My favorite Christmas Eve moment occurred when I was a child of 11. I had been roused from sleep to wash, dress, and get to church to be an altar server for midnight Mass. I went down the stairs and for the first time saw our Christmas tree — yes, my parents always went to the trouble of decorating the tree on Christmas Eve. I deemed it "magnificent," an adjective that drew much laughter from the adults.
On two wire hangers were my cassock and surplice, lovingly washed and ironed by Mom. I hooked them to my index finger, swung them over my shoulder, and walked alone into the night toward our church three blocks away.
Right there, right in front of me, flitting in the dark, a few snowflakes began falling before my eyes, translucent crystals tossing tiny moonbeams to one another as they tumbled downward. When I gazed up, the few turned into multitudes swarming from the infinite reaches of heaven itself.
The mind of an 11-year-old has the enviable luxury to fully believe that silent snowflakes can fall on a lowly stable in Bethlehem, to imagine with ease that singing snowflakes are really choirs of angels swirling in our midst and wishing us nothing but peace.
Too many Christmas Eves have come and gone since that lovely walk. In the cold light of day, angels are merely snowflakes, nuisances to be brushed from windshields and shoveled from walkways. Their wish for peace remains just that, a wish, as war shatters souls, breaks bodies, and destroys the homes where peace might otherwise be nurtured and cherished.
I know now that winter snow is not the norm in the ancient town of Bethlehem, and besides, no one really knows what time of year Jesus was born or if he was really born in a stable or if any of it happened the way it is commonly portrayed. The scholars have weighed in.
So this is Christmas? No more real than the weird inflatable manger scene I recently drove by? Was the pre-spirit Scrooge right and it's all a humbug? I thought it best to go to the least scholarly among us and inquire.
Lila, my 6-year-old granddaughter, raised her hand immediately when I asked her what Christmas means to her. I called on her, and she said, "It means God was born here and we celebrate him turning another year."
That was unexpected. Nothing about presents, Santa, trees, or reindeer. For Lila, Dec. 25 is a birthday. That's it. God was born here, and on Christmas he turns a year older.
I've celebrated this birthday every year of my life, so Lila's rendition makes me wonder. I look to the sky, the sky those shepherds saw when God was born here. I hear the first carol, sung by a hundred thousand angels.
"Peace on Earth to those graced by the love of God."
The angels transform into a hundred thousand luminous snowflakes falling in the midnight silence, as a little altar boy, lugging his cassock and surplice to midnight Mass, looks up.
And again, in that miraculous moment, as God on Earth turns another year, the altar boy stops and the song is sung. On a cold and dark and quiet night he stands alone amid the frozen crystals. He hears the carol.
Peace. The eternal message from the silent lips of a newborn lying in a feeding crib. God's birthday wish to us, now and forever.