As the anticipation of Advent nears its end, I am reminded of the story told by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Hollins graduate Annie Dillard of a cold Christmas Eve during her childhood. Her family had come home late from dinner at a restaurant, and as she readied for bed there was a knock at the door. Her father opened the door, and standing at the threshold in the cold night air was Santa Claus himself. Rather than being filled with joy and excitement, Annie was struck with fear, and she turned and ran up the stairs. As she peeked down the banister, her father called to her to come down, but she was too afraid. She says:
“Like everyone in his right mind, I feared Santa Claus, thinking he was God…. [Santa Claus] knew when you’d been bad or good. He knew when you’d been bad or good! And I had been bad. My mother called and called, enthusiastic, pleading; I wouldn’t come down…. I couldn’t come down, but I could bend over the stairwell and see: Santa Claus stood in the doorway with night over his shoulder, letting in all the cold air of the sky; Santa Claus stood in the doorway monstrous and bright…repeating Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas. I never came down. I don’t know who ate the cookies.”
Much later Annie realized that it was her widowed neighbor, Miss White, who had been dressed in the Santa suit that night. During her childhood, Miss White was an incarnation of God for Annie, a woman who loved her, taught her, and encouraged her in the world. But that night, Annie knew only fear, and she ran.
Annie Dillard ends her story with a note to Miss White, or to God. She writes, “I am sorry that I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and I felt fear…. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.”
Again this Christmas, love comes to us incarnate. Christ’s light pierces the darkness and shines for us and upon us and ushers in a new world. We need not fear. We need not run away. Despite the winter cold, the newborn God will warm us heart and soul and carry us into new life.