I can pinpoint the exact moment when I stumbled onto Christmas that year.

As usual, the moment wasn’t strung in lights or wrapped in shiny paper. I didn’t find it under a prelit tree, or at a big-box store or out on the Information Superhighway.

Rather, I found Christmas just off a quiet country road near my home in Iowa.

It was a cold December morning. I do remember that. And we were huddled inside a ramshackle shed on an old farmstead about a mile from our little country church. We moms had driven our costumed children here for a Christmas pageant photo shoot. It was the coldest day of the season so far, but this was the day we’d arranged to take photos inside a makeshift stable, so we moved quickly.

Racing against the cold, we posed a shivering assembly of wee angels, shepherds and two reticent teenagers—Mary and Joseph—near the crèche.

Our boys were dressed in old bed-sheets, and our girls wore glittery wings pinned to the backs of white dresses. One shepherd insisted on holding a blue Matchbox car, and we could see the words on my daughter’s sweatshirt peeking through her stained, white gown.

We shivered, under the bite of a 15-degree day. We had to hurry before the three-year-olds in threadbare bed sheets lost patience, or turned blue. We posed our children, and gave orders for them to pleeeee-ase stand still so we could all go home soon.

And right then and there—in a rickety old shed, on a blustery December day—it happened: Christmas showed up.

It was that sort of moment when you forget about the bitter cold; when sunlight streams in perfectly to lighten up dark corners; when flaws and stains don’t seem so big anymore; when you discover that peace can enter unexpectedly, and life’s burdens seem lighter, and you forget—all at once—the ugly rancor of the world around you.

This is Christmas.

It was there, close to gritty Iowa dirt, where I watched as Christmas made its entrance—simple and unadorned when the nativity came to life in a ramshackle barn.

And for me, that’s the way Christmas always shows up, in the unadorned places.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in a farming community. Maybe it’s because I’ve always brushed closest to Heaven in places where I could dig toes into farm dirt.

But even if you’re living in the city, you might know what I mean. Because as children of God, we’re formed from dust. Our Savior was born in a barn, of all places.

For many of us as Midwesterners—city and country folks alike—our pasts are rooted in rural places. And, as each Christmas draws near, we long to return to traditions that were born in simpler times.

It looks and sounds and feels like this:

Re-sewn bed-sheets on four-foot-tall shepherds; brown-paper goody-bags full of peanuts and fruit; a pillow-enhanced neighbor who plays Santa at the Kiwanis Pancake Feed; Christmas carolers harmonizing in the hallways of the local nursing home; darkened sanctuaries full of old friends who, under tall steeples, hold candles and sing “Silent Night” with the fresh sting of tears in their eyes.

Christmas grew from seeds of simplicity, not in palaces or high-rises. So, then, we find hope descending on an uncomplicated place like a rundown barn during a Christmas photo-shoot.

That’s where I found Christmas that year, anyhow—simply and unexpectedly in a ramshackle shed on a cold December day. No blinking lights or fancy wrapping or four-star accommodations. I huddled under that roof, feet tethered to Earth, while brushing up against the hope of something bigger than myself.

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