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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The hopes and fears of all the years

It was a dark night in a dark time, in my adolescent life, when I first had a personal moment of connecting with a Christmas carol.

Darkness is relative, of course: what can seem lightless on the inside can look pretty regular, even positive on the outside. Vice versa, too. But in this season when culture after culture has built up ritual that promises and expresses the rebirth of light, of life, within this darkest time of year, you may sometimes remember when the meaning of all that kindled within you, once.

For me it was a Christmas eve.

I must have been about 13, as ill-fitting in the world of junior-high social striving and competition as a kid could have been. Gangly, shockingly thin, and awkward in every possible way, I had few if any friends just then, and was isolated in myself in a dark lost way that can haunt and endanger this time of life. The beauty of December for me was that it promised, and then brought, an oasis away from school, and a time when people were nice to you. I could stay home. But home was confusing too, in ways that I didn’t fathom then.

Both my parents were alcoholic. In the suburban cocktail-party culture of that time and place, this meant that, for us three kids, there was much laughter and sociality in our house, but not necessarily the same warmth or access to our parents underneath all that.

So Christmas could be confusing, too. It looked good: we did a good tree, and I’m pretty the house, in our neighborhood of quarter-acre lots, with its Christmas lights hung on the big blue spruce outside looked nice as well. On this Christmas eve, though, I think I felt darkness in more ways than I realized, or was encouraged to think about, or would begin to understand until years later.

I was at a small gathering in our neighbors’ house. This was a family we knew well, except we really didn’t. I wouldn’t understand until many years later that something darker than kids should know about, but that some kids in that house knew all too well, was going on that. We almost never went over there, so we must have felt something — but this Christmas Eve the family had people over.

I was sitting by myself in the den, where the record player was, when this familiar carol came on:

Oh little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by

It’s a beautiful opening verse, isn’t it? This is one carol whose words are pure poetry, and meaningful beyond the special formulations of Christmas. Then it was the second verse that opened up in me, as I sat in that darkened den, a kind of comfort, or recognition:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

I don’t know that I understood what “are met” meant, exactly — yet something assured me, listening at such a lonely place and time, that things would be okay. That the dark times don’t last always: that the hopes and fears of all the years can be met, somehow, in a single special night. And we can draw back and see that, no matter what, the light will always come back.

Wherever you are, and whatever you celebrate, Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you.

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