A Hidden Christmas

Along a ranch road in Gillespie County, Texas

Farmer, philosopher, poet, curmudgeon: Wendell Berry understands the land as well as anyone, and the necessities of human life better than most. When I found these live oaks and Ashe junipers topped with a just slightly gaudy Christmas star, Berry’s words about Christmas in the country and the hidden nature of holiness came to mind. Their essential modesty seems to suit the day.

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened;
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

 

Comments always are welcome.

55 thoughts on “A Hidden Christmas

    1. Thank you, GP. When I saw that star tucked atop the tree, so far out in the country there can’t have been many who’d seen it, I knew I had to honor the day by sharing it. Berry’s poem seemed an especially good match.

    1. You can bet I pondered their technique. That tree was tall — maybe fifteen feet, or maybe more. The bottom third had some silver garland and red baubles, but I thought the star made the best photo.

    1. And to you! It looks as though it’s going to be a perfect afternoon for a walk or some other outdoor activity. My squirrels and birds seem content to keep gorging themselves at the dinner table.

  1. As a fan of T.S. Eliot, you may already have made the connection between the ending of the Wendell Berry and this passage from Four Quartets:

    “We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.”

    1. The fifth section of “Little Gidding” is one of my favorite parts of the larger work, and these lines always have had special resonance. I hadn’t thought of the consonance between the passage you quoted and Berry’s poem, but it certainly is there: differently written, but just as true.

        1. That’s interesting. I was introduced to the Four Quartets in a seminary class a decade later. The class was taught by a fellow I’ve mentioned before: the one who had the sign Creato, Ergo Sum tacked above his desk. Faulkner, Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, and Steinbeck were his preferred teaching texts. I’ll never forget his description of Captain Ahab as a man with “an infinite grudge against the universe.” I’ve met some Ahabs in my life, and the description always seems apt.

    1. I’m glad I got to enjoy a little of your extended neighborhood, Pit, including this star. Even some of the roadcuts were looking festive — more about those later.

      Merry Christmas to you and Mary. We’ll all hope for an easier 2021.

    1. I came so close to titling this post “A Lone Star Christmas,” but then decided to keep the focus more on Wendell Berry’s poem, and less on my state. Berry is like Mary Oliver in one respect; no matter how much of his work I read, there’s always a new delight that fits the occasion.

    1. In a world devoted to self-promotion, a little hiddenness can go a long way — in almost every aspect of life. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Becky, and I hope your ‘holy-day’ was a good one!

    1. Decorating the odd outdoor tree is quite a custom around here. Sometimes they line urban highways, and sometimes they simply stand alone, far from what passes for civilization. I especially liked this one; it was as isolated as any I’ve found, but still a sign of human presence and faith.

  2. Wendell Berry was a treasure and you chose from his words well.

    Often when I drive to North Quabbin in the early morning darkness, there is a tall pine tree with a white star that I always enjoy seeing. It is a lovely sight. This star may be a bit gaudy but I am sure all who see it have a moment of pleasure for it being there.

    I hope you had a lovely Christmas Day.

    1. For a variety of reasons, this was the best Christmas I’ve had in quite some time. I was more than content to be at home, with my feet up and no need to go anywhere.

      Is your star special for Christmas, or a part of the landscape? Some ranches here keep their windmill stars shining year-round. It’s really quite nice.

      1. That is pretty much what our last 10 or so Christmases have been like too. Ever since my mother in law passed away it has been a quiet day with just Mary Beth and her sister along with me for dinner and a few small gifts, just stocking stuffers. Since it rained and the wind gusted yesterday, Ellie will come up tomorrow instead. Safety first.

        I don’t believe that it is although they don’t light it up every day either. It is at the top of a white pine that is at least 40 feet tall so it stays there all year and I would guess they light it when the spirit rises. They must have to replace bulbs on occasion I would think. And, of course, there are lots of folks who just don’t take down their lights at all. And some folks put up different lights at times to keep a cheer to the night with no occasion at all.

        Do the ranchers have a light just on top? There must be a way to light the vanes as they spin with batteries and remote controls now.

        1. Most of the time, there’s only a star on top: simplicity itself. I’ve seen a couple with lights running down the supports, and I’ve seen one with multiple stars, but I’ve never seen any with lights on the vanes. I can imagine it on purely decorative windmills, but on working ones, it seems like it would be more complicated than worthwhile.

          One of the things I miss about Christmas lighting now is the absence of the big, colored bulbs. I know all the reasons that LED lights are good, but I loved the look of those old ones, especially with snow.

    1. I really laughed at the way your comment trailed off. I could see you staring off into space, thinking about those east Texas Christmases, all nostalgic and warm… Still, Christmas is for big people, too; it was a good one over here. I hope your’s was as satisfying.

  3. This is such a gorgeous piece of writing and I love the star. Not gaudy at all, I think! Just joyful!

    I hope you had a beautiful Christmas and are enjoying the holiday time in between. Wishing you joy!

    1. It was fun to find such a different star. I’m accustomed to seeing lighted ones that glow at night, but this one made quite a statement in the daylight.

      I wondered if someone would catch the earlier meaning of ‘gaudy,’ but no one did. We think of gaudy things as being showy or tasteless, but in the 1500s it meant ‘joyfully festive.’

      As a noun, ‘gaudy’ was used (c. 1560) for a feast or festival; ‘gaudy day’ meant a day of rejoicing. There’s the connection between my gaudy star and the wonderful medieval carol, “Gaudete.”

    1. Merry Christmas (season) to you, too. I saw you were out and about over the holiday — I’m anxious to spend a little more time reading about your adventure. This weekend should be great; it looks like the weather’s going to roll through before Friday.

    1. As the old Shaker song has it, “’tis a gift to be simple.” I do smile every time I come across the actual Thoreau quotation, though. It’s often quoted as “simplify, simplify…” but in his work, he uses the word three times rather than two. Perhaps some of his readers are simply (!) taking his advice.

  4. I’m late to gather around the Christmas Tree, but now that I’m here, I’m sure glad to have made the trip!

    Wonderful country poem.

    Even if I had come across a tree topped with such a star anywhere else in the world, I would have muttered to myself: “Must be a Texan.”

    Christmas is a frame of mind and today is still wondrous and peaceful.

    1. Well, you’re not really late. After all, there are twelve days of Christmas, and I’m more than happy to celebrate until January 6!

      As much as I enjoy the glitter of the city, I don’t think there’s anything better than a country Christmas — perhaps because the necessary routines of country life keep celebrations grounded and natural. In any event, this sure enough is a Texan star, and I enjoyed it as much as any that I’ve found.

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