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The Gifts of the Magi

A Contrarian Christmas Carol

By Farwell Forrest

December 23, 2003

I was at the local HyperMart, standing in front of a display labeled "Bulk Nuts," scooping almonds into a plastic bag. It was early in the day. The store was nearly empty, and I was alone in the aisle. Or so I thought. As I reached down to fill the plastic scoop again, I saw something moving toward me, just at the edge of my vision. I jerked my head up, but before I could turn round, I was hit.

The blow came from a shopping cart. I wasn't hurt. I looked at the woman who'd shoved the cart into me, expecting an apology. None was forthcoming. Instead, she pulled her cart back. And then she rammed me again.

My patience had run out. I seized the front of the cart and thrust it away. The woman still said nothing. I looked at her more carefully. She was a stranger to me, but her clothing suggested that she'd stopped off to shop on her way to a fitness class. Her cart was almost empty: it held only a single roll of brightly colored wrapping paper. She wasn't exactly a picture of holiday cheer, either. In the glare of the store's harsh fluorescent lighting, her face was a disturbing gray-green. Her lips were pursed tight, too, and her eyes were fixed on something — or was it nothing? — in the middle distance, well beyond the place where I was standing. I'd seen that look before. World War II-era GI's christened it the "thousand-mile stare." The woman's face showed no emotion and no awareness of her surroundings. There was no sign that she saw me.

Suppressing the angry words that had crowded onto the tip of my tongue, I said only, "Can I help you find something?"

But the woman made no reply. Instead, she pushed her cart down the aisle, still staring into the distance, searching for something that only she could see. She left a train of scent behind her. It suggested a tropical garden — a garden created in the product-development labs of some Bayonne, New Jersey, chemical company. The smell was simultaneously cloying and fiery. I sneezed. Then I sneezed again. And then my eyes began to water.

As I patted my pockets, searching for something to mop my streaming eyes, a loudspeaker squawked into life over my head, broadcasting a deafening rendition of "Silent Night." It was November 26th, the day before Thanksgiving.

I turned back to the bulk nuts, scooping more almonds into my bag. When I looked up again, the woman and her cart had disappeared.

Later, on my way to the check-out, I noticed a hand-lettered sign that proclaimed "Free Samples!" Underneath the banner, a harried man was daubing imitation crab meat onto crackers. The temptation was too strong to resist. I had breakfasted on coffee and then bicycled into town to do some last-minute shopping. Now I had 12 miles of hills to climb with 30 pounds of groceries on my rear rack, pedaling right into the teeth of a frigid wind spilling down off the Adirondack highlands. I was hungry. So I reached for a cracker. The imitation crab meat tasted like scorched rubber, marinated in brine. Worse yet, it stuck to my palate with the tenacity of epoxy. I was still chasing bits of it with my tongue when I surmounted the last rise before home.


That was almost a month ago. The holidays will soon be over. Perhaps the woman with the thousand-mile stare is starting to relax. I hope so, at any rate. It's not hard to understand how she felt.

Just the worst time of the year…
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.…
A hard time we had of it.

The narrator in T.S. Eliot's The Journey of the Magi certainly knew a thing or two. He had no illusions that he and his companions would have an easy journey. But they struggled on toward Bethlehem, nonetheless. And they weren't traveling light. They carried gifts with them, rare and precious things: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Nowadays, of course, the magi would be standing in line with the rest of us. The stores are all piled high with products to tease the senses, marked down for quick sale. Admittedly, frankincense and myrrh aren't easy to find, but who cares? DVD players are cheaper than ever.

"Too much of a good thing," Mae West once quipped, "is wonderful!" And I'd agree. Up to a point. Too much of some good things is wonderful. I have my doubts about imitation crab, however, and I don't think that "Silent Night" always sounds better when it's played louder. In fact, I now see the same expression when I look in the mirror that I saw in the eyes of the woman at the Hypermart. I can't say I'm surprised. Every year about this time, I get an urge to go journeying, if only for a little while — just long enough to search for a few gifts that I know I won't find for sale in any store.

This year is no exception.

Still, the magus was right: the eve of midwinter isn't the best time to travel. But I'm not easily dissuaded. I wait for a clear, cold night. Then I head for a place that's far from any lights, where I can see the whole sweep of the winter sky. This isn't as simple at it sounds, even in the Adirondack foothills. In the end, I usually find myself standing at the center of a frozen beaver pond. A few times in the last two decades it's been warm enough for me to paddle out, but such temperate Decembers are rare. I usually have to walk, feeling my way carefully across the new ice with the spike of my unaak.

The night has to be quiet, too. That's another difficulty. These days, it's almost impossible to escape the rumble of distant traffic or the insistent whine of snowmobiles. Christmas Eve is often a happy exception, however. Failing that, I wait patiently for an evening in midweek, after the school holidays are over. And I hope for cold weather. Many drivers and snowmobilers think twice before venturing out when the mercury plunges down toward minus 40. Who can blame them?

Sooner or later, the day arrives. It's cold, clear, and quiet. As night falls, I start on my way, pausing only once, at a spring where living water bubbles out of moss-covered rock. I drink deep, savoring the deliciously icy flavorlessness. I take my time. After all, I'm on my own. While Tamia and I usually travel together, some journeys simply can't be shared, and this is one. There's danger in any solo jaunt in winter, of course, but I've always made it home safely. I can't say the same thing about my trips to the HyperMart.

After I've slaked my thirst, I continue on my way to the pond. When I arrive at the center, I switch off my headlamp and look up. As my eyes recover from the dazzle of reflected light, the constellations reveal themselves one by one. I find Orion almost immediately, then turn around, following the arch of the Milky Way to Cassiopeia. Once there, my eye swings toward Polaris, the North Star at the end of the Little Bear's tail. The winter sky is a composition in black and white. There's no color to speak of. No obvious movement. Only the silent stars, filling the vault of the heavens from one horizon to the other.

And while I'm gazing upward, I listen for earthly sounds. If my luck holds, I'll hear…nothing. A preternatural stillness enfolds me. The silence won't be absolute, however. On the coldest nights, I'll hear the sudden snapping of trees in the woods, or the ice creaking and groaning beneath my feet. I may even hear the trip-hammer beat of my own heart, or the muffled footfall of some other night-wandering creature. But none of these disturbs the peace for long. Minutes pass. As I stand quietly, reacquainting myself with the once-familiar patterns of the winter constellations, I feel the first touch of the night's cold fingers. Hands, feet, and face all tingle. Soon they grow numb. It's time to move on. Before I do, though, I take a few seconds to savor the loss of sensation. After weeks of compulsory holiday intimacies, the chilly embrace of Nature is curiously welcome. But only for a little while.

Later, as I walk out, breathing hard, I stop to rest and sniff the air. But my nose catches only a short-lived hint of balsam and the odor of my own sweating body. Nothing more. The forest floor's myriad scents lie imprisoned beneath the snow, awaiting the return of spring. As we, too, must wait. Meanwhile, I walk on, through the trees and over the ridge, where my footfalls and exhalations are the only sounds, and the dark tapestry of the sky can be glimpsed only now and then in gaps between the black columns of tall pines. I walk on, while my hands and feet prickle and burn with the surge of returning blood. And I stop just one more time, to take a second draught of the icy water that springs forth from moss-covered rock.

And then I go home.


Silence. Solitude. Monochrome splendor. Cold. These are winter's gifts to us. And if we choose to accept them? What then? Our senses, jaded and dulled by the holiday surfeit, come alive once more. We emerge from the shadows and stillness of the forest night, once again eager for the company of others. We are ready for the coming of the light.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,…
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi

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