Purple finches

This year’s window displays at Creative Encounters in downtown Keene have a decidedly avian theme, with purple finches and a wise-looking owl taking the place of last year’s masks and mirrors. I shot these photos last week, when I was collecting end-term papers from my students at Keene State; now, those papers have been read and grades submitted, and all that’s left of Fall semester are two more batches of online papers to read before Tuesday’s final grade deadline: a spell of relatively Silent Nights.

Great horned owl

Although J and I don’t celebrate Christmas in any obvious way, quietly exchanging cards and enjoying whatever new gadgets and trinkets we’ve chosen for ourselves over the past month or so, Christmas Eve always seems particularly special and even sacred to me. Acutely aware that many find this night to be special, I find myself thinking of the quiet ones who feel left out of that companionable joy. Tonight, some children will lie antsy in their beds, eagerly anticipating the gifts Santa will bring; tonight, other children will shiver in slums and shelters, their parents wondering whether Santa will show up empty-handed, if at all. For many, Christmas is a particularly sweet time, but I’ve always found Christmas Eve to be a little bit sad, knowing that a holiday so many find joyous is particularly bittersweet to those who are in some way left out.

Christmas display

I recently started reading Diane Ackerman’s A Slender Thread, which describes her experience volunteering for a suicide prevention hotline. In the book’s opening pages, Ackerman speaks to human suffering, noting the way our lives are perpetually in transit:

Towns are like railroad stations, where at any moment hundreds of lives converge–people carrying small satchels of worry or disbelief, people racing down the slippery corridors of youth, people slowly dragging the steamer trunk of a trauma, people fresh from the suburbs of hope, people troubled by timetables, people keen to arrive, people whose minds are like small place settings, people whose aging faces are sundials, people desperate and alone who board a bullet train in the vastness of nothing and race hell-bent to the extremities of nowhere. In time, everyone meets everyone, either by repute or in person.

Purple finch

What better metaphor of the Christmas season than this? Into this world of coming and going, God himself set down his satchel, being born as a child of want. Into this world of human suffering, God himself took lodging among the lowly, walking among the sick, the outcast, and the demon-driven. On this night before Christmas–a night Christians see as being more holy than most–it comforts me to know that someone, somewhere, is sitting in front of a phone, invisible as God, ready to offer an empathetic ear to the lonely, lost, and distraught. What better vigil for a Silent Night in which both finches and owls fluff and hunker against the winter chill?