By John Thomas Tuft

Nobody could remember a December that got so cold, so fast. Oldtimers said the river had never frozen so early, so thick. Drill Instructors at the base just outside the town could not remember a winter when they needed to issue Arctic survival and combat gear so soon, to so many. Businesses in the town swore that they never recalled running low on winter supplies–firewood, mittens and scarves, along with firewater of all kinds–so quickly, so completely. And for the members of the Winterwood Community Congregational Church, not a single one could know that this would be the Christmas that they would never forget so certainly, so simple became the incarnation of wonder and wishes.

The good folks of the church plotted and planned year-round for their annual live nativity scene; a five dollar donation to stop and look, ten if you wanted hot coffee and donuts. So reasonable. So conducive to fellowship. Auditions were required for the roles of Mary and Joseph. You had to know someone to be one of the wise men. And not just any teenagers could serve as shepherds.  Right after Thanksgiving flyers and posters would go out to all the land, towns, villages, farms and freeway reststops to alert the countryside to the coming worshipful spectacle. So necessary. So centering on finding the real Christmas spirit. So, everything was set. Everything was in place. Everyone knew their role. The local WalMart donated supplies. The local VFW brewed the coffee. The local soldiers helped the local police control traffic. So. Somebody forgot to tell the weather this particular December.

Not only was it cold enough to see your breath; it was cold enough to write your name in the frozen cloud of crystals with each exhalation. As Christmas Eve approached, the night of the grand finale, some fretted that attendance had been kept low and there wouldn’t be enough raised for the new White Board Hymn Lyrics Projection System and they might have to cut back on the good pastor’s holiday cash gift envelope. The prayer chain was activated, WalMart sold out of long thermal underwear, flasks were filled with various liquids to combat the elements, and the choir director insisted that because the choir had practiced so religiously and because she was ever so mindful of their sacrifices that they would do one of their numbers outside for the big arrival and then everyone could come indoors for the rest of the program. Oh, and the Hendersons said that yes, they would bring their baby but just for a moment. And everyone thought that was such a nice touch. After all, what’s Christmas without…well, you get the idea.

The big day came. Darkness arrived right on schedule and the temperatures fell accordingly. It was a good sized crowd and everyone was feeling the mellow spirit of Christmas. Mrs. Simpson’s class of Junior Faith Warriors handed out candles to everyone. The choir was finishing up “Joy To The World” when all hell broke loose. The ice and cold snapped the power lines, plunging the scene into pitch black. Sirens started wailing, coming ever closer. Blue strobes made weird fleeting shadows. Doors slammed. Men shouted in gruff, angry voices. A dark figure rushed through the crowd, quickly knelt at the manger, then headed for the river. The good pastor fumbled in his pocket for a lighter as the men in dark uniforms yelled, shone flashlights over the crowd, the eerie blue flashes of the strobes revealing the guns in their hands. One of them shouted, “She’s heading for the river! Stop her. She’s an illegal!”

An elderly woman in the front fainted from all the commotion. The good pastor rushed to her aid, dropping his lighter in the snow. The Junior Faith Warriors murmured and gathered at the manger. Suddenly there was a loud scream. “Rope. Get a rope! She fell through the ice!” The men ran in all directions, the three letters on their backs in reflective tape making the scene all the more surreal. “Pastor, should we sing?” asked the choir director. The pastor’s response lives on in infamy in Winterwood. “Just light the damn candles!” So they did. One by one, each candle lifted a flame. So they could drive back the night.

An official looking man came into the circle of warm light amongst the silent crowd. Someone asked, “Who was that?” The man answered, “Her name was Angelina. Angelina Hermana. She didn’t make it.” And he was gone. A small voice spoke up from the Junior Faith Warriors crowd, asking whomever would listen, “What about Hey Zeus?” Everyone looked at the little girl. She pointed at the manger. “She put him in there. She said, Hey Zeus, stay here. With them.” And Hey Zeus let out a cry. For he was so cold. So alone.

And the crowd knelt. In the light of the candle flames. Lit against the darkness. For they were shaken. So shaken. To the very soul.

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.