by Carole Duff

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:7 (KJV)

When I was a child in New England, I loved the candlelight service on Christmas Eve—white candles on windowsills, red poinsettias around the altar, the scent of fresh-cut pine boughs. After the minister read the Christmas story from the Bible—the same comforting verses every year—and the congregation sang hymns—the same familiar carols every year—the church lights dimmed. Then the church organist played the opening chords of “O Holy Night.”

I turned and gawked at Mr. Sutfin, standing in the balcony, and held my breath as his glorious tenor voice sang out: O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining, it is the night of the dear Savior’s birth. 

I loved to imagine those bright shining stars and the birth of a sweet baby, though I had no idea what the word “Savior” meant, as my family were not regular church-goers. But the candlelight service was part of the festive season, and we always attended to soak up those wondrous sights, sounds, and smells. At home afterwards, we sipped spiced apple cider, nibbled homemade sugar cookies, and opened one present, the same every year: new pajamas or flannel nightgowns.

My attraction to Christmas in those years was no different from the stable animals, seeking food, warmth, and shelter on that holy night. Sugar cookies, warm pajamas, and a comfortable bed in which to dream of what Santa would bring—that’s what the holiday meant to me. Like a donkey, I was oblivious to the miracle and would remain so for many years.


And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” Luke 2:15 (KJV)

I married in that same New England church. Then my husband and I moved away and didn’t attend church anymore, not even on Christmas Eve. In our twenties and thirties, we had two healthy children and enjoyed professional success plus all the food, clothing, and housing we needed and then some.

I became a self-satisfied donkey.

Until my marriage ended. I was forty, a middle-aged failure. Suddenly, another line of “O Holy Night” called to me: Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! 

I was already on my knees, night after night, alone in fearful darkness. Then I heard angel voices and followed the light. Awestruck, I grew from self-satisfied donkey to listening shepherd. My children and I began attending church regularly, then got baptized.

For two decades, I remained an obedient, church-going observer. I sat, stood, sang, recited, and listened every Sunday. Like a shepherd, I followed along but did not read scripture or pray on my own or with others.


When [the wise men] saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:10-11 (KJV)

My second husband, a devout Christian, introduced me to personal prayer and Bible study. Led by the light of faith serenely beaming in my early sixties, I returned to the stable and fell on my knees again. I came to see the child, later on like the wise men, and I came bearing gifts and wonderment. During Christmas services, I listened carefully to all of the lyrics of “O Holy Night:” Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace. 

Love and peace—I’m not always there and know I never will be all the time, not in this life. Because sometimes I behave like a self-satisfied donkey that thinks she can succeed all by herself and she deserves all good things and then some. Other times I’m an observant shepherd, standing and sitting at the correct times, but distracted more than listening. At my best, I’m a wondering, giving “wise” person who knows there is more to faith. Much more.

Now when I imagine the stable scene in Bethlehem on that holy night 2000 years ago, I look at Mary, the mother of our dear Savior. She trusted God under extraordinary circumstances, as did her husband Joseph. They said “Yes” to the mystery of a new and glorious morn.

I keep the depth of that “Yes” clearly in sight.

Carole Duff is a veteran teacher of young women and now a writer of creative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha (, has written for The Perennial Gen and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and is working on a book-length faith memoir. Carole lives in Virginia with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and two large overly-friendly shelter dogs.