Snow shovel

A well-employed snow shovel at a mountain cabin

Hanukkah came early this year. Christmas is on the near horizon, with Kwanzaa a day later. Other cultures have other traditions this time of year, some religious, some that have nothing to do with dogma but can be just as spiritual. One I find enchanting is Jolabokaflod, the Icelandic tradition of exchanging books on Christmas Eve, then tucking in to read. I always imagine a perfect fire in the woodstove and hot chocolate or red wine at hand.

(Then there are the Finns, who apparently don’t need a date on the calendar to observe “kalsarikännit,” which is the tradition of sitting around the house in your underwear, getting drunk. The English simply call it “pantsdrunk.” Whatever its origins, it experienced great popularity during the first winter of COVID isolation.)

I have modified the traditions I grew up with in family and church. I let go of many that felt like burdens or that my journalist job wouldn’t accommodate or that felt a bit hypocritical — like attending Mass just that one time of year, even though it is, in the right church, quite magical; I still do it on the rare times I’m in my home village. I added others that honor family and friends without the pressures, and that give me a sense of stillness I don’t normally feel. I don’t deny my wraparound, which is Christmas, but I know that a vast part of the world has other touchstones.

So I have come to think of this time of year more as solstice season. That, it seems, is something we all share — whether in the long days south of the equator or the long, long nights up north.

The miracles around us

I also began to pay attention to what I think of as my “Christmas miracles.” I don’t remember when it started — maybe the year I was alone and unmoored and a favorite aunt and uncle came to my house with a Brussel sprout stalk stuck in a pottery vase and hung with Polish ornaments. Few of these miracles come in gift wrap and ribbon. Rather they are little moments of unrequired thoughtfulness: The neighbor who came to shovel my steps in a rare Seattle snowstorm; he was still wearing his house slippers. The barista at the neighborhood cafe who wrapped up the last piece of olive oil cake and tucked it in my bag with a wink: no charge. Discovering an old stash of icicle lights that just fit across the porch beam on the cabin.

This year, the miracles (so far) came from one of the few neighbors near my cabin. When the power went out during heavy snow and winds Monday night, she was at the door to say their generator was running and I could come there for the night. She also offered the loan of her husband and his snowblower. Then last night, I heard footsteps on the back stoop. I found a lovely pine-and-juniper wreath hanging on the doorknob, and a trail of small bootprints leading out the driveway: My neighbor is elf-sized.

I was thinking of all this last night as I shoveled snow for the fourth day in a row. Snow, too, is a miracle to me after almost three decades of missing it in wet-winter Seattle. But the real miracle: That I was shoveling. A year ago, with a too-long list of those hip-and-back joint ailments that walk with age, I could not have hefted my red shovel without gasps of pain and language bluer than the winter night. Now I only swore when the snow stuck to the shovel. Then I went inside for some Pam, sprayed the plastic scoop, and got back into the rhythm. (Yes, it works. For a while. I have lots of Pam.) Part of this miracle, of course, involve things like hip replacement and cortisone shots. Also reliable health insurance — although that has a ways to go. But more was the sound of the shovel scraping through the snow, the clouds of vapor as I breathed, the stars blinking through a flannel sky.

Mountain Editor was here when I finished. He had brought me his weekly newspaper and that day’s copy of The Seattle Times. He read me the Super Quiz as I cooked a peasant dinner. Over chicken stew and rice, we talked about the things we had both found noteworthy in the news.

I realized then that the “daily miracle” that is journalism is far more than a clever motto, and lasts the year long.

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