An essay by W. Scott Olsen, Concordia English professor and author, which first appeared Christmas Eve in The Forum newspaper.
Here is a truth about Christmas. There is a quiet after the reindeer leave. It doesn’t last very long. Soon enough there will be shouts of joy, whispers of thanks, the sounds of wrapping paper and then dishes, but this is a quiet that’s deep. This is the quiet that’s huge.
Once upon a time I volunteered selling Christmas trees for a local church. Very late in the season, only the scraggliest trees left, a man came to the lot. Snow was falling, illuminated in the fence-hung work lights, though it wasn’t very cold.
“I’m British,” he said, as way of introduction. “We do the old tradition. Santa brings the tree, the decorations, the presents, the food. Everything.”
I looked at him and then at the poor remaining trees.
“That sounds wonderful,” I told him, “though it must be a challenge.”
“There is a moment,” he said, “when everything is ready but no one’s home yet from church.” This man smiled at me as he selected a small tree with a bent trunk. “It’s the richest moment of the whole season.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking about that moment. A friend once told me in her house the tradition is also Christmas Eve. “When we go to church,” she said, “there are no presents under the tree. When we return, the house is full, the fire is lit, somehow there is music too. But we always pause before we go inside.”
“Anticipation?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Appreciation.”
Another friend told me on Christmas morning the children gather at the top of the stairs and wait while Mom or Dad go down and check to see if Santa has come. When the signal is given, the mad rush begins. But sometimes it takes a while for the signal to come. It takes a while for the parents to savor the sound.
In my own family, when I was very young, I remember long car rides on Christmas Eve, looking for the flashing red lights of airplanes in the sky. But they weren’t airplanes. That blinking red light was Rudolph. And he was close. Santa didn’t come to houses where the children were still awake, so we had to rush home, rush to bed, rush to sleep. The faster we were asleep, the faster the quiet would arrive.
Here is the secret of that quiet moment. When the reindeer leave, the gifts have been given. Not received. Not opened. Not played with, fussed over, celebrated, tried-on or eaten. Just given. This is the moment when parents and loved-ones smile. Although our lists detail what we would like to receive, we talk about Christmastime as the gift-giving season. We give to say yes, here, in your hand now, is something I want you to have—from me. Here is something physical and real that is evidence of something emotional and true. It’s a totem, an artifact, an expression of our belief that love has form.
This is the moment when parents and loved-ones smile.
Soon enough, there will be noise. There will be the noise of joy in our homes, yet also the noise of trouble in the world. There is that trembling rumble we hear every day. It’s a confusing sound, clashing and grating, insistent and wrong.
The quiet of Christmas, however, is very much like a good, clear vision. It is the moment when we have offered gifts to the world.
The quiet of Christmas can be very loud. It is the sound of hope.
See more images and the essay at The Forum.
W. Scott Olsen is a professor, writer and magazine editor.