(This story first appeared in the December issue of the Anglican Journal.)
It was 8 p.m. on December 22, the day after Toronto’s catastrophic 2013 ice storm. Outside, the ice-sheathed branches glinted spectrally in the night. Inside, I was recuperating with my golden retriever, Phoenix, after hosting my niece’s 40th birthday bash the night before. Suddenly an explosive boom set the ground atremble. A meteor?
My big Edwardian house shuddered like a leaf. The lights went out; the furnace went off. A mammoth tree across the street had dropped a limb the diameter of a hogshead onto the hydro lines.
That night, the worst winter in two decades set in. The temperature fell. The wind was up. The pipes froze. For the next nine days I would freeze in the dark: no heat, no light, no water, unable to leave lest a hydro person came by to restore power. The sole source of heat and cooking was the living room fireplace. Water was bought in increasingly scarce plastic jugs. I quickly realized how much of this precious commodity I wasted during a normal day.
December 24 arrived, and with it the saddening realization that there would be no family Christmas dinner, the makings of which were straining the walls of my fridge: seafood appetizers, wild mushrooms for soup, a free-range turkey and my signature lemon Bavarian cream.
Alone on Christmas Eve, I huddled by the hearth, as sooty as a chimney sweep from two days of tending fire, and cooked eggs and peas in the inky shadow of the extinguished Christmas tree. The batteries ran down; the candles ran out. The only light was from the dying flames.
But in retrospect, that lonely night became my most memorable Christmas Eve since, at age 10, I carolled in an epic snowstorm outside a nursing home. At a loss for what to do, I began to sing, which I rarely do. I sang every verse of every carol I could remember from childhood, waxing confident as I went along. I sang the 23rd Psalm and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and, in honour of Mary, my favourite canticle, “The Magnificat.” I pondered on the billions of people who have celebrated this holy time over two millennia.
And for the first time in decades, there was no feverish last-minute wrapping, cleaning, cooking, ironing, flower arranging and table setting for a complicated dinner. It was spiritual liberation.
As the wind chill dropped the temperature to minus 20 degrees Celsius and the logs became embers, a truth dawned: adversity and deprivation can help you to empathize with the sufferings of others. At the risk of sounding pious, I can say that my thoughts that holy night turned to those being killed and dispossessed by conflicts in Syria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan; to those in the Philippines who had lost family and homes to Typhoon Haiyan just weeks after a major earthquake. They became more than TV news stories, easily pushed aside by the pressures of yuletide hospitality. How puny was my deprivation compared with theirs.
Stepping carefully onto the treacherous road, I looked out over the Don Valley under phosphorescent stars and recalled the stirring words of St. Luke that never fail to move me: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid” (King James Version, St. Luke 2:9).
Behind me, the icy willow switches chimed in the wind. I felt reverential and at peace. It was the gift of Christmas.