Even after some two thousand years, the event of a dark night in a stable in a hick town in a backwater of the greatest empire of all time - that tremendously unadvertised, under-merchandised, totally insignificant birth - has the ability to cause a hush to fall across a world in which one must shout if one hopes to be heard at all.
I used to wonder why it was that something which was to be so important should start out in a small town which was by all accounts not much more than the equivalent of a restaurant and a couple of gas stations. There was no Chamber of Commerce. No-one from Triple-A or the Michelin Guide had ever been there. No bright lights. Local traveling theatre troupes passed it by. It was, in short, "the sticks."
In the course of more than half a century of wandering I have seen Christmas come and go in the city and on the outskirts of the city. I have seen it in fairly small towns and right out in the country. There were no clear winners or losers among those various places, although there were places I liked better than others. I can't even say that the people were different. There are good people and not-so-good people, and some stinkers, everywhere. You find what you are looking for, in a way. If you think people in the city are unfriendly you will probably find them that way. If you think people in the country are set in their ways, well, you will probably wind up remembering the things that prove you right.
The first Christmas that I remember with certainty was before I started school, when the family was living out in the country, in a "house by the side of the road." I don't know about being "a friend to man," but I do remember my mother feeding the occasional tramp in those Depression days, and I remember my father showing me once the marks on a telephone pole down the road a piece - marks that meant, in tramp code, the next house was one where a hand-out might be hoped for. The dirty, ragged men were scary to me then, and I used to keep out of their way.
Mother and father are both dead now, and, not having brother or sister, I have no one to ask about those days. My father's work kept him away from home, often for weeks at a time. There was no one there but my mother and myself. There probably weren't a lot of tramps - we weren't running a soup kitchen or anything like it - only giving a bit of food to the hungry. But the fact that I remember them at all suggests to me that there were more than one or two. I would like to ask mother what her feelings were. Certainly she never gave me any sense of being nervous or apprehensive about the strangers at the gate.
When I started school we moved from that house into town, and from there, in a couple of years, to another town, and then, a year or so later, to a suburb of a big city. Most of my Christmases from then until a few years ago were spent in an urban environment.
The Depression - and the tramps - vanished in the darkness of Pearl Harbour and the Second World War, and with the end of the war came a new world and new ways. Neither Depression or tramps were to return, it seemed, and there seemed to be no problem, no hunger, that couldn't be conquered by the application of science and technology.
Time passes, as the song says. Many Christmases have come and gone. Problems that seemed to be gone for good, don't seem that easy to eliminate now, the world looks very like a replay of the later Roman Empire as it was two thousand years ago when Bethlehem was "the sticks."
In my own wanderings it has come to me that there was good reason why a little place like Bethlehem was picked for the Big Event. I think of the tramps that used to come to our kitchen door out there in the country and I think of the tattered and tired couple that was sent off to sleep in the stable. I'll bet they didn't look like the bright and shiny pair that are appear on the Christmas cards. I'll bet they might have looked just a little bit scary to a youngster who watched them go by, sheltered by the safety of his own comfortable home.
But they weren't headed for the bright lights; they weren't doing one-night stands in the better hotels. They were there because most people aren't born on Broadway - however important and indispensable Broadway may think itself to be.
In the hush that falls on Christmas Eve I think it is still possible to hear the cry of the child who was born for all men, however poor, however weak, however unimportant - "poor ornery people like you - and like I."
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.