December 31st – Steve Jungkeit – with audio
Texts: Isaiah 61: 10-62:3; Luke 2: 22-40
A Story of Christmas
It is snowing. In the English language we do not know anything about the ‘it’ that is snowing. It might be God. Maybe. Maybe not. Anyway. It. Is. Snowing.
Deep enough for the dog to disappear, ears reappearing like wings. Cars are mounds. Sounds are children, excitedly.
Let’s build a snowman!
Nicky and Jerry started rolling the snowball bigger and bigger and rounder and rounder. Soon they had a body bigger than either of them.
Do you think she’s too fat? Said Nicky.
How do you know she’s a she?
Well, I don’t until we put the clothes on her.
But you keep calling her her.
Because she’s fat.
Nicky’s mum came out with two mugs of hot chocolate.
Hey, he’s great!
He’s a she. Have we got any clothes for her?
Sure! Go and see what’s in the charity box.
Nicky ran inside, leaving her chocolate to steam.
Nicky’s mum was attractive. She was slim, with hair colored three kinds of blonde. She smiled at Jerry.
How’s your mum, Jerry; is she OK?
Jerry nodded. Her mum had to work hard and she had to work nights at a hotel. Sometimes she drank too much and passed out. Jerry’s dad had left them last year, just before Christmas, and he hadn’t come back.
Why don’t you sleep over tonight? Nicky would love that.
I’ll ask, said Jerry.
You can call, said Nicky’s mum, but Jerry couldn’t call because her mum’s phone had been cut off. But she didn’t want to say that; instead she said, I’ll run over later and ask.
As her mother went indoors, Nicky came back out with an armful of clothes, and they dressed the SnowWoman. She needs eyes, Jerry said. Give me your bracelet. Those green stones – those can be her eyes.
What are you doing? That’s my bracelet!
But Jerry wasn’t listening. She broke the bracelet and fixed the SnowWoman with great green staring eyes.
She looks real now, said Nicky.
It wasn’t long before Nicky’s mother called out from the kitchen door, Jerry, go and see your mother now if you’re coming back later!
Jerry ran off, promising the SnowWoman, and Nicky, that she would come right back. But when Jerry got home, her mother wasn’t there. The house was dark. Sometimes the electricity got cut off. So she went to the store where her mother worked.
You lookin for your ma? Asked Mr. Store, who ran the store called Store’s Store. She’s not here. She went out and didn’t come back – what’s new?
Mr. Store was horrible. He had a horrible face and a horrible stare and horrible pair of brown overalls and a horrible, mean temper. Mr. Store turned and walked away.
Jerry lingered as night fell. Lights came on in the windows of houses. People sat down to eat. They watched TV. They said something to someone else. Jerry waited, and she thought about the SnowWoman, tall and bigger than anyone. Her mother stayed gone. So she walked back to Nicky’s house.
Jerry broke into a run when she saw the house, all lit up. But as she reached the gate, the lights went out, just like that.
Jerry was suddenly scared and tired and not knowing. Jerry turned from the dark house toward the garden, and she saw the SnowMama looking at her with two bright green jewel eyes.
I wish you were alive, said Jerry.
A live what? Said the SnowMama. A live cat? A live circus?
Did you just speak, said Jerry doubtfully?
I did, said the SnowMama.
Are you really alive?
Watch this, said the SnowMama, and skipped a bit sideways. Not bad for no legs. That’s the way you fixed it.
I’m sorry, said Jerry, I didn’t know how to do legs.
Don’t beat yourself up about things you can’t change. You did your best. Anyway, I can glide. Come on! Let’s go for a glide!
Jerry and the SnowMama left the garden and set off down the road.
Where are we going? Jerry asked.
To find the others, the SnowMama answered.
Soon the two of them were speeding down the street, past the school and the post office, past the garage and the factory, until they came to City Park.
All day long, children had built SnowMen, and now all the children had gone home, and the SnowMen were still there.
Then Jerry saw that some of the SnowMen were moving slowly. When Jerry and the SnowMama moved closer, one of them took off his porkpie hat and said, Welcome – I hope you’ll stay for the barbeque. The weather’s perfect.
Jerry stood there, stunned.
Let me take you on a tour, the SnowMama said to Jerry. I can see this is all a little new to you.
Isn’t it new to you, Jerry asked? I only made you this morning.
That’s part of the mystery of history, said the SnowMama. I was not. I am. I will not be. I will be.
That was deep for Jerry, like the snow around her, and so the SnowMama sat her down, and explained.
Every year the snow falls, and children build snowmen. Grown ups think the SnowPeople are just snow, but children know better. They whisper to us and tell us their secrets. They sit down on the ground and pull up their knees and lean their backs against us when they are sad. They love us, and so we come alive.
Look around the park. You see how many SnowPeople there are? Every year we meet again, because once we come alive, we live forever. You see us melt, and we do, but that’s us moving on, to the next place where it snows. And when the children roll the snow, there we are again.
Jerry thought about this….But if you melt…
The SnowMama held up her hand in pause…
You can’t melt our souls. Every SnowPerson has a soul, and the soul goes on through time and space and frost and ice. You’ll find us waiting in white clouds to begin again. When the snow falls, we’re not far behind.
Jerry looked at a SnowPerson sitting nearby, not moving. What about this one she asked? Why isn’t he saying something?
He will never say anything. He’s just snow, not a SnowMan. A grown up made him, didn’t believe in him, and didn’t love him. So he didn’t live.
Jerry said, My friend Nicky didn’t love you. She thought you were too fat.
I am just right, said the SnowMama, and you loved me, and so I was waiting for you in the garden.
What if I hadn’t come back? Said Jerry.
I knew you would, said the SnowMama. Love always comes back.
They joined the barbeque for a while, and Jerry laughed and danced with all the SnowPeople. But soon she tired, and found her way to the SnowMama.
Will you melt? Said Jerry.
Yes, I will.
I don’t want you to melt.
You know what I’m thinking? Said the SnowMama. I’m thinking we should get you home. And the SnowMama picked Jerry up, and they glided home, to Jerry’s street, and to Jerry’s house, where the lights were still off.
Here, said the SnowMama, let me open the door. I can freeze the lock open.
Inside, the house was cold and empty. There were dishes piled in the sink and on the counter. The floor was dirty. There was a Christmas tree in the corner of the room, but it had no decorations.
My dad left last Christmas, said Jerry. I think my mum’s upset.
Let’s clean it up together, said the SnowMama. You start with the dishes. I’ll wash the floors.
And so they did. Soon, the SnowMama said, You see to the beds. I’ll be back very soon.
It seemed like no time had passed at all when the SnowMama walked back through the door, pushing a shopping cart loaded with fruit and coffee and cake and vegetables, and bacon and eggs and milk and bread and turkey. The SnowMama was grinning.
I broke into Store’s Stores, she said.
But that’s stealing!
Yes, it is.
But that’s wrong.
So is a child with nothing to eat. Here…and the SnowMama set to work heating some milk and making some toast for Jerry. After Jerry had finished, the SnowMama said, I have to go now. You can see me tomorrow in Nicky’s garden.
I don’t want you to go, said Jerry.
I need to be in the cold. Big goodnight. I love you.
Jerry jumped up on a chair and kissed the SnowMama goodnight. She felt a little bit of snow melt in her mouth.
The next day Jerry woke up hearing the front door open. She jumped out of bed. Her mother had come home. She looked tired and defeated. She didn’t notice the beautiful, clean kitchen or the sparkly windows or the warm, happy feeling of the house. Jerry put some bread in the toaster. It’s nearly Christmas, she said.
I know, said her mother. I’ll get you a present, I promise. We’ll decorate the tree together. I just need to get some sleep….I….she stood up, went into the bedroom, came back out again. Did you clean everything? I’ve never seen it look like this.
I washed it all. And there’s food. Look!
Jerry’s mother looked in the fridge and in the cupboards. Where did you get the money for all this food?
The SnowMama did it.
Is she, like, a charity? For Christmas?
Yes, said Jerry.
Jerry’s mother looked nearly like her old self before Jerry’s dad had left. I can’t believe someone has helped us – been kind to us. Did she leave a number?
Jerry shook her head.
Her mother looked again at everything in the house. This is like a miracle, Jerry! Go out and play, and when you come back I’ll have made dinner, like I always did.
Jerry ran round to Nicky’s house. She ran up to the SnowMama. But nothing happened. The SnowMama was still as a statue. Jerry waited and waited, colder and colder. She walked through the park, and saw all the SnowMen, still there, but not moving. So she walked home. When she opened the door to her house, delicious smells filled the air. There were carols playing on the radio. Her mother had made a lasagna. And she was filled with life, and with plans. I’ll get a different job – no more nights. We’ll keep this place nice. Just somebody helping us has made a difference. Do you know that?
That night Jerry’s mother had to go back to her job, but it didn’t seem so sad or hard as before. When she was alone in the house once again, Jerry heard a tap-tapping at the window. It was the SnowMama.
It’s so warm in there now, I can’t come in, said the SnowMama. But I brought you these decorations to put on your tree.
Why didn’t you talk to me when I was at Nicky’s, Jerry asked? I waited and waited, and you were just snow.
It’s a mystery, said the SnowMama. How is your mother today?
She was happy today, said Jerry. And she made a lasagna.
You have to look after each other, said the SnowMama. If not, you’ll both be sad and cold, even in the summer.
Parents are supposed to look after their children, said Jerry.
Life is as it is, said the SnowMama.
Can you come and live with us? Jerry asked the SnowMama.
The SnowMama’s eyes flashed green in the light. Then everyone would know what we know – and that can’t happen, because everyone has to learn it for themselves.
Learn what, asked Jerry?
That love is a mystery, and that love is the mystery that makes things happen.
That night Jerry slept the whole night in a bed of softness and a million falling stars. She woke when she heard her mother come home, and she decided that she had to introduce her mother to the SnowMama.
She ran to Nicky’s, but the weather was changing. Already there was rain and the snow was softening and the roofs were shedding great slabs of snow.
When she got to Nicky’s, she found a car parked in the place the SnowMama had been. All that remained were the two emerald eyes, lying on the ground. Jerry began to sob uncontrollably. She ran to the park, and found the SnowMen melted there as well. They had all moved on.
She went home. When she woke up, Jerry tried to explain the SnowMama to her mother, but she didn’t understand. But she did understand that Jerry was upset, and so she held her close, and promised that their lives would be different now. There would be food, and warmth, and clean clothes, and time. I won’t be drinking. I won’t leave you alone. I won’t be depressed, she said to Jerry, and though these things are easier to say than to do, Jerry’s mother kept her promise, and there was never another cold and hungry Christmas.
Jerry grew up. Over the years she built the SnowMama again and again, but she never came alive. In time, she had her own children, and they grew to love the story of the SnowMama, even though they had never seen her.
And then, on a Christmas Eve, after the kids were in bed, Jerry went to turn off the lights. For some reason, she pulled on her boots and went outside, to see the three SnowPeople her kids had built. She studied the snowflakes around her, marveling that life could be so multiple, unexpected, ordinary, and utterly miraculous.
It’s like love, she said out loud.
And a voice she knew replied. Love always comes back.
There was the SnowMama. Standing in the garden.
It’s you, said Jerry!
Always, said the SnowMama.
But all these years…where have you been?
It’s a mystery….
I’ll tell the kids – they know all about you!
Not tonight, said the SnowMama. Maybe one day, but not tonight. I just wanted to see you again. I always hoped I would.
It worked out, said Jerry.
I know, said the SnowMama. Sometimes a little bit of help is all we need.
Don’t go, cried Jerry, as the SnowMama began to spin away.
I’ll keep an eye on you, said the SnowMama. And who knows what the future will bring.
And away she went, gliding as silent as the stars. A million million stars, like the falling snow, like falling prayers.
I’ve chosen this line of work, strange though it is, because I believe in SnowMamas. I believe in that to which we can whisper our secrets, that which we can lean against when we are sad. I believe in mysteries too deep and too true to be explained by rational thought, and I believe in a presence that simply is – that comes, that goes, but that is, and that somehow comes to life within the objects we live with. I believe that sometimes a little help is all we need, and I believe that love always returns.
I recognize a piece of myself in the little girl Jerry, and maybe you do too – a little lost, a little abandoned, a little sad. And I recognize the gracious presence that binds up a young broken heart, one that helps a promise to be kept, one that helps a wound to heal. It’s the very story of the gospel that Winterson gives us, in refracted form, a form that helps us to hear it and feel it all anew. There is a magic and a power that only those who are a little lost can discern, that only those who are a little lonely can discover. But once you do, it’s a story that bears telling and retelling over and over again, the way Jerry does with her children, and the way we do with ours. We tell the story of a loving presence that comes, that goes, and that comes to be within us. We tell it until that love returns.