cost for those partridges and gold rings.

      Every time I hear someone mention the Tudors, I think of the War of the Roses and one of the funniest jokes I’ve ever heard. It’s one of those that’s better told than read, just so you can’t see what’s coming — the punch line is “Don’t hatchet your Counts before they chicken.”

      I watched the full moon rise tonight, and it was glorious. We’ve clouded up already, and have a couple of days of rain ahead of us. I’ll not complain, especially since some of the drier areas of the state may get rain. There’s even a little muttering going on about a ‘wintery mix’ in more northern parts of the state.

  18. Beautiful and inspiring. On our silent night of Christmas Eve, I found myself looking skyward. Never did catch sight of the conjoining of those planets (too overcast with clouds and couldn’t even see the moon), but even so, I ventured outside in the cold temperature just to gaze at the night sky. It never ceases to amaze me.

    1. There’s something satisfying about being out at night, especially away from the lights and noise of the city. Even in the city, a midnight Christmas Eve service appeals to me precisely because of the emptiness and silence you mentioned. With or without stars, it’s special, and somehow different from any other night of the year.

      1. Yes indeed. Our country church always holds a candlelight service at 11 pm on Christmas Eve to welcome in Christmas Day. When we leave the church shortly after midnight, the silence and beauty of the night always inspires and blesses me,.

  19. As someone has already mentioned, what a wonderful Christmas present you have offered your lucky readers! Thank you.

    Superb writing which sustains a childhood memory across the universe of time where it continues to play a role in your life. Many of us can relate to such a memory.

    “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Star follows us, just as surely as the Wise Men followed the Star?”

    I was one of many who ventured out with high hopes of observing The Great Conjunction, perhaps even to capture an image of it with a high-falutin’ camera and humongous lens.

    Just as the last glow of the sun gave way to nearly total darkness and my old fingers gently turned the focus ring of the lens, my efforts were interrupted. Nothing quite like a lick and a nudge from a half-ton cow in the dark to jerk one back into reality!

    With less-than-stellar results photographically, I reflected on the fact that just knowing such wonders exist for those willing to see is enough. Miracles happen. Stars shine. Life is good.

    (Note to self: Carry snacks for cows next time. And don’t stand so close to the fence.)

    1. Your mention of sustaining memory over time brought to mind the famous line from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: ““The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Who knows how many lifetimes we carry inside us, or how many memories are waiting for the right moment to spring back to life?

      The story of you and your cow is so funny. Heavens, meet the earth. On the other hand, that cow’s no less a miracle and marvel than the circling stars. She was closer at hand, too: even if you didn’t get the photos you intended, you got the moon and a moo!

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