People I know have tipi rings on their South Dakota ranch, circles of stones visible only in summer, and then, only when cattle keep the grass down. But they're there, broad circles of half-submerged stones that mark the spots where, years ago our indigenous ancestors pitched tents, footprints of a different time.
Those friends claim there’s a long, straight line of stones in that pasture they believe points to the exact spot on the horizon where the sun rises on summer solstice. I haven't seen it, but I believe such things exist--ancient clocks to remind people that the times, they were 'a'changin’. Once the sun aligns with those rocks, people knew, regretfully, that winter was just over the hill.
Frederick Manfred, the Siouxland novelist, used to claim he knew where to find a similar straight line of rocks on Blue Mound, up the road in Minnesota. I never saw it, and you can’t always think a writer; but I’d like to believe it’s there too.
Who knows?--maybe there are more. Out here on the edge of the plains, we still unpack our thick robes once we know winter is on its way.
The Lakota kept their history on buffalo hides. Maybe you’ve seen ‘em. Somebody—the appointed artist, I suppose—kept track of calendar years by a single picture: a mule maybe, because that was the year some feisty donkey wandered into camp. “Winter Counts,” the Lakota people call those sprawling history book hides “winter counts” because the Lakota once counted their years by the winters they endured. Winter Counts. For the record, I have lived 70 winters. Now you know.
Out here, winter is the only season we can’t wait to end the day it starts. No area Chamber of Commerce cheerleader tells tourists that people die here in sub-zero temps, but they can—and do. Thousands escape south, but most of us live with ice cube cars, frostbit ears, and a drop of clear liquid on the end of our noses. When it gets cold enough, you don’t go out at all.
Long lines of solstice stones remind the people that it’s soon to be winter. It’s coming. Pull that buffalo robe up.
And then, right in the middle of all that miserable cold, comes Christmas. Right in the middle of all that wretched cold comes Hannukah, and right in the middle of all that hopeless cold hope itself rides up, the winter solstice, the flipside of the sun’s annual pilgrimage.
In the Netherlands, Sinter Klaas arrives; in Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic, St. Stephen. And Santa Lucia, candles in her hair and sweets in her open arms, comes to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.
In the middle of all that cold comes all that grace, all that blessed warmth.
The angels on high appeared to low-life shepherds in the Galilean hills
at the very best possible time, a night of endless dark and awful cold, even in Israel. “Glory, glory,” they sang, and the music couldn’t have come at a better moment because those shepherds had to be sick to death of winter.
And thus Jesus comes to those who follow him, just when we need him most, in the cold nights of our winter counts.
Not all of us believe in the Virgin Birth, cattle speaking in tongues, or a King in a manger. Not all of us spend our nights lighting menorahs for a rededicated temple. Not many of us dance madly on winter solstice.
But out here where the wind blows out of some unseen northwest icebox, my goodness! do we need the joy of Christmas. We’d be groundhogs without the blessing of that first sweet “Noel.”
Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men and women and children and all living things.
Every winter, just when a frozen world seems hopeless, hope itself arrives to wipe that bead from your nose and mine.
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