Early Frost: A tale of Christmas in Rhode Island

A special story for the season!

It is a scientific fact: the winters of one’s child years are much colder, darker, snowier and more perilous than the winters served to these same people as adults. Nor is this natural law any respecter of generation. Old-timer, post-war, boomer, post-boomer: each child in every era survives to see winter eventually lose its icy chokehold, become indifferent to the point where the Ice Age rolls back. With added years the terror of wolves prowling the suburbs melts into slush and seeps away. Fellow adults begin to step outside, hatless and scarfless. Those cars that still bobble away the spark of combustion are themselves culpable, their onboard computers stripped of the defense of blaming the environment.

This must suffice to explain the unnatural iciness of a Christmas during the Kennedy administration, the one that seems to lie, in hindsight, between Cuba and the Texas School Book Depository. A clutch of days past the solstice, it may just as well have been the evening of the shortest day, or past midnight, for the few scraps of bundled humanity one saw. Yet swaddled and shuffling, our family got down the hill to where the steaming car went through the motions of warming itself for its passengers. Any Protestants that were planning to brave the chill were even now taking to the road. Meanwhile the Catholics, who all lived closer to town, had hours yet to sip their coffee or doze in front of the TV – their trek to church would be just beginning when all good Baptist boys and girls had rewarmed their bootcold toes in the wooly depths of their beds.

As I said, this must have been pre-LBJ, since the main north-south highway was still dirt, though dirt frozen harder than any cement. Inside, the radio that played dial-in programs had a call-in Santa. He had a voice just like you’d expect, smiley and chuckly. He didn’t mouth off like the talkshow man did, especially when the caller was a housewife with something that was eating at her, that or when a man yelled at him to go back to Russia if he thought it was so great over there. No, Santa was like an uncle who agreed to whatever the kid wanted, or at least said, “Well, we’ll see!” – the child confirming, every one, that he or she had been good all year.

Inside our car we kids blew steam through pursed lips, up at the roof, slow, fast, or even trying for a ring. The Surgeon General had not yet ruled such play a punishable gesture in mom’s eyes. Besides, her sight was riveted ahead and her gloved hands were gripped to the dashboard. She was primed up to give dad a hiss of warning as soon as trouble appeared on the all-white road. To us she presented the back of a fake-fur hat that covered more of her head than the high-perched Sunday ones she wore. On the snow drifts the headlights made true circles that crept deliberately, like those spotlights that couldn’t stay fixed on that guy on TV. No cutting through the hilly back roads tonight, boy, like when the beach traffic clogs the main route. No, stick to the conventional route, slipturning right to go straight for a few miles, then gunning it left to get up the small hill at Greene’s corner. Then back to careful aiming, turning deliberately to smooth away the sharp angles and lessen the chance of fishtailing right off the road.

The stuff you notice at 10 mph! Here the dairy farm where the Turner kid milked cows and sometimes even got to drive his dad’s tractor. There the cabinetmaker shop with its clock mounted over the front door, even in this cold, telling us it was 6:42. In this same shop the Abel brothers worked hunched over screaming table saws, the wood measured against their own chewed-up thumbs. Over here the little schoolhouse – two rooms upstairs, a lunch room downstairs. Its swings tonight are frozen into pointers that hang unmoving toward the earth’s core. Finally, the stop sign, which dad didn’t even slow down for, then one more roar, up the hill that the Baptist church capped. This lighted box was their goal, the parking lot banked rectangular with piled-up snow, pushed into right angles by Jimmy Tarbox’s plow the day before.

We boys hung back from balling the chunky snow, hampered by our scratchy church pants and white shirts with clipon bow ties. Instead we all bunchily made our way up the walk, made safer by gravel tossed in overlapping fans. We obliged the deacons by stomping clean in the narthex, then on into the church. It was dimmer inside than out, but the ushers were brightening it. They moved with half-grins to light the candles nestled in their pine boughs in the normally spare New England meeting house.

In a packed little room, even our poor robed little choir looked like it could fit in at a St. Paul’s or an Hagia Sophia. In the two rows, women in front, fewer men in the back, stood people that we knew from every day: Mrs. Danielson with her angelic face and half-moon glasses chained around her neck; pious teenager Mary, newly promoted to sing with the adults; a lady we kids didn’t know, whose request to sing in the cantata had, mom whispered to dad, taken up the agenda at a whole deacons’ meeting; in back, a Sunday School teacher, a husband drafted by his alto wife; and the minister, who did double duty of reading the Scripture and singing bass. The music was mostly the same every year: Hark the Herald Angels; The First Noel; O Little Town. Between songs the minister stepped out and over to the pulpit, tonight moved to the side of the platform in a very un-baptist way. He bowed his head to read piece by piece the story from Luke’s gospel – the visit to Elizabeth, the worldwide tax, the trip to Bethlehem. The shepherds made the annual trudge to their field to be newly surprised by the angel. With foresight he had pocketed a penlight and his tilted glasses were opaque discs to the congregation. At the appearance of the heavenly host his voice, educated in Boston, rose to a height almost emotional, but firmly tethered down by Yankee stolid sense.

In the end the drowsy were reawakened by the lights suddenly being switched on and the little Hammond pushing out the opening chords of “Joy to the World.” The minister invited the whole congregation – now that the lights were on, maybe topping 100 – to rise and join with the heavenly choir to sing our praises for the birth of the Savior. All in a rush we found ourselves still, after all, in New England, standing next to our neighbors with our hands resting on the backs of wooden benches. The hills had snow on them, not sheep, and the cave aback the overcrowded inn was after all just the Baptist church with the lights turned low.

Stepping down the front steps, we found that the older boys now had time to deploy while the folks hung up their robes or stopped to linger for a bit. Now they heaved big snowballs that spattered the grinning chrome grills of the Buicks, the attacking boys hunkering around the sheltering angles of the church hall. The snowballs fell short of us – they would not fire to hit an adult, it turned out, and we made it to the car untouched. Even so, the cold stabbed its two-edged sword through the chinks in our now carelessly thrown-on scarfs. The car doors too seemed to have sealed themselves shut, and they made crunchy Arctic noises as we strained them open.

But then came the real revelation. For the sky had cleared and, away from the church lights, was putting on a star show that only deep winter can offer. There past the tail fin of our Plymouth in the west over the trees hung a jewel of a star, far brighter than any other, and burning with veritable solar fire. “Ma, look,” I said, tugging on her long cloth coat. “Could that be the star of Bethlehem?” “Maybe it is, you never know,” she returned. We got in, and my knees made crackling sounds in the cold vinyl as I twisted to look out the back window. Surely, this was the very star that had pulled the magi out of their warm beds one night, and made them go by camel all the way to Herod’s Mediterranean vassal kingdom to seek for the Christ child.

The radio no longer had Santa on – of course not, he must be on his way already! Instead it was Christmas music with very little chatter in between. And it wasn’t that “Jingle-Bell Rock” now or even “White Christmas” or Mitch Miller. No, there were real Christmas carols, sung without a hint of a smirk. And so we were delivered back home at our creeping pace.

For a dozen years now I’ve taught science at the Middle School, carved out from farmland that used to face Abel’s workshop. I’m reasonably sure that what I saw was not a star at all, but what the Greeks called a planetes aster, a “wandering star” – probably Venus at its apogee. Some winter nights I set out with my telescope to scan around, and I’ve spotted all the visible planets at one time or another. But these days the nights never get cold enough to reveal the same beacon I’d seen in the western winter sky.

Postscript: I’ve changed some of the names; I teach theology, not science. The rest more or less matches up with history. Merry Christmas!

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