It was Christmas Eve.

The last stroke of 10 faded into the wind’s frosty breath. The snow had started falling about an hour ago in tiny specks like glitter cascading down over a moonlit world. By now it was as big as cotton balls, slicing through the cold in sheets.

The air was heavy with the scent of pine, hot chocolate, and wood smoke. Anticipation bubbled up from every street corner and caught in the blue velvet sky like fireflies in a jar.

Red-faced children with bits of stars in their eyes were folding their chubby hands and praying this meant a white Christmas. Parents were praying it wouldn’t turn their driveways into the newest amusement park attraction just in time for the grandparents to arrive.

The custodian of First Baptist Church in Greenwood, Kentucky, was waiting impatiently by the sanctuary door. His shift had been up half an hour ago when the 9:00 prayer session ended, but there were still five stragglers praying among the pine needles, trampled cookie crumbs, and crumpled bulletins. It seemed wrong to bother them, especially tonight.

He hadn’t even been able to turn the sound system off yet. “What Child is This?” was playing over the speakers for the sixteenth time that night.

Fifteen-year-old McKenna Andrews sat in the front row, leaning forward with her arms resting on her knees. The colored lights strung around the altar sparkled in her nut-colored hair like a nest of fairies. Kenna loved colored Christmas lights because they were the kind her daddy always put on the tree at home. Mom said there’d been a time when he’d used white ones, but that unfortunate stage had been too long ago to remember. Her gaze came to rest on the little wooden box set up to the right of the podium with hay spilling over the sides. The sight was like a warm cup of tea on a cold night.

What child is this who lay to rest…

Kenna couldn’t remember the name of the artist who sang this version, but it was one of her favorite carols. She and her little sister always included it in the “Christmas concert” they graced their parents and brother with every year.

Her mind spiraling back through the corridors of time, Kenna saw a tiny version of herself twirling around the living room in her Christmas dress beneath the multicolored glow of the tree in the corner. There’d be glitter all over the piano bench from that dress, but it made Kenna think of snow and sprinkles. Only grownups had to worry about vacuums and dust pans.

She felt the tears creeping into her eyes again. She never wanted all of this to end. The magic, the wonder, the childlike anticipation. How could she grow up and let all of it change? How could she leave that little girl in the red velvet dress behind forever? Some days she wished she could just start over again at five years old.

…on Mary’s lap is sleeping.

Two rows behind Kenna, Miriam Brown sat stiff and straight against the unforgiving pew, examining herself in a hand mirror. With a sigh of disgust she snapped it shut and slipped it back in her purse. Miriam glanced around at the four other petitioners and was relieved to find she didn’t know any of them personally. She knew she must resemble a wannabe movie star wandering the streets of L.A. at night. Her makeup was too thick – she’d been trying to hide the dark circles under her eyes—and her chocolate-colored hair hung around her shoulders in a pathetic half-curled mess. She’d meant to curl it all before the service, but Joshua threw a block at his baby sister again, and by the time Miriam got Catherine to stop crying she hadn’t had nearly as much time as she’d wanted. Of course Joe said she looked perfect, but he was her husband. He had to say that.

Miriam sighed and closed her eyes. It’d been a stroke of genius to bring two cars tonight so she could send Joe and the kids home ahead of her. She’d almost forgotten what silence sounded like. When she opened her eyes again, the splintery wooden frame beside the podium was the first thing to catch her gaze. She wondered if the “holy child of Bethlehem” ever spit up or got diaper rash. Did Mary know what it was like to wake up to a sick toddler in the middle of the night or ruin her manicure washing dishes? The Holy Family always looked perfect in pictures. Miriam almost hoped they hadn’t really been like that.

She remembered the joy Christmas had always brought her as a little girl. Was it possible to get that back again, or was she doomed to a holiday season spent running around the mall at midnight and crying over burned sweet potatoes?

To be continued...