HIRAETH HOLIDAYS

John Thomas Tuft
4 min readDec 23, 2023

HIRAETH HOLIDAYS

By John Thomas Tuft

The week before Christmas was deceptively warm in the mountains of western Maryland and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, the area of my first congregation of perishables. The Westvaco paper mill ran full tilt, as always. A couple of pillars of the church asked for a meeting. Seems their son and his girlfriend were pregnant. Would I marry them before she began to show? Of course, I would. Tis the reason for the season, after all. Christmas Eve was on a Saturday, meaning Christmas fell on Sunday, good luck with having anyone there that morning after a midnight service the night before. Friday morning, the weather took a drastic change. Temperatures plummeted and snow began to fall. Neither plunge stopped until the temperatures were below zero and the snow piled up two feet. Saturday, Christmas Eve, while the storm was just getting started, the power went out. That afternoon I got a call from the mother of the groom. Local police had contacted her about a young family found in an abandoned warehouse on the edge of town. Since our congregation of 104 perishables had a reputation, could we do something?

I made the trip down Horse Rock Mountain bundled in layers of clothing, parka, gloves, and ski cap, reached town, and headed east toward Keyser. The temperature was about 15 degrees and still had another 30 to drop later that evening. The snow still looked beautiful and Christmassy at that point. The car heater was just beginning to remember its purpose when I pulled into the grounds of the warehouse. Inside the dark, empty building, huddled in a corner was a couple in their late teens sitting on cardboard and newspapers, the girl cradling a crying infant in her arms. All were swaddled in emergency foil blankets and the police, once they knew Preacher Boy was on the way, were off on another call. I honestly do not remember how they had arrived in this predicament. That is not what makes this a hiraeth holiday. That honor lies with the fine and good perishables of the Piedmont Presbyterian Church.

At that point, the area down by the North Branch of the Potomac River still had power. And parts of the area still received steam heat from the paper mill. I put my parka on the young mother, covered the baby with the knitted cap of my favorite football team, and bundled everyone into the car and took them to the church. The sanctuary was upstairs. Heat rises. So, I took them to the warmest place. It was decorated for the children’s pageant later that evening. The building was over 150 years old, had hosted wounded soldiers from both sides of the Civil War, and we needed the fire marshal’s permission to have real candles lighted in each of the stained-glass windows that evening. We were on historic ground dedicated to service and compassion. I found the envelope with the “Pastor’s Gift” on my desk in the study, a cache of small bills collected from the perishables as a token of appreciation. I handed it to the young man and sent him out to purchase diapers and formula. And stop at the Davis Sisters Bakery for some of their big, square glazed donuts and Christmas cookies because we all got to eat!

I went back up the mountain through the blowing snow and falling temperatures. The power was still out and the fireplace in the parsonage could not heat the all-electric house as the temperature went below zero as darkness fell. A helpful neighbor invited my wife and two small children to come down the street where their wood stove in the basement kept the entire house toasty warm. Christmas Eve service must go on, so a hardy soul of a perishable gave me a ride back down in his four-wheel drive pickup. All the streetlights were out so the journey was marked by the burning candles in the windows of the houses glimpsed through driving snow as we passed. The radio announced that this weather was here on into the new year. When the power would return was anyone’s guess. We crossed over the frozen river into West Virginia and made haste to the manger. We were met at the church by the hardy worshippers gathering around a mystery.

Seems the young couple had absconded with the envelope of cash, disappearing into the bitter night. Leaving the baby behind, swaddled in my warm knitted Steelers hat and shiny foil emergency blankets. And the boiler in the basement had conked out. As the blizzard winds howled around the corners of the darkened old church we held the Christmas Eve service that was needed for the times. The Davis Sisters came through with donuts and cookies galore. Hot chocolate was prepared on the gas stoves. All the candles in the sanctuary were lit, bathing the gathered hungry souls in their trembling light. We could see our breath in the cold air. Or maybe, angels hovered near, breathing on us perishables as we fashioned worship as best we could. Always, as best we can.

We sang carols. We told old stories. We laughed. We sat in silence until the baby’s cries pierced the night. In the arms of the young woman pregnant, whose wedding I was to perform. I asked this couple if they were ready. He handed me a state of Maryland marriage license. We were in West Virginia, but I won’t tell if you don’t. Because you were there that night, as well. Bearing witness. As the bells chimed, welcoming Christmas, we had a simple wedding, before the creche. In the Midnight Clear. Surrounded by shepherds from all walks of life. And, if you believe it, Joshua just turned forty. His adopted parents had a girl, Mary. She’s half a year younger. May all of your hiraeth holidays be warm. Joyous. And blessed.

And may your faith always be Procul Harun…

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John Thomas Tuft

John is a novelist, retired mental health counselor and minister and sheep farmer, who now lives in Roanoke, VA.