Christmas in the Mountains
Nestled among the mountains of eastern Kentucky, lies a small coal mining community named after US Navy Commodore, Oliver Hazard Perry. Hazard, Kentucky boasts the title of Queen City of the Mountains by the powers that be who name such things. When I was growing up, the entire town would have been stretched to claim the 6,000 residents the census documented lived there. Now, the town boasts of 4,800 but the surrounding little hollows and communities that make up the greater Hazard area would be about 20,000 residents. Many of whom have never ventured far away from this corner of the world for more than a day shopping trip to Lexington or to Louisville for medical appointments. It is the quaint traditions, small-town friendliness, locally owned general stores, the familiarity of people I love, and the smell of coal-burning in the furnaces that draw me back to this town over and over again.
Growing up in the mountains was sort of a magical experience filled with nights of collecting fireflies, playing round-town in the front yard, days spent in the gardens with grandparents, and Christmases filled with going from house to house visiting relatives and finally falling into bed exhausted but holding the favorite toy or treasure of the day.
Now that I have children of my own, making this trek across the mountains to Hazard is more nostalgic for me while a chance at making new memories for my little ones. Someday my children will look back and remember being snowed-in on top of our mountain, water freezing and having to improvise, riding the 4-wheeler up the mountain when even four-wheel drive vehicles couldn’t climb the ice-covered roads, playing with cousins and having occasional spats and eating food that only Granny and Papa can make taste so good.
All of us have memories of past Christmases that live in our hearts and play a role in how we approach Christmas each year. For some people, Christmas is magical and filled with people they love and places they want to be. For other people, it is a dark memory of a painful experience that even now casts a shadow of the annual festivities that others enjoy. Christmas is supposed to be festive, fun and uplifting but for many people it is none of these things. Statistics show that there are more suicide attempts during the Christmas season than at any other time of year. People are stressed and taxed and pushed to the limit emotionally during the season that is supposed to be a holy and sacred remembrance of a baby born in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago.
How did we go from that cold night in a stable to the rush and busyness of what we now refer to as the Christmas season? Who decided we had to attend parties, exchange gifts, visit friends and relatives even if it is not convenient, and decorate every nook and cranny of our homes? I love all the traditions of Christmas yet I find that every year it grows increasingly harder to out-do the efforts of the year before.
This year, I purposely chose to simplify our Christmas experiences. We bought fewer and less expensive gifts than ever. We baked smaller amounts of cookies and treats. We chose not to send out cards and pictures. We did not attend the number of social events that we normally attend. Not because we did not want to participate in the festivities but because we wanted to try to return the attention of our family back to the holy and sacred purpose for which this season was set aside to commemorate.
I find myself wondering what Mary and Joseph experienced in those few days before and after the birth of Jesus. What was Mary feeling emotionally about this baby who was born from her body but yet was God? How long did they stay in the stable? Where did they go from there? What ridicule or speculation did Joseph endure to stand by Mary’s side? I can only imagine what it must have been like for them.
Tonight is Christmas Eve of 2010. As I ponder the events of that first Christmas in Bethlehem, it is snowing here in the Kentucky Mountains. The earth is covered with a blanket of fresh, pristine flakes that have never been before and will never be again. Each flake was created by God and will live only for a short time. But their presence makes this holy, sacred night a bit more beautiful and special. I love these mountains. I love this town and all of the memories that are held for me between the peaks of these hills. I love the people of this region: the family that was born and raised here, the friends that shared my childhood, the older folks who helped raise me, the teachers that trained me, the spiritual influences that cared about a child who had nothing to offer but carried a dream in her heart.
These mountains seem magical and will forever hold my heart. Coal runs deep in her veins, water gushes freely from springs hidden beneath the forest’s undergrowth, slate slips from the crevices, and grapevines grow next to acorn trees. This little corner of the world, in all of its natural beauty, will never be seen by most people. But for me, it is the place that calls to me when I am away. These mountains, for me, are home. And no time is it more special than during the Christmas season.
Sharing my heartbeat,