Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Sunday, December 20, 2015


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith for the Years of Winter

{For many years I wrote a new Christmas story each year to use as a Christmas eve sermon. This is the most well-known, and most-often published. Feel free to use it yourself if you have need.]


Before the green hills had become the spoil banks of the strip mines, when United States highways were graveled ribbons and mules still pulled the plows, where the Wabash meets the Ohio, my father "rode the mail." 

            It was not a regular job.  The people in the hills read slowly and wrote only when they had something important to say.  A postage penny was a lot of money.

            Once each week or two, however, the letters and circulars for the folks in the hills mounded up until they filled a leather mail-pouch.  When the papers peeked over the bag top, my father unhitched the mules with which he had been grading the roads since he was twelve, saddled up his horse, and clucked a "giddyap" out toward the cabins where no roads dared to go. 

            The trackless hills, where the woods are deep, are cool and pleasant in the haze of summer. When the autumn comes, though, the heavy rains dump the soggy maple leaves down upon your head.  The water sneaks in between your hat and the collar of your coat. Then the hills hunker down and close in and say, "Beware."

            It was on such a day that Father lost his way.  So when he crossed a clearing and saw a cabin, it was both relief and fear that ran with the rain down along his backbone.  From underneath his dripping hat he hailed the gray, unpainted shack. 

            "Helloooo, the cabin," he called.

            No answer.  The owner must be in on such a day, he thought, or else the cabin was deserted.

            His right foot had left the stirrup and was half-way over the horse's rump when he saw the shotgun.  Only one barrel, but it was big, and it looked straight out at him from where the door had cracked open.  Off the saddle, he waited.

            "What do y' want?" a thin voice from behind the shotgun demanded.

            Father thought fast. 

            "I'v brot your mail," he called.

            "And I need a place to git dry," he added.

            The shotgun held its place, and so did Father.  Finally, however, the muzzle lowered toward the rough boards of the porch, and Father lowered himself to the ground.

            "Come," the cabin called, and Father went.

            Inside the door he met the oldest, frailest-looking woman he had ever seen.  A hound dog that must have shared her birthday lay in front of the fireplace.  A table, a ladder-back chair, a bed, the shotgun, a shaker chest, and a stool were the cabin's only other occupants.

            The woman was still wary. 

            "I don't git no mail," she said.

            Father fished into the pouch and hooked an old circular.  He pushed it out across the gap between them.  A thin, veined hand took it and held it close to two slow eyes.  The eyes were satisfied.  The hand pointed to the chair. 

            "Sit," she said. 

            Father sat.  He wondered a little at how the old woman had read the circular while holding it upside down.

            She brewed some tea. They sipped and sat before the fire until the silence of the roof reported that the rain had gone. They did not talk--just sat and sipped together--the very young man who was only beginning, the very old woman whose life was ending. 

            Father said, "I'll be goin' now.  I thank you for the shelter and the tea." 

            The frail old hands picked up the circular as he left.

            From then on when Father rode the mail, he put into the pouch an old sale bill, or a circular, and he took it to the little cabin in the clearing in the woods.  Each time the young man and the old woman sat and sipped in silence.  Each time Father noted that the "mail" of his last trip had been tacked up on the wall.

            When the winter comes, the rains stop, but the sky is gray as slate sometimes, and the wind sneaks past the button sentries.  In those cold days, Father was especially glad for the cabin and the fire and the tea and the silence.

            A week before Christmas, Father put an old catalog into his pouch, along with all the cards for others on the way, and set out to ride the mail.  He took the catalog to the cabin.  There they sat, the silent young man and the quiet old woman.  As Father rose to leave, the old woman spoke into the silence.

            "It was good of y' to leave your own family and come out to see me on Christmas day," she said.

            Father looked at the walls around him.  There was no calendar, only the circulars and sale bills winking back at him in the firelight.

            Father did not ever talk very much, but many, many years later, when he told this story to his children and grandchildren, he said, "I guess she never did know it wasn't really Christmas day."

            Perhaps he never knew it really was.

John Robert McFarland

When my Christmas stories were compiled in a book, I was going to title it THE YEARS OF CHRISTMAS, since each story is set in a different past year. WHEN FATHER RODE THE MAIL… was so popular, though, that publisher people thought that should be the title of the book. You can order a copy at I think you can order just using the book title or my name, but the ISBN is 978-1-300-38566-0.

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