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The call of Christmas


Horses on Nickel Farm pulling a sleigh in the winterThe winter before his death three years ago, my husband, John, and I were playing with a friend a homespun game we called the “Questions Game.” The game required each participant to ask of the other players random, thought-provoking questions. John’s question of me was this: “What was your most memorable Christmas?”
The answer jumped instantly to my memory. And as I began the description of that most meaningful celebration, John smiled knowingly. Recognizing the agreement in his expression, I asked, “For you, too?”

“Yes,” he replied.

My most memorable Christmas was the first Christmas I spent with John. Specifically, our first Christmas Eve together.

We were young, of course, but with a hint of age. I was 31; John, 37. I had been visiting my mother in North Dakota and had returned Christmas Eve to join him on his small farm in Manitoba. I was late in arriving at his tiny mobile home; the night was cold and had long since grown dark.

But upon stepping inside the door, I was overwhelmed by the savory aroma of food cooking, by the warm sense of home and by the embrace of loving arms. He opened the door to the oven, and there, browning in crisped, golden glory, was a roast chicken, the elegant simplicity of the meal matching the simplicity of our budgets.

My token gift to John was one not requiring the spending of money. I gave him my personal and well-worn copy of “Giants in the Earth,” Ole Rolvaag’s classic about pioneering in Dakota Territory. I wanted to share with John the noble sentiments of the book; I hoped to touch his spirit.

He did the same, through his carefully thought-out purchased gifts for me. John had not scrimped money on these, yet neither had he spent frivolously. Beneath the large pine gleaned from the nearby woods and now dominating the small living room were meaningful gifts carefully chosen to encourage the work of freelance writing I’d recently undertaken. Beneath the tree, in colorful wrapping, I found a tape recorder of excellent quality – for taping interviews for news articles and feature stories.

In a more symbolically meaningful gesture, John had also gifted me with a decorative pen and pencil.

And so, that Christmas loomed large in my memory ever after. It became something of an inner hallmark for our Christmases to follow.

In my life before John, Christmas got short shrift. It was no one’s fault, just the natural progression of a life marked by early loss. My distant childhood memories show me a warm and intimate sense of Christmas at home with family – a beautifully decorated tree with colorfully wrapped gifts beneath. A Christmas program at school with brown paper bags of candy and nuts for the kids.

All that changed with the death of my father when I was 6. My mother had my teenage sister and brother, and me, yet to raise. We all had our hands full with the milking of cows and tending of our farm here in North Dakota. Christmas and other special events passed in a blur.

After my brother and sister left home, the work continued for my mother and me. I was old enough then to take charge of things, and I resolutely hauled home Christmas trees to decorate. Some years, Mom and I celebrated together early, and I tended the cattle alone over the Christmas season while Mom necessarily visited her older children living out of state.

All this simply to say that the Christmas season – with all its inherent messages – did not take root in my heart as a youth.

But then came John. And John brought a new dimension to my inner self. My labored sense of wonder sprang to life; prayer became more possible, and the sacred became more sacred.

For some reason, our spiritual journeys converged, and over the years, we gravitated together toward simplicity, toward a honing of essentials.

Time brought us to our farm in North Dakota. Here – inspired more fully by the tending of soil, plants and livestock – we caught our spiritual rhythms. We sought a sharper sense of the sacred; we watched for moments of wonder. Beset as we all are by a great clamoring from outside ourselves, John and I tried our frail best to heed those silent voices calling from all things of deepest worth.

Christmas in particular became a time of reflection and a paying of homage. Christmas Eves remained replete with our simplified traditions. A small table bore spruce boughs trimmed from the tree in the backyard and decorated with tinfoil balls from our first Christmas tree, a lace-dressed candy cane from a friend, door chimes from my childhood, a red bow my sister had once left for us on a bale of hay. Family celebrated with us on Christmas Eve.

For Christmas Day morning, John and I dispensed with the giving of wrapped gifts, and distilled our gift-giving to the writing of personal notes to each other. There were gifts of written prayers and messages of thankfulness and encouragement. For me, there was a time of reflection on the significance of that first Christmas Day – the birth of Jesus Christ generations ago.

If John and I were once again playing the “Questions Game” and he were to ask me, “Raylene, after all the years, what does Christmas now mean to you?,” it might take some thought, but I believe I would answer something like this:

“Christmas is a time for deep reflection. It is a time for praise and thankfulness; a time for wonder. It is a season to heed the call coming from that humble manger where the birth of a Holy Child touched mankind. Christmas shines the light on life eternal, thus promising that the truest love never dies. Christmas calls us to a sure and ever-present sense that God is with us.”

Raylene Frankhauser Nickel writes and raises cattle on her farm near Kief. She shares her books at