“And Joseph . . . went up from Galilee . . . unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem—because he was of the house and lineage of David—to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”
They journeyed back to where his people had lived. Were they glad for the trip, or were they troubled? Did they feel like outcasts on a weary road or homeward-bound children expecting a warm welcome?
We drove by night, from Streator, Illinois, on December 24, 1952. Or maybe it was 1953. In either case, my little sister, Cynda Jo, was only a tyke, rolling around in the back seat with me.
It was dark by six p.m. Mom may have packed sandwiches to be eaten in the comfort of our 1939 Chevy. It was a black sedan, the kind you see in old movies, where gangsters lean out the windows with tommy guns and spray lead back at the cops chasing them in the same kind of car.
We were bound for Knoxville, a small town where both Mom’s and Dad’s parents lived. A two-hour drive, it seemed forever to a boy of seven or eight.
“Are we there yet?”
“Not yet, honey. You just asked five minutes ago.”
We cruised past ground streaked with snow. Or maybe it was bare dirt, stripped fields where corn had grown last summer. Flat lands, with farmhouses set back a quarter-mile from the road. The night was cold, but was it white? I really don’t remember.
It was dark for sure. We rumbled down state roads—Illinois 18 to 29 to 17 to 90 to 78 to U.S. Highway 150. I didn’t know the highway numbers then, only the names of the little towns we passed through: Wenona, Lacon, Edelstein, Princeville.
There was a mountain in Wenona, a hundred-foot-tall cone of tailings from an old coal mine. You couldn’t see it in the dark, but townsfolk had put a lighted star on top, so you knew that was where the mountain was. Pretty much the only mountain in Illinois.
The roads were paved highways, one lane each direction. No multi-lanes, no grassy medians. Superhighways did not exist. If they did, I had never seen one.
Somewhere near Edelstein the state highway department had knocked off work for Christmas. To keep folks from driving into the unfilled hole, they had left a barricade lit by guttering flames from two black kerosene pot flares—small candles challenging the blackness of night.
The light great we looked for was a green neon quadrangle on the roof of the Green Diamond, a small tavern on Highway 150. When you saw that green neon diamond, you were just outside Knoxville. The town itself was dry, so the Green Diamond was a roadhouse, out on the highway.
We drove through Knoxville to the public square and parked in front of my grandparents’ house.
All the aunts, uncles, and cousins had gathered inside. Uncle Earl and Uncle Dick sat on the floor amid strings of tree lights, which were wired in series in those days. If the string did not light, all you could do was replace each light in sequence with a fresh bulb until you found the culprit. Then, voilà!, there was light.
Out on the highway, huddled in the car, only an occasional light flickering from a farmyard across the fields, we had been lonely pilgrims, outside the pale of human care.
Now we were home.
“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
I don’t know how Mary and Joseph felt when at last they stumbled into Bethlehem, after a long, tiring journey.
But every year at this time, pondering their momentous journey, I feel I have suddenly come out of darkness into a great light.
May you experience peace, and may your holidays be warmly illuminated.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer