December 22, 2016

The Creche by the Side of the Road


A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

--Eliot, Journey of the Magi

Small moments in long journeys, like small lights in a large darkness, often linger in the memory. They come unbidden, occur when you are not ready for them, and are gone before you understand them. You "had the experience, but missed the meaning." All you can do is hold them and hope that understanding will, in time, come to you.

To drive from Laguna Beach, California to Sacramento. California the only feasible route takes you through Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. If you go after dark in this season of the year, you speed through an unbroken crescendo of lights accentuated by even more holiday lights. In the American spirit of "If it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing," the decking of the landscape with lights has finally gotten utterly out of hand.

Airports, malls, oil refineries, the towers along Wilshire and the vast suburbs of the valley put up extra displays to celebrate what has come to be known as "The Season." All the lights flung up by the hive of more than 10 million souls shine on brightly and bravely, but the exact nature of "The Season" seems more difficult for us to define with every passing year.

For hours the lights of the Los Angeles metroplex surround you as if they have no end. But they do end. In time, the valley narrows and you come to the stark edge of the lights. Then you drive into a dark section of highway known as the Grapevine.

The Grapevine snakes up over the mountains that ring the Los Angeles Basin to swirl down the far side into the endless flatland of the Great Central Valley. From entrance to exit is about 50 miles.

So steep is the ascent to the top of the Grapevine that the summit makes its own weather. Comfortable valley nights can turn into snow flurries, sudden fog banks and high winds that shake the car. Every transit of the Grapevine promises (and nearly always delivers) at least one accident seen along the roadside if you are lucky, or directly in front of you if you are not. If you are very unlucky, the accident is yours.

Virtually all traffic to and from Los Angeles endures the Grapevine. It is a dangerous and demanding road, made more intimidating by the swarms of trucks that haul freight up the spine of California. Even in broad daylight the Grapevine seems dark. It is an unloved and unlovely stretch of highway.

It was long past sunset when the Christmas pilgrimage to our families around Sacramento sent us climbing up the Grapevine. My wife of that year was driving because my eyes don't adjust quickly to oncoming headlights and because she is, by far, the better driver. My stepson was wedged within a small mountain of bags and presents in the back seat, his cherubic face illuminated by the gray-blue glow of his Gameboy.

I gazed out the window at the churning wall of trucks and the slate black slopes. Heavy cloud cover made everything more obscure. Only the streams of headlights coming on and the endless red flares of brake lights in front of us broke the darkness. It was the nadir of the year, two days before Christmas, climbing between dark mountains with millions of others, most aiming at some destination filled with the rituals of the season; rituals that seemed, as they often do, only a blunt repetition of some sharper but now dim vision.

It came up fast and passed faster as things often do up on the Grapevine. It was vague at first. A dim smudge of light in the middle of a looming dark hillside. Then it resolved itself as we sped up on it at around 70 miles per hour. We came abreast and I saw it clearly for only a few brief seconds. It was that rarest of all this seasons sights, a roadside Nativity scene.

Wrapped in a ring of floodlights near the crest was the classic creche. Nothing fancy but all the elements. The manger was indicated by a backdrop of shingles, scrap lumber and palm fronds. The life-size colored figures of the Magi, Joseph and Mary, a few amazed shepherds, three camels, an assortment of barn animals, an angel perched a bit precariously on the roofbeam, a Bethlehem star nailed to a pole, and a bunch of hay bales thrown in for atmosphere. Miles from any sign of human habitation, there to be seen only from the road and at a high speed, some anonymous person had placed this endangered sign of an endangered season.

Why had it been done? As a reminder to motorists of why they were going where they were going? As a defiant gesture towards the ACLU and all those who have now not only taken the Christ out of Christmas but the Christmas out of Christmas as well? As an assertion that God still loved an America that has increasingly chosen to ignore Him? As an expression, a pure expression, of faith?

Perhaps all of these things and perhaps none. Perhaps for that most American of all reasons -- simply because it could be done.

I pointed it out to my Gameboy-entranced stepson who looked up and back only to see a faint trace of it. His entirely sensible question was, "How did they light it all the way up there?" I answered that I didn't know but they might have used a very long extension cord. He shrugged and went back to the more compelling challenges of Super Mario 3.

In a moment it was past. In 20 seconds we'd rounded a curve and the light from it was gone. There was no going back. We rushed down the slope and out of the Grapevine onto Highway 5 where a bitter storm wind drove clouds of tumbleweed into our headlights.

In a few hours, we stopped for the night. For us there was room at the inn -- reserved at the Harris Ranch inn; a oasis sporting an Olympic sized swimming pool and overpriced steaks in the midst of the valley's orchards and deserts. As distant in comfort from the creche in the mountains as, perhaps, 2000 years.

The next day we reached Sacramento and the first of our sets of in-laws. Then the holidays (Since this is how America has decided to name this time of the year.) began with a vengeance.

Absurd objects were exchanged. Eternal assurances of love and affection were delivered. Children received, as usual, far too many things to appreciate any one thing. Much loved faces were seen and small pageants were performed.

The eating began and went on with no quarter; lavish meals that left one yearning for the simplicity of a salad bar.

In the background, bowl games with no purpose were played. People went to three hour movies celebrating pagan fantasies, and paid drive-by holiday greetings in the last busy days. Photographs and video tapes were made to be looked at ... when?

It was a time of busy moments blurring together. Strangely, of all the moments, I was most moved by the small ritual of grace before meals performed at my in-laws. In these rare moments, the central meaning of these days was acknowledged in the phrase, "We thank you, Lord, for your gift, your Son." And then, like all good Americans, we got on with the getting of our gifts.

Before we could be anyplace at all we found ourselves going south over the Grapevine heading home. I didn't see the creche on the return trip. Perhaps you couldn't see it from the southbound lanes, perhaps I slept. I'm really not sure.

Some days after returning, the three of us took in the annual Christmas Pageant performed at the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County. This pageant always receives rave reviews, due to its incorporation of live camels, lavish costumes, a serious pipe organ, and a bevy of angels flung about the vaulted interior of the church on wires. It's a blend of high kitsch and sincere belief; the sort of spectacle you should see at least once if you live in the area.

The show promised the apotheosis of the real meaning of Christmas in a secure setting; a kind of armed hamlet redoubt of contemporary Christianity besieged by the secular. The show delivered. It had lights, camels, action. It told the old tale in the old way using all the new tricks of the Las Vegas strip. It was spectacle incarnate.

At the climactic moment, angels sang while swooping overhead on their wires, Magi with jeweled headdresses the size of small ottomans adored Him from beside kneeling camels, shepherds abided, the organ groaned, six heralds sounded their trumpets, Mary and Joseph framed by a backlit scrim of stars gazed with awe down into a straw rimmed basin under the worlds largest Bethlehem star ornament, and an airport landing light blasted up out of the cradle, through the glass ceiling and out into the indifferent night.

Houselights. Magi bow. Romans bow. Mary and Joseph bow. Exit camels stage left.

And I thought, "Now, that's entertainment."

But I also thought of the other nativity scene. Halfway over the Grapevine, up along the slope of the dark mountains, an island of light in the midst of a vast and expanding darkness. A little light arranged by the small hands of faith to mirror a larger light moved by the inconceivable hand of God. I'll look for it next year when we drive north. It's so far out of the way, it should still be there. But then, you never know. Do you?

[Republished from December, 2003 ]

Posted by Vanderleun at December 22, 2016 8:57 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Gerard...I'm about to enter a Christmas frenzy of over 30 guests and a harried hostess (my niece, when did she grow up?). I just wanted to take a moment and thank you for a great year and to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas.


Posted by: Mumblix Grumph at December 25, 2005 3:07 PM

Whatever else it is, this time is also a celebration. Of course people are going to go large a bit.

We do that when we celebrate. Go large. We dance, we sing, we make babies on the dinning room table a half hour before Christmas dinner. When we celebrate we don't take half measures.

And God forbid we ever behave properly during a celebration. For joy must needs be expressed, and better honest fornication than dishonest shows of piety.

Sir, I say celebrate and celebrate load. God can hear you no matter how quiet you are, it's the neighbors who need the message.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at December 25, 2005 3:48 PM

Enjoyed this the first time...

Enjoyed it more this time...

You're a craftsman with words sir and I love reading your product...

Merry Christmas to you and yours, belatedly (but not really)...

Posted by: Rick at December 27, 2005 6:14 AM

Great meditation.

And, you are such a wonderful writer..

Merry Christmas, Susan Lee

Posted by: Susan Lee at December 22, 2008 7:21 AM

I read the essay first, and then noticed the quotation from Kierkegaard resting above ~ "A man who cannot seduce men cannot save them either."

Indeed. And if the hope is to seduce with words, to entice into moments of new perception, curiosity, appreciation and amazement, you have done it well.

This is an essay to re-read in the coming days. Thank you.

Posted by: Linda Leinen at December 22, 2008 9:02 AM

A great read, as always. I think the majority of us have lost the spirit and meaning of Christmas, or the various "Holidays" around this time of year. You are an exception to the rule, I like to think I am as well, although I'm not nearly as eloquent in the telling. And the mystery of that nativity should never be uncovered, it would lose something in the revelation.

Posted by: midtown miscreant at December 22, 2008 10:32 AM

I read this in the dark days of 2005 in Germany and it was the first thing of yours I had ever read. Whenever I describe your blog to others, this essay is the first thing that comes to mind.

This and the "Not Insane To-Do List" I carry in my planner now.

I love your writing.

Did you ever get to see the lone nativity again?

Have a blessed Christmas.


Posted by: sehoy at December 23, 2008 7:10 AM

Thank you for your kind words.

To answer your question, yes I did.

The next year it was still there.

Posted by: vanderleun at December 23, 2008 8:52 AM

Loved the writing. Thank you for sharing this. A great Christmas story. I am wondering if anyone will ever see the lone nativity scene again. Am in hopes that they will. The political climate we presently live in leaves me in doubt.

Posted by: Cilla Mitchell, Galveston, Texas at December 23, 2009 3:57 AM

Sustenance for my spirit during the season when the Light is re-born, if we can only bear it.

The warmth of home and hearth to you.
The Light of the Christmas Star to you.

Posted by: Mizz E at December 23, 2009 4:42 AM

A good story is always worth the retelling.

After all, the primary story of the season has been retold for two thousand years.

A blessed Christmas to you and yours.

Posted by: Linda Leinen at December 23, 2009 5:08 AM

I recently had the pleasure of driving from Seattle to La Paz, nearly at the tip of the Baja penninsula. Your piece reminds me of the hundreds of small shrines to accident victims I saw along the way, and some not so small at all, as if marking some tragic bus wreck.

Going north from LA, you are travelling into the heart of American agribusiness, at leat until you get to the "Congress-created dustbowl" of the San Joacquin valley.

Travelling the other way, a day beyond the tawdry border, you may think yourself on Mars. Boojum trees, volcanos, fields of boulders the size of ships (BIG ships), and a new breed of cactus dominant every few miles.

You drive a two lane road that goes the equivalent distance from LA to Seattle, cutting back and forth across the penninsula to check into the widely-spaced little seaside towns, and finally a descent into the lovely Bay of La Paz, and if you are lucky enough to be me, a refuge away from home.

Posted by: sherlock at December 23, 2009 5:58 AM

Sounds like a wonderful drive, Gerard.

Hmm, well, regarding the creche, it is probably on private property, paid for with private funds... Last time I checked, the ACLU had no beef with that. Of course, some idiots can't quite get the distinction between private expression of religion (good) and public (government) establishment of religion (really, not so good...). But I guess that's one of the things that makes them idiots...

Posted by: Mark Spark at December 23, 2009 7:29 PM

I remember the original Grapevine. We traveled it every summer, from the time I was 6 until I was 14, as we made our annual trip to Yosemite to camp for 2 weeks. It was a treacherous road back then. Not so much, these days. Well, except for that time back in the summer of 2000, when there was a semi in front of me, a semi in back of me, a semi on my right, and the semi on my left decided to pull over. Okay, there was an escape slot, if I had been in a small, powerful car. None whatsoever for me, in my pick-up, pulling a horse trailer with a 1200 lb. horse in it. Going uphill, no acceleration possible, even with my powerful diesel, I had to edge to the right, hoping the trucker would get a clue. My daughter yelled, "Mommy, Mommy, you're gonna hit the other truck!" She meant the one on my right, the one she could have touched if her window had been down. I cannot remember how it resolved, but we came through it unscathed. No creche on a hillside, just the hand of God.

Posted by: Jan B at December 23, 2009 8:25 PM

I was waiting for you to post this one again. Thank you.

Posted by: Jewel at December 24, 2010 1:15 PM

Words have magic. And you sir, are a wizard. A very Merry Christmas to you and yours, and the Happiest of New Years.

Posted by: Guy S at December 24, 2010 6:15 PM

I've been waiting and hoping you would run this once again. A fine story, well told. Im pleased you are still around to tell it once again. Here's hoping I'll be reading it many years to come. Thanks from Kansas City.

Posted by: midtown miscreant at December 22, 2011 6:34 AM

It is funny how I read through the comments and I find that I've already said what I was going to say.

Posted by: Jewel at December 22, 2011 7:31 AM

Thank you, Gerard, for taking the time to express yourself so beautifully. I comment infrequently, but stop by every day for a dose of wit and wisdom.

Wishing you and your family a blessed Christmas and to you especially, much health and happiness in the new year.

Posted by: goldenwest at December 22, 2011 9:09 AM

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Posted by: Grace at December 23, 2011 1:37 AM

It is, indeed, good writing, definitely. Thanks.

But the problem is when government spends money on any certain religion's images, etc., as surely you know and recognize.

Anyone can have their religion, sure, but when a government spends money on one, it must then spend that same on all, be it Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Zen, Zoroastran, B'hai, etc., etc.

Most Americans couldn't handle that.

Happy holidays.

Posted by: Mo Rage at December 23, 2011 12:39 PM

Christmas feels different this year to me. I don't know about anyone else, but there is a kind of looking forward and not seeing the same kind of Christmases in the future as we have had in the past. It's been a relentless war of nastiness against the creche, no matter where it's stationed. Perhaps that's too pessimistic. On the other hand, seeing what the other side has to offer, which is nothing and a whole lot of it with hatred, makes the nativity far more desirable than just about anything else.

Posted by: Jewel at December 22, 2012 9:29 AM

Yes, I think we're all familiar with the Establishment Clause at this point. And I also think I can state with great confidence that regulating religious statuary on publicly-maintained land and the other sorts of cases involving said clause that are most likely to see the inside of a courtroom these days were, if even on James Madison's, the First Congress', and the state legislators' minds at all, either the last things or you could see them from there.

Posted by: Rich Fader at December 24, 2012 1:59 PM

re. LA lights. In the early '70s I was flying Convair 440s in and out of LAX. Inbound from the east at night approaching Palm Springs at 6000' or 8000', you were nearly blinded by the bright white light of the LA basin. You had to turn up the cockpit lights to cope with it. At about this time of year the light was strongly tinted an orangish red. The first year I saw this I told the crew there must be a helluva fire in LA, maybe it's been nuked. I soon learned it was just the glare of the jillions of Christmas lights Angelinos string around and on their houses at Christmas time.

Posted by: BillH at December 23, 2013 7:49 AM


I was coming back up north from the CIF state championship at the Stubhub center. I entered the LA side of the grapevine around 5:30AM and there it was off to my side to the right. The manger! All lit up. I thought about you when you mentioned this a couple of years back. I was very tempted to pull over and take a Photo of it, but that would have been very unsafe. Merry Christmas!


Posted by: Tom at December 23, 2013 12:03 PM

You're right. Thatwould have been most unsafe. Most unsafe. But I am pleased it is still going and going and going and going.....

Posted by: vanderleun at December 23, 2013 2:53 PM

That picture appears similar to the view driving into Palm Springs from HWY 74.

Posted by: Jim at December 24, 2013 9:59 PM

I never tire of this one. Merry Christmas Gerard.

Posted by: mark smith at December 24, 2014 11:07 PM

Gerard, thank you again for this essay. I am warmed each time I read it through the years.

Merry Christmas to you and your family.


Posted by: Another Old Navy Chief at December 23, 2015 11:40 AM

Poor Jesus, must be spinning in his grave wondering just what the f*** we think we are doing.

Posted by: Alex at December 23, 2016 5:59 AM