Tonight I’m turning off the lights and letting the low light of the candle flicker over Bing Crosby’s voice. For hundreds of years, people have been lighting candles for one reason or another. For comfort. For light. For hope. For prayer. To show someone which way to go. To find the way themselves. Tonight I’m keeping them lit because they remind me that darkness cannot extinguish light. No matter how hungry the dark, the light wins. Christmas is only a few days away and as much as I really lovely every moment of this season, I’m tired. Tired of a broken world. Tired of tragic news headlines. Tired of global apathy, and even worse, the apathy that lives inside of me. Tired of politics and drama, fear and anxiety, and sometimes even tired of the monotony of day to day life. I’m road weary of the path that keeps me moving from kitchen to nursery to home teacher to laundry and back again.
The days get colder and shorter, and we’re all aware that the darkness is coming. The gray and the gloom, the feeling that each day is the same on repeat until the sun decides to warm us up again in April (if we’re lucky.) In a few weeks the tree will come down and we’ll still face 12 weeks of grey, dark winter.
To slip into some kind of internal quiet is what my heart knows best. Find a sweater. Grab an extra blanket. Light a candle.
The wind howls around our house tonight. Just one look outside shows the snow moving in every direction across the highway. It’s the kind of night that begs you stay indoors. The wind whips around our home again, peeling whatever snow it can off the rooftops, swirling it up into a Van Gogh-esque dance in the night sky. Tonight we’re expecting at least a few more inches, and by morning, our windows will be covered with a thin layer of frost. Winter has fully arrived and it’s so familiar to me, it’s almost as though it never left. Stark branches are familiar faces, and we know the routine of taking things slower in the dark and wearing five layers while we go. Tonight, there is no usual sound of horns blaring, semi-trucks rattling under the overpass and motorcycle engines echoing up the sides of the sound walls. By every definition of the phrase, it is a silent night. I’m under a pile of blankets on our couch, sipping gingerbread tea and taking in the Christmas tree during these last final days of counting down.
“It’s such a strange tradition,” my husband said when we first brought the tree home. “Bringing a tree into your own home…such an odd thing.” And yet here it stands, still green, nearly glittering on this frigid night. A quiet reminder that despite what the weatherman tells you, there is still life blood within all those bare and black branches that shake within the wind.
This morning, I opened one of our jars of apple butter from this past fall.
(Side note: If you haven’t added apple butter to your food regime, I highly suggest you do this ASAP. Scroll down to the bottom for the recipe. Do it before you read the rest of this article, and then come back to read while your apples are cooking in cloves and ginger and cinnamon and ask yourself what’s taken you so long?)
It smells of October. I chopped at least two dozen Empires in order to make this simple spread. We stockpiled apples when we had the chance. I made sure we had plenty for pies, snacks, and most importantly, the apple butter that would sit on our shelves through winter. The Winter Blues Shelf is what I call it now. It’s where all of our summer and autumn harvest sits and waits. Strawberry jam, raspberry jam, tomato sauce, salsa, pickles from my mother-in-law, peaches from a friend, and at least 8 jars of rich apple butter. It’s my steady reminder that winter doesn’t last. Fruit will come again. And sometimes fruit will come in one season in order for us to be sustained by it in the next.
When we picked the apples at our local orchard, a tiny sign hung in the shop window: “The apples are much smaller this year because of the drought. But because of that, they are also sweeter!” And that they were. Tiny little fruits that easily twisted off the trees, crunchy and dripping of sugar. Were it Christmas-time when we picked, the children would dream of these in lieu of sugar plums. The drought was hard on our region last year. Weeks and months without substantial rain. No summer storms to drench our fields and flora for what seemed like months. The grass went brown and the usual lush green of our city seemed dull against the sky.
And yet, here grew these sweet apples. What a thing that in the middle of drought there was still fruit. In the middle of what looked hopeless for farmers and the harvest, we still twisted once and plucked these into our bags.
As the snow piles and my phone dings with news headlines, I’m reminded that even when the earth seems to crack and beg for relief, we can still hope for good fruit. When even the reports, comment sections and maybe our hearts seem parched for hope, we can still trust that our fragile branches, by His generosity, can bring forth a fruit so sweet to the world that no one can deny it is grace.
“Mom, is there any other plant that stays green all winter?” The highway is speeding by outside the car windows when she asks this. The only trees that stand out this time of year are the pines. The hundred foot tall ones that sway heavy with snow. Their green is deep and cool, and because of this they stand out even more against the lemon sky.
“Not to my knowledge,” I say. I’m sure their might be one or two, but I can’t recall it at the moment. And I’m content to tell her that “evergreens” are “evergreens” because they stay ever…green. She can research it on her own one day.
In our own home, we have our evergreen tucked into a corner of the living room. Heirloom ornaments, mixed lights, red beads, pictures of people we love, hand prints on ornaments from years gone by, and a whole assortment of stories and lives represented by small baubles and knick-knacks are hanging on the strong branches. Tonight, I’m looking at its green and giving thanks for the reminder of life in a season of cold. How thankful I am for Christmas — a purposeful reminder near the darkest day of the year that shouts “Do not fear! Christ is come!” There’s Christmas: A beaming ray of light amidst the bone-chilling temperatures. An invitation of comfort when the below zero temperatures slice their way through the decades-old window panes. Christmas: A place to find truth when the world wants you to give up hope completely.
It’s said that the pagans would bring branches of trees into their homes during solstice to remind them of springtime. I don’t need reminders of springtime tonight. I’m content to enjoy the warmth of indoors. But I do need a reminder that even when the world is dark and cold, Christ comes. That this living tree inside my home isn’t just for tradition. It’s here to daily remind us that despite the warnings, the world is not standing with one foot in its grave. In fact, its just the opposite. The birth of hope is here. Alive. Shining bright.
And could we be the ones to bring the fruit and shine the light, despite warnings and shadows? Lord, let it be so.
The night I cooked the apple butter, the whole house smelled of cloves and ginger. I vowed I would make apple butter all autumn long if I could guarantee I’d wake to that simmering scent every day. It cooked for 12 hours and then I filled jars to can for our Winter Blues shelf. It seems obvious to me — the story in canning. How some things need to go under pressure and high temperatures in order to last. That the things that don’t rot in a jar are the things that needed to be uncomfortable for awhile. That the best flavors are the ones that take twice as long to obtain. That there’s nothing hard you endure that won’t be used to preserve you. That the work of Christ in you is the kind that seals you and secures you. And when winter comes, the things you reach for might remind you of the fruitful years. They will come again, but feast in the winter on the joy that the sweetness of the harvest is not gone forever.
I can open a jar and say “thank you.” I can see our story-covered tree and be reminded that Christ conquered the harsh nature of this world that seems to try and kill off everything good. Where I see lack, he creates fruit that can sustain me. Where I lack hope, I remember that God is not afraid. Where I lack compassion, where I find apathy, by his mercy He uses the droughts of my soul to bring about real and lasting fruit.
All of his perfect and good gifts, “coming down from the Father of Lights in whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” are available to me tonight.
- 18-24 apples, cored & chopped into small cubes
- 1 1/2 cup of dark brown sugar
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 T cinnamon
- 1 tsp ginger
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- Let it sit in a crockpot overnight, stirring occasionally. Cook on low for 8-12 hours. Butter should be thick and spreadable when you’re finished. Can for future use, refrigerate, or serve immediately! Goes best with EVERYTHING. But mostly toast, dip, mixed with whipped cream, on top of ice cream, over pork loin, and so on.