Winter’s Majesty

*This cold winter
  Moon spills the inhuman fire
  Of jewels
  Into my hands.

 

One December my parents hocked their wedding rings at a trashy pawn shop in Salt Lake City in hopes of scraping together enough cash for something small for at least the youngest children. Growing up, Christmas was an anxious time, my mother crying a lot, my dad working around the clock—hoping for a paycheck that wouldn’t bounce. But it was full of happy memories too, surrounded by family, good music, good food and much joy. People were often generous and our stockings usually weren’t empty. I don’t dislike Christmas, but I don’t love it.

My first December in Moscow I spent a p-day cutting up an ugly red plaid skirt that I was too embarrassed to wear and sewed it into makeshift stockings for all the missionaries in my zone. My companion and I stuffed them with candy and cards that said Happy New Year in Russian. A week later we all walked together beneath the light of the moon through a forest of evergreens. The quiet of the forest felt cleansing; white pillows of snow fell covering the dirt from snows past. It’s one my favorite memories of both winter and my mission.  

On New Year’s Eve the following year my companion called home to St. Petersburg a few hours too late. Her mother was too drunk to talk amidst the night’s festivities. In the ensuing days we walked down streets that fell dark by five o’clock, the sidewalks on Leningradskii Prospekt and Ulitsa 1905 bereft of the sober. It’s hard to do missionary work around the holidays. As we trudged through the snow with frost collecting on our fur hats and salt collecting on our boots, we found peace together in the bleak and in the solitude.

  **I would like to be serious and silent

From stars learning quietude deep,

 And like that maple of the highlands,

 To guard Russia fallen asleep.

  I’d like the moon, bright and broad,

 To wade in grass, leaving no track…

Missions are funny things. They have a grand way of changing priorities and altering perceptions. Christmas at home felt foreign to me. I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting around opening piles of gifts.  I fled the scene and chose to work through the week of Christmas hiking in the desert with struggling teens. After two days of hiking we arrived at the top of a dusty mesa on Christmas Eve. I alternated with Mike, each of us taking two-hour shifts around the clock to keep watch. We gathered wood from Juniper trees and stoked the fire to keep it ready for cold hands at breakfast. We laid out oranges, chocolate and new gloves for each of the girls in our group. The sun rose behind us on the horizon; we spent the day whittling spoons, twisting rope from Dog Bain and flinging rocks from leather slings. In the evening we stared in the distance at the setting sun, a backdrop of  pink and purple streaks across the sky. The Arizona Christmas air breathed warm, chasing away heavy sleeping bags until late into the night. We lay back staring into the speckled blackness of the sky, the stars staring down at us, telling their tales.  

The scriptures are replete with symbols drawn from nature, the God of Heaven Himself described often in terms from the celestial sky, His voice as thunder, the wind the breath of His Holy Spirit. This wasn’t lost on John Milton when he composed On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, I think we’ve lost some of this.  

Christmas became fun for me again around the time my first son turned two. My husband hoisted a small tree over his shoulder, losing pine needles on the train car home to our small apartment. He went to the biggest toy store in Moscow to find the perfect gift and paid too much for a set of astronaut figurines with a NASA spaceship.  Sometimes it seems like Christmas has become a list of the perfect gifts for each of our children. Each Christmas Eve we lay out gifts and I photograph our family tree surrounded by glossy packages with even glossier bows. And each Christmas I get a little sick to my stomach at the obscenity of it all.

As the Winter Solstice came, swept in by a total eclipse of the moon, it felt a little different this year. I lay alone on the frosty grass and stared at the majesty of it all, the moon glowing red as it hovered in penumbral phase. The foggy mist  cleared, exposing the Big Dipper, Draco, Pisces and Orion—whose foot my son is named after. I remembered how great the insignificance of man (Moses 1:10), and how great the God who created him. At this season I am grateful to the Creator of heaven and earth and for His Son who descended to bear the burdens of mortality alongside us all.

*Having Lost My Sons, I Confront The Wreckage Of The Moon: Christmas, 1960 by James Wright

**Songs, My Songs.  Yesenin: The Complete Poetical Works. Bul, Victoria. Pg 75

Comments

  1. mmiles, you captured some of the ambiguity and depth of Christmas that really touched me. It helped me remember some thoughts and feelings I needed today. Thank you.

  2. Hey, I used to live on Ulitsa 1905.

    Beautiful post.

  3. Stunning, mmiles. Thank you.

  4. Nathan Nielson says:

    Sister Robinson, it has been a wonderful Christmas surprise to read this! A big “what she said” from me. Thanks so much for sharing. I couldn’t help but find myself wandering again through the cold, right there in the Motherland, mouth frozen and all. Christmastime always bound me tighter to the Russian saints. They spared nothing to make the missionaries feel at home and loved. Their generosity and smiles reflected the true mirth of Jesus — why, you could see teeth you never knew they had. And the festivity and fun! All the torts and pechenye and chai and plov you could ever want. The make-shift sledding, snow ball fights, parties, young devushki wearing more make-up, and redder make up, than you ever remember on their shy cheeks and lips, staying up late playing games and sharing stories, laughing and telling jokes among the missionaries in English, and then trying to translate them into Russian, the unexpected hush that would always befall a loud group just as the final seconds of another difficult (tyazhelyy) year expired, and the bleak hope of a better one to come cracking in their voices. But then, after the empty metro ride home, long after the last kiosk had closed, there was always that quiet walk home along dark streets, where you had to tread carefully on the ice, and wonder at the hunched babushkas holding heavy, drooping bags in each hand, and look with a new fondness and compassion at the random passers-by lighting each others’ cigarettes. Yes, there were always miraculous comforts to be found — that strange feeling of protection afforded by gently falling snow, as if being encased in some warm forest, the sensation that for a brief moment you could just as easily be floating up to the snow as it was floating down to you, or be swept across the air along with it. At these times we often unconsciously slowed our pace, knowing that the this magic would be gone in a few hours.

  5. Wonderful post…I specifically resonated with the love/hate for the presents of christmas and the allusive nature of the wonder of christmas.

  6. I knew a Sister Robinson who was a missionary here in Birmingham, Alabama, who had also trekked through the Arizona deserts with troubled youth. She was one of the best friends I’ve ever made in the church in real life. She was an awesome sister missionary. If you know of her or are related to her, please give her my email address theTatiana AT gmail DOT com. Thank you!

    This was a wonderful evocation of Christmas in Russia. I could feel it just as thoguh I were there with you. Thanks for this!

  7. Hey, I’ve still got the stocking. Pozdravlayoo c dnyom rozhdeniya, sestra miles.

  8. Tatiana,
    That’s my sister. I’ll have her email you.

  9. StillConfused says:

    That first paragraph made me really sad. Too many children and not enough money for even the basics, it sounds like.

  10. ahhh the basics…full stockings and lots of presents. zero population is the answer my friend.

    is there a snark font?

  11. Thank you for this, nmiles.

    I love Christmas, even as I don’t like much of what it’s become. This really resonated for me.

  12. Lots of great images here — thanks for giving me another view of Christmas today.

  13. winter is cold.

    summer FTW

  14. I’m so excited! Someone I know in real life is the sister of someone I know on the bloggernacle! This is so cool! Thanks so much, mmiles. Please do have her email me.

  15. mmiles,
    This was just lovely. The mission-related elements of the OP (as well as comment #4) brought many of my own memories from serving in Finland to mind, and I almost felt as if I was reading something I could have written myself–except the part about being embarrassed to wear a plaid dress, perhaps. Those cold, dark nights in Finland during the Holiday were some of the of the most enchanting and spiritual, yet simultaneously saddening and lonely.

    One of my favorite-yet-worst memories of that time is of walking with my companion in the early evening–complete darkness–toward a bus stop after he and I had engaged in a silly argument which had spilled over into a lesson we were trying to teach to a young investigator. We plodded along in complete, silence except for the crunch of several inches of new snow under our boots, fuming privately at one another. After some distance, we came upon an old abandoned playground near a forest walkway, and we spent 30 minutes reconciling our differences while playing on the swings and “surfing” on the ice-covered slide.

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