No snow crunches underfoot as we make our way over pavement rumpled by old tree roots. There are few street lights to keep us from stumbling; we navigate by house-shaped constellations traced in strings of multicolored bulbs.
I hear a series of thumps behind me as our guitarist experiences an awkward encounter with a street curb and then an iron gate.
“Are you all right?” I whisper in the dark, struggling to contain my giggles until I hear an affirmative answer.
All manner of obstacles stand between sidewalk and threshold. American houses have a habit of being walled up. But we are undeterred.
As the four of us make our way up the steps, the accordion wheezes softly. The accordion player shivers.
Night comes swift and early just before the winter solstice. The pearlescent winter sun arcs across the sky and drops abruptly behind the mountains. The sky goes dark, like a door has been shut.
Sara presses the doorbell and gives the knocker a few crisp taps for good measure. As we wait for signs of life in the house, we hastily debate which tune we should sing. “Joy to the World” is proposed. The motion carries just as the door is opened and a wide carpet of golden light rolls out onto the front porch.
A small ball of fur races out to sniff our boots before darting back into the warmth of the house.
“Can we sing to you?” Sara asks.
(Courage renewed and paws warmed, the fur ball makes another lap through our legs and bounds back inside.)
“Please do,” says the woman standing in her socks in the doorway. Another woman, her daughter perhaps, joins her. One puts an arm around the other as we finish our first song and begin “Silent Night.”
The light, the sound, and the fur ball pass back and forth over the threshold, creating a space that is between.
Most of the doors we knock on eventually open. Sara lives on this street and seems to know the families and history of almost every house. But we skip the houses that belong to people we do not know. We are awkward, bashful. Perhaps our American individualism has sharpened our sense of stranger-ness, even among our neighbors.
In Ireland, on Saint Stephen’s Day (December 26), marauding bands of rowdy, costumed carolers called “wren boys” warble on doorsteps and make a general nuisance of themselves, refusing to go away until they are given food, drink, or donations for charity.
I linger to glimpse Christmas trees through partially-drawn curtains. I’m tempted to at least knock. What’s a little awkwardness between neighbors at Christmas?
I think awkwardness is inherent to caroling. There are songs written specifically to explain the presence of singers on doorsteps, perhaps bundled up beyond recognition: “We are not merely beggars who beg from door to door, but we are neighbors children, whom you have seen before.”
Between houses, I realize I’m humming it again: “Good King Wenceslas.” It gets stuck in my head every year. I don’t know why. I hum it under my breath while I do dishes and sing it in the shower. It follows me like a melodic shadow through the season.
It’s one of the old carols that tell a story.
In Bohemia, King Wenceslas, whose historical story is composed primarily of assassinations, banishments, and family drama (some will say, “not unlike my house at Christmas”), was canonized for his charity.
From his feasting hall, festooned for the celebration of St. Stephen’s Day, Wenceslas, observed a peasant gathering kindling. Wenceslas summoned a page and asked who the man was. The page, who, like my friend Sara, seems to have had encyclopedic knowledge of the neighborhood, informed the monarch that the man lives some distance away at the foot of a mountain.
Wencelas calls for tin foil and Tupperware, and he and the page set off through drifted snow and falling night to bring a Christmas gift to the peasant.
After they have walked some distance, the page calls out over the wind that he is too cold to go on. Wenceslas offers the very practical suggestion that the page walk in the footprints the king makes.
Now here’s the magical bit of the story: The page finds that the footprints are supernaturally warm.
It’s a great song for caroling, boisterous and merry, with a message in keeping with the tradition of the wren boys.
I wonder if caroling is meant to be intrusive. After all, “polite” is not the word I think the shepherds would have used to describe a sky gone supernova with angelic hosts. Intrusion seems inherent to incarnation, the impossible collision of glory and gentleness, holiness and humanity.
And in the same story, God permits himself to be turned away from inns, to be shuffled from tiny backwater town to tiny backwater town, to be routinely overlooked. He is both the wild, unapologetic abundance of incarnation and the awkward visitor—two things at once.
The winter solstice is the darkest night of the year, the frail betwixt joining seasons.
Tonight, I’ll celebrate another Irish tradition a few days early.
In Ireland, on Christmas Eve, families place candles in window sills to welcome Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.
And as I fumble with the batteries in the candlestick I will put in my window tonight, I look across the street at houses strung with lights, and I wonder if there is not a set of glowing footprints that stretch out before us, inviting us to be both the door at last thrown open and the visitor who feels out of place—two things at once, awkward on the threshold, relishing the strange beauty of moments and places that are betwixt and just before, holding the excitement felt on the cusp of joy like the last note of a song.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.