A Living Christmas

JAMES J. KILPATRICK

December 24, 1991|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

SCRABBLE, VA. — The following column was written from Mr. Kilpatrick's Virginia home in 1977.

Scrabble, Va. -- Not long ago, Reader's Digest carried a little quotation from Robert Frost. The great New England poet said he could sum up everything he had ever learned in only three words: Life goes on. Here in the Blue Ridge Mountains at Christmastime, the lesson tends to sink in.

The words themselves constitute a simple statement of fact; there is no particular inspiration in them. Nothing in the phrase suggests that what is to come will be any better or any worse than what has gone before. We have only the assurance, born of centuries of observation, that life is eternal. The condition we think of as ''death'' is no more than a different form of life.

To the casual eye, most of our countryside is dead this time of year. The pastures have faded from a pale green to a dull brown. A few tan leaves still cling to the oaks, but the other trees are bare. Ten months of the year, we have a dozen varieties of wildflowers growing on the roadsides. Now there are none. In the kitchen garden, the perennial herbs evince no sign of life. Most of the time the very air is still as death. Smoke rises from our chimneys, pencil thin, straight as charcoal scratches on the sky. The farm ponds are dark stones of onyx set in ice.

Ordinarily we have activity all around us. Everything is in motion -- people, tractors, birds, rabbits, flags, lawn mowers, youngsters playing tennis. The garden produces vegetable crops so rapidly that a bean patch has to be picked two times a day. The summer clouds like clipper ships go cruising through the mountains.

Now in winter one bleak day slides silently past another. We had only nine hours and 19 minutes of daylight on Wednesday, or so the almanac said. By the time the pale sun pushed over Red Oak Mountain and penetrated the gray shrouds, it was 10 o'clock in the morning. This is how it is in winter. In Rappahannock County, we say, things are dead.

But you see, it is not so. In summarizing his accumulated wisdom, Frost was expressing an eternal verity. One minute at a time, the days grow longer. Beneath the frozen crusts of our fields, an insect world is not dead, but merely sleeping. The life that will manifest itself three months hence in tree frogs and katydids and honeybees has not ended. Under the wet leaves, acorns even now are bursting, struggling to put down their roots. The whole marvelous process of birth, growth and decomposition follows a pattern as inexorable as the equinoctial procession. Life goes on.

We thought of these ancient patterns and rhythms the other night. We had been reading the Christmas story as Luke told it in his second chapter. He spoke of ''shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.'' A little before 4 a.m., I happened to awake. I had an uneasy feeling of lights where there ought not to be lights and I peered through a bedroom window toward the western pastures.

It was my neighbor Jimmy Falls in his pickup truck. His headlamps bored two yellow cones of light through a cold and drizzling rain. He had 36 cows out there; most of them had already calved, but one cow was in trouble. He had heard her bawling cry and interpreted its meaning and he had come out in the pickup truck, precisely as the shepherds in Luke, to watch over his flock by night.

I asked him about it the next day. It had been a case of twin calves, successfully delivered. He took one of the calves and put it to a cow whose own calf had been stillborn the day before and mother and adopted child took instantly to each other. Life goes on.

This is part of the meaning, it seems to me, of the whole life of Christ. Christmas and Easter, birth and resurrection, are all bound up together. When we deal in miracles, the birth of a man and the birth of a black Angus calf are matters of degree. We are dealing with patterns, with cycles, with a magnificent plan that embraces the turning of a planet and the gestation of a cow.

On the night that Christ was born, the shepherds and the wise men came on foot, or they came by camel, to attend the birth of a man by whom the millennia themselves would be numbered. Jimmy Falls the other night was out in a Ford pickup truck, attending the birth of a Rappahannock County calf. The shepherds marveled and I think Jimmy did, too. In a manger, or on a frozen hillside, Christmas is a marvelous time.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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