Christmas memories are always littered with the same mental images for me: crowds of people at my parents' home, the tree in the same corner because that's where it fits best, bags of presents stacked under and around it, my grandma "bellied up" to the dining room table, declaring with nearly every large bite that she just doesn't have much of an appetite any more... But for some reason, one Christmas Day stands out more clearly than the rest.
It was an unseasonably warm day, probably in the 60s, clear and mildly sunny. (I was probably in upper elementary school, perhaps 5th or 6th grade; I'm not sure, and it really doesn't matter.) We'd opened all the gifts hours before, had sifted through them multiple times, tried on the clothes, played with the toys, snacked on unhealthy cookies until we were all half sick. And someone had the idea that we should walk to the meadow.
What is the meadow? It is exactly as it sounds, a vast expanse of verdant lushness that sits high atop the hills behind my parents' house. We walked to it a couple of times each year, as I recall, perhaps not quite so often. Mid- to late-spring was the best time to go. It was a bit of a hike, and as summer progressed, the climb took more and more patience and stamina because of the seasonal (and yearly) increase of weeds and scrubby shrubs on the hillside. The path was steep, not even really defined; the effort required that you avoid the grabbing undergrowth, face-slapping branches, and sticky burrs. Lastly, you crossed a dilapidated barbed-wire fence and walked along the side of the hill on a rudimentary road of sorts.
Even when the road ended and you'd gotten to the top, saw the green stretching out before you and thought you'd arrived, you still had some walking to do in order to reach the crest of the highest rounded peak. You trudged along, tired, probably scratched from briars, thirsty if you hadn't remembered to bring some water (I don't recall ever doing so because we knew we could steal a drink from the natural spring on the way back down). You walked some more. You kept your eye on the prize.
Then, you were there. The tip. The pinnacle. The zenith. Boy, was it worth all the trouble.
All the way into the little town you gazed, and you were looking down on the world. There were neighbors' cottages tucked away, more crowded neighborhoods farther away, the big red brick hospital... I think we could even see aspects of the nearby coal mines. You stood atop the world, looking down on creation as the song goes, and you heard nothing. Only the breeze, sometimes rather brisk because you were out of the valley at last. It was heady, to say the least. The descent was more leisurely, of course, being downward-sloping and broken by a cold stream of spring water that spurted from an overflow pipe next to our reservoir.
And that Christmas Day hike was no different. I think I remember it so clearly because it is the only time I recall making the hike in the "off" season. The climb was less taxing because nothing was growing. The view, although more brown, was no less spectacular; in fact, we could see even more of the miniature world that lay far below. There we were, at the end of December, with our light jackets tied around our waists, standing in peace and surrounded by balmy openness. It was as if we'd carried the joy of the day with us, carried it all the way into a misplaced breath of spring. It drifted up from us like a kite, buoyed by light winds and our good spirits, dancing overhead.
Truly a Christmas to cherish.