Houses shape the lives of those who live within them. When we moved four years ago to an old red-brick farmhouse called Maplehurst, we began sitting outdoors after dinner. Our kids would play in the yard while my husband and I rocked side-by-side in wicker rocking chairs. The wraparound porch had given our evenings a new rhythm.
Our ordinary days are different in this place, and our special days are different, too. Birthdays now mean picnics beneath the sour cherry tree, and every Easter we invite all of our neighbors to an egg hunt on the green grass that stretches on both sides of our long driveway. But the celebration that has shifted the most for us at Maplehurst is Christmas. For instance, we no longer travel during the holidays. This solid hill-top house says home so insistently we can’t imagine Christmas feasting anywhere else.
Last summer, my 12-year-old nephew came for a visit. On a warm June day, he and I stood outside watching his younger siblings ride scooters and bikes on the driveway that leads from the front porch far out to the country road. With a quick turn of his head, he looked at me and said, “This house was made for Christmas.”
My nephew has never been with us at Maplehurst during the holidays. When I asked what he meant, he said maybe it had something to do with all of the tall trees or perhaps he had remembered the snow we often have in Pennsylvania that time of year. Though he couldn’t articulate it, I think he understood how much the setting matters. Christmas at this old farmhouse would be different than the Christmases he had known in other places. It has certainly been different for me.
When I was a girl, I dreaded the end of Christmas Day. As darkness crept in around the edges of the windows, it felt as if the guest we had anticipated for over a month was slinking out the door before dinner had even been served. Christmas, with its unique and particular joy, was already slipping through my fingers. I always wanted to run outside, to heave up the setting sun, and beg Christmas to stay.
Perhaps the idea came to me because I still remembered that childish longing. Perhaps it came to me as I walked the extra-long driveway, which seems tailor-made for important journeys. Or perhaps it came when I noticed the half-rotted tree stump nestled up against the ruined foundation stones of a long-lost barn. However the idea originated, a few weeks before our first Christmas at Maplehurst I began preparing for a new tradition.
The end of Christmas Day felt as if the guest we had anticipated for over a month was slinking out the door before dinner had even been served.
I bought nativity figurines secondhand. They seemed to be made of a high quality resin, and the colors were muted and earthy. I imagined they would do well outside. My husband Jonathan built a small stable from old wood he found in our tumbledown shed. I gathered votive candles and jam jars and the glass-paned lanterns passed on to me by a friend.
For the first time in my life, I looked forward to sunset on Christmas Day. When it came, I whispered to Jonathan, “It’s time.” He slipped out of the back door with the stable and figurines tucked under his arms. His pockets were filled with votives. Before the kids could question where Daddy had gone, I began passing out winter coats and lanterns. I lit candles for our older three, and bundled the baby into a carrier on my back. We stepped outside and began to wander down the driveway and back again where it circles the house. My daughter asked where we were going, but the boys seemed content to swing their lanterns and crunch snow beneath their boots.
For the first time in my life, I looked forward to sunset on Christmas Day.
I told my daughter only that we were searching. Suddenly, she pointed. What is that? The boys looked up in wonder. We could see flickering lights in the distance. Now the children ran. I had been the one to plan this surprise, but when the baby and I joined them, I caught my breath.
We had journeyed to Bethlehem, and an infant king was in our midst.
The holy family looked at home tucked into the hollow of the stump and surrounded by flickering candlelight. I had not planned what we would do once the children found the little baby Jesus, but standing there, we instinctively held hands. Someone began to sing “Silent Night.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory