It was Christmas week, and we were in Switzerland. My family and I, along with good friends and a frozen turkey, traveled there for the holidays. We were living in London at the time, so we crossed the English Channel on a car ferry and were on our way to the Swiss countryside.
Our three sons were not so sure about the plan. “Were they getting as many gifts? What kind of Christmas dinner would we have? What about a tree?” I was having many of the same thoughts but kept them to myself.
As we drove higher into the mountains to reach the chalet lent by a friend, small delicate snowflakes danced around our two cars. Shadows deepened, and lights began to glow in houses nestled here and there in the valleys below us. Magical. A very good sign.
With darkness settling around the mountains, we arrived at our chalet. Maybe this adventure would be fine. These words became my mantra.
The next morning, we four parents and five sons explored the tiny village. And there, propped in front of a tiny store, was our Christmas tree! It was short, a little crooked, a bit spare of needles and one of the last ones left. It was beautiful to us.
The nine of us trudged along with our treasured tree and promptly set about decorating it. We popped popcorn and made white garlands with the help of needle and thread. We did the same with cranberries and wound scarlet sashes round the boughs. The boys found pine cones of different sizes and shapes in a sheltered stand of pines near our chalet. These they tucked between branches of our now festive offering to Christmas, and an aroma of pine drifted through the room. James, the youngest boy, fashioned a star out of paper and placed it on top of the tree.
That evening, Christmas Eve, the nine of us again walked to the village. Our feet made satisfying crunching sounds through the crusty snow. The village church was our destination. Candles shone in all the windows, casting shimmering shadows on the icy whiteness. It seemed the whole town had turned out for the midnight service. We were greeted with smiles and greetings of “Willkommen.” We were welcomed by everyone.
Christmas carols, all in German, but so familiar to us in every other way, filled the small church with happiness and joy. The pastor’s message, all in German, made us feel the meaning of Christmas, as if we understood every word.
Next morning, as the boys opened their allotted two gifts apiece, no one complained. Michele and I baked our now thawed turkey and completed all the usual trimmings, minus a pumpkin pie. No one complained. When it was time for all to help clean up from our meal, no one complained. Again, magical.
As I reflect on that Swiss Christmas of more than a decade ago, what made it so extraordinary? Was it Switzerland itself? Was it being with family and wonderful friends? Was it fulfilled expectations?
Yes, of course, it was all of that. And, yet, it was more. It was that intangible thing called hope. It was recognition that we are more than ourselves alone. It was the knowledge that we need one another and are here to help each other and to be selfless when called upon to be so. It was the magic of Christmas that just happened to be in a country called Switzerland.
After having been an elementary school teacher, a management consultant with New Options, Inc. in New York City and a university professor of education, Nancy Stewart now writes children’s books full time. She, her husband and three sons, lived in London for eight years, where she was a consultant to several universities, including Cambridge.
Nancy travels extensively throughout the world, most particularly Africa. She is the US chair of a charity in Lamu, Kenya, that places girls in intermediate schools to allow them to further their education.
Nancy is the author of One Pelican at a Time and two other Bella books: Bella Saves the Beach and Sea Turtle Summer, soon to be published by Guardian Angel Publishers. Nancy will be a presenter at the Illinois Reading Council Conference on March 17, 2011.
She and her family live in St. Louis and Clearwater Beach, Florida.
You can visit Nancy online at http://www.nancystewartbooks.com/.