In illo tempore

The phone rang at mid-morning on Christmas Eve, and my nine-year-old niece Eva answered it. One of our hunter friends, Troy, was calling from his cellphone. “There’s two bears on Sapsucker Ridge right up above the barn!” he said. We hustled into our boots and overcoats and ran outside. Troy, his brother Jeff and his son Andy were standing at the top edge of the field, staring up into the woods. It was a bright, sunny morning, but the snowpack, which had melted quite a bit the day before, was still firm, and our boots punched through with every step as we made our way up across the field.

The hunters had been moving their portable tree stands in anticipation of the beginning of muzzleloader deer season the day after Christmas. Like most of the hunters we know, they have excellent observational skills, and one of them had caught a movement in a tangle of brush a hundred yards away near the top of the ridge as they walked by in the field below. Until I looked through binoculars, I had to take their word for it that the black dot was the head of a half-grown bear.

“There was a second one – the mother probably – but she went on over the ridge,” Troy said. The remaining bear was nonchalantly turning its head all around and working its jaws, as if rehearsing a speech. “I think he thinks we can’t see him,” Jeff remarked. I hoisted Eva onto my shoulders so she could get a better view. We decided that this was the same mother bear with cub that my mom and I had surprised on the Christmas Bird Count as they lay in a denning cavity a quarter mile farther down the ridge.

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Eva’s parents had spent the night in town with my brother Steve and his family; when they all showed up an hour and a half later, the bears were gone. “Let’s go out after lunch and follow their trail,” Steve said. “Maybe we can track them to their den!” His enthusiasm was infectious. I had just finished decorating the tree, and would have a few hours free until I’d have to assist with supper preparation. Eva decided to go along, too.

It was a warm day. By two in the afternoon, the snow had turned to slush. We found the spot where the bears had been hanging out that morning without much trouble, and began following their fresh tracks, clambering over and around numerous deadfalls and smashing through thickets of wild grape and blackberry. In many places, a smaller paw print had been pressed inside a larger one, and it was easy to picture the gangly youngster scampering along behind its mother.

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We were relieved when, after couple hundred yards, the trail led us up over the ridge and down into the relatively more open woods on the other side, where the main hazards were the dense patches of mountain laurel and steep boulder fields. The snow was firmer and crunchier on the northwest side of the ridge, and gave us pretty good footing over the rocks.

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The trail began to parallel the ridge crest about a hundred feet below it. Steve set a brisk pace, and Eva began falling farther and farther behind. She wasn’t complaining, but I could see that her cheap, low boots were no match for the snow. While I waited for her to catch up, I snapped pictures of the gnarled old rock oaks and black birches that grow among the rocks, the closest thing to old growth on our mountain.

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This was also the only place on the mountain where paper birch grows, and in the strong sunlight, the contrast between the snow and the off-white bark was striking.

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Eva admitted that she had a couple inches of water in her boots, so I led her back up to the top of the ridge and pointed the way home. Steve seemed tired of clambering along the steep hillside himself, and convinced me that if we simply followed the crest of the ridge, sooner or later we’d find where the bears had crossed back over. One way or another, we’d have a good walk out to the Far Field, he said, and that much turned out to be true. Through binoculars, we could just make out the bears’ tracks down below, continuing to head southwest along the ridge. “They could be half-way to Altoona by now,” Steve said, and we reluctantly turned back.

I still had to finish wrapping presents, so I took the more direct route home. Steve went back along Laurel Ridge, where he scared up a small flock of wild turkeys. I had a brief encounter with a dead snag I had never noticed, standing along the edge of the field. A woodpecker hole near the top pierced all the way through to the sky beyond, and as I watched, the contrail of a nearly inaudible jet seemed to thread it, fading rapidly away toward the south. Perhaps if I were one of the Magi, I’d know what to make of this perspective-dependent celestial sign.

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It’s odd. Given their wariness and generally crepuscular habits, we see bears only once every month or two, on average. But twice before when Eva was visiting with her family we’ve had great sightings of black bears, and both were on Easter. The second time, Eva was the first to spot the large, male bear peering in through the bow window while the rest of us sat in the other room. These were our first Christmas Eve bears, but I have a feeling they might not be our last.

In The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, the great comparative religionist Mircea Eliade talks about the cyclical nature of sacred time. “Religious participation in a festival implies emerging from ordinary temporal duration and reintegration of the mythical time reactualized by the festival itself,” Eliade wrote. “Hence sacred time is indefinitely recoverable, indefinitely repeatable.” Sacred, ritual time operates almost like a time machine (my image, not Eliade’s), making the participants feel as if they have in some sense returned to the way things were at the very beginning, in illo tempore. In Judaism, and in Christianity after it, every Sabbath permits such a return, and the high holy days even more so.

For most of the last two thousand years, Christians have regarded Good Friday and Easter as the high points of the liturgical calendar, but nowadays, for whatever reason, many seem to have decided that Christmas is a bigger deal. It’s certainly much less Christian in its origins, and the celebration of light and faith at the darkest pivot-point of the year has a nearly universal appeal outside the tropics. The epiphany in the manger also takes us back to Eden in a way that the Passion and Resurrection of Christ cannot. According to widespread folk belief, on Christmas Eve night, the speech of animals becomes briefly intelligible once again, though the traditions disagree on whether it is a good idea for humans to listen in.

I’d be lying if I told you that any of these ideas were passing though my head on Christmas Eve, however. After supper, we gathered in the living room according to time-honored family custom and listened while Mom read the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus from her battered old copy of the King James Bible. My ten-month-old niece Elanor rested quietly in her mother’s lap.

Then Mark takes the seat at the piano, and it’s carol time. We begin with a few of the more light-hearted songs, courtesy of Steve, who has an excellent memory for lyrics: “Jingle Bells” in Latin, the Grinch song, and Tom Lehrer’s cynical take on the holiday. Then it’s on to more serious carols which everyone is expected to join in on, such as “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Only the light above the piano competes with the colored lights strung on the tree and threaded through the greens on top of the fireplace mantle.

Mom has a good, rich, mezzo-soprano voice and took a lot of voice lessons in her youth, but with advancing age, each year it’s an open question whether she’ll be able to hit the high note in “O Holy Night” – always the last carol of the evening. As she works her way up to it, her younger granddaughter gets more and more into the spirit of things. Guarded closely by her mother and her cousin Eva, she crawls up onto the coffee table next to the piano, where she sits waving her arms rapidly up and down as if to urge a faster cadence in the music. Eva gets the idea of putting a small plastic toy into one of her wildly gyrating hands. Elanor clutches it for a second or two, then releases her grip, sending the toy flying. She shakes with laughter, her eyes squeezed shut with pleasure. Eva hands her the toy again, and again. I can’t remember when I’ve ever witnessed such pure, unmitigated delight, and it makes me feel something I haven’t felt in a long, long time. Meanwhile, Mom and Mark have made their way into the third verse of “O Holy Night,” after some rusty piano accompaniment in the first verse, and skipping the second.

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease….

She hits the note. Elanor is bubbling over with joy. Oh holy night.

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