The gloomy December sky hung low as the prairie waited in anticipation for the first snowfall. Morning recess was normally exciting at this one-room school, but today it was too cold to swing or play marbles or tag, and there wasn’t snow yet to make snow angels or trails in the snow for our favorite winter game, fox-and-geese. Most of us really didn’t mind the cold so much, if only it would snow!
Finally, the bell tolled and we scrambled inside to get a drink from the water fountain before returning to our desks. We were getting ready for the Christmas program, and every minute since the week before Thanksgiving was spent practicing and getting ready for the big evening program that brought family, friends, and neighbors from the entire countryside together.
With all the excitement of the season, I had an even bigger reason to be excited. Dad and Mom were picking John and me up from school at noon because David and Carolyn, my oldest brother and sister, were coming home from college in Minnesota tonight on the midnight train. We were going to Wolf Point to do some Christmas shopping and then pick them up. All the stores normally close at 5:30, but tonight Wolf Point advertised “Midnight Madness,” and all the stores were staying open until 9:00!
Dad walked into the school just as our teacher dismissed us for lunch. As we gathered our things, she reminded us to work on memorizing our lines.
After picking up my brother Paul at the high school in Scobey, we headed south of town for the 50-mile trip towards Wolf Point.
Mom quickly went to work as soon as we arrived. She was an expert shopper, and she knew exactly what stores had the perfect gifts for everyone on her list, so she instructed us to stick together and explore the stores ourselves.
The entire afternoon was enchanted. The store windows were decorated with lights and displays of mannequins dressed in beautiful Christmas outfits. Santa and his elves, toy trains and dolls, and the most beautiful nativity scene with Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus glistened in the center of town. We helped Dad pick out a present for Mom, and we dreamed about owning the toys and crafts that were displayed on the shelves.
After supper, we wandered downtown again. Mom was done shopping. I had never seen a store open this late. The night sky was dark, and the garland and lights that were strung across the main street looked like a canopy. I had never seen anything so beautiful. Christmas music filled the air, Santa Clause’s bells were jingling nearby as children climbed on his lap to tell him their Christmas wishes. Just when it didn’t seem like it could get any better, huge, beautiful snowflakes began to fall, like someone shook the snow globe at just the right time.
When the stores closed, we went to the Husky Café for an evening snack. The train was scheduled to arrive at midnight, so we still had hours to kill. Other friends from our hometown showed up at the diner. They were waiting for out of town guests coming in on the same train. Daddy ordered enough cookies and doughnuts for everybody. The men exchanged stories, the women chatted as they sipped their coffee and picked at the plate of treats.
The snow continued coming down at a steady pace, and by the time we left the diner, it was already a couple inches deep.
We went inside the train depot and sat on the modern orange bucket seats to wait. It was still a half-hour before the train was scheduled to arrive.
The ticket agent was a thin, nervous gentleman who was flitting back and forth from the telegraph machine to the telephone to the counter, outside to brush the snow from the cart with luggage for outbound passengers, and back to his desk to shuffle papers.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, folks, but the train is running late,” he announced as he jotted down a note as he listened to the tapping of the telegraph. “Again” he mumbled under his breath.
Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap – “Oh, dear”, he exclaimed. “It seems as though there were some cattle out and it delayed the train again. And the snow might pose a problem.”
He paced the floor wringing his hands. “Why, oh why, oh why,” he muttered to himself.
Tap-tap-tap tap-tap. “It looks like they got the situation under control, but because of the delay, they have to sit on a side track to wait for the eastbound freight train to pass.”
He disappeared outside, and the phone started to ring. After 20 rings, he emerged, snow-covered, and answered the phone, obviously annoyed that it rang at all. “YES! I can’t help it. The weather, the animals, I can’t give you a time. Just be here by 1:00 a.m. and you should be good. NO ALBERT, I CAN’T HOLD THE TRAIN IF YOU AREN’T HERE IN TIME!!!” He slammed the phone down, again muttering about people. I didn’t quite hear what he said, but he wasn’t happy, at least with Albert.
Tap-tap-tap-tap. “Okay folks, it looks like we are good!! They are almost to Culbertson. That’ll be about an hour.” Again, under his breath, he muttered, “if we’re lucky, no more livestock running rampant, no Sasquatch, and no train robbers.”
“You’re doing a great job,” Mom encouraged him. “You’re a hard worker. We’re lucky to have you!”
He gave a weak smile.
The excitement I had felt earlier that day had diminished. I was tired. I’d never been awake this late in my life. I leaned against Mom and dozed.
“Kathy,” Paul whispered. “Wake up! The train is almost here! Let’s go outside and watch it come in!”
He didn’t have to ask me twice. I jumped up. I saw the piercing headlamp of the train through the dark snowy night. The train rumbled past as the brakes squealed, and the platform shook and the snow swirled covering the ticket agent, the luggage, and everyone. Just as it came to a stop, I spotted my brother and sister in the window. “I see them!” I exclaimed.
Dad loaded their suitcases in the trunk, and we squeezed into the car. John sat in the front seat between Mom and Dad, and Paul, David, and Carolyn filled the back seat. I snuggled between David and Carolyn. I was so happy they were home.
I woke up in the late morning, not quite sure how we got home through the snowstorm, but a pleasant calm surrounded me. Surrounded by family, I knew this was exactly the way it was supposed to be.
I wanted to paint a picture of love, and family because we don’t live in a time that many people even know what that is. No matter what your situation, you belong to God’s family. Look around, and step outside your own circle of comfort. Loneliness, depression, and painful memories can be washed away with a kind word and an open heart of the person willing to represent Christ, our little lights shining into this dark world.
Our broken world is full of heartache and separation: families who don’t talk to each other, couples who at one time couldn’t live without each other, now can’t live with each other. Children, bitter by mistakes made by their parents, no longer come around, or even call.
Some have sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, who are oceans away in the military or on the mission field. I read this to my daughter who is now serving in Kuwait. It made her cry. She misses home. How precious is that? That she knows what family is, and no matter how hard this deployment may be, she has family waiting, loving her, and praying for her safe return.
And still, there are those who know that home for the holidays is a painful experience. For some, maybe there isn’t a “home”. For some, the situation seems hopeless, dismal, or completely obliterated. For some it’s an unholy wreck with arguing, drinking and lost hope. For some, they are facing the first Christmas after a loved one has passed. For some, the family can’t gather because of governmental restrictions, and even if they don’t agree, to stay employed, they must abide by the rules.
This is the time to look around and see who you can touch. Shoppers are afraid to even make eye contact, and the smiles or frowns are hidden by their masks. Find ways to impact your neighbors. Let your good words of encouragement or acts of kindness be the topic of discussion around their supper tables or their social media feeds.
Nursing homes are closed to the normal Christmas carolers. Send a small fruit basket addressed to, “Someone Who Needs Hope” with the nursing home address. Most homes will allow you to send wall Christmas decorations and cards. Let them know we haven’t forgotten about them, and send the gift with a prayer and a scripture of encouragement.
I grew up with a formal Christmas dinner around a great big table that seated 25. We always invited extra people, the student pastor and his wife that came to do their internship at our church, the widower that lived down the road, the school teacher that had no other family around, a foreign exchange teacher who was eager to learn about our customs. It created warm, loving memories where love extended beyond our own family.
1 John 4:7-8 Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God, and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God for God is love.
I pray that this Christmas Season is filled with love, joy, and peace. I pray that you experience the fullness of Jesus. The Christ-child came to earth to live and die that we might have an abundant life in Him. I pray that you know Christ, experience connection with others, discover God’s purpose for your life, and impact the world around you for eternity! In Jesus’ name. Amen.