The normally stoic faces in the bakery near where I live soften and brighten as the final days before Christmas work their special effect. People normally buried in the financial page, or huddled over a hot cup with a frightening pile of questionnaires or schematics now seem to talk and share with each other more openly and easily.
Dads and moms stride in, bundled in the same casual sweat gear as before. As always, their children run ahead to pick out a blueberry or cinnamon pastry - or create a routine crisis by lagging behind, lingering outside the sports shop or wandering in oblivious slow motion while gazing at the panorama of holiday lights. Kids.
But as the patrons come into the warm and busy bakery, out of the New England drizzle, a certain muted light in the atmosphere - clogged though it is by commercialism - seems to touch and embrace everyone. No one acts as though this holiday time is a permanent state of affairs. People order muffins and bagels. They aren't talking theology. Yet something brighter is circling the room, some allowance for a spirit larger than the everyday, some apprehension that makes children's faces seem like clear ringing bells.
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz captures the glow of such moments in lines from "Amazement," a poem in his "Bells in Winter" collection: "Scent of thyme, hue of fir, white frost, dances of cranes./ And everything simultaneous. And probably eternal."
And why not? Maybe, as the saying goes, there is a smile beneath His frowning providence, and Christmas offers a glimmer of it. Even if one deconstructs the Christmas message to mean only "peace on earth, good will to men," that's still a sizable idea to share and hope for, especially in times that seem increasingly cynical and tribal.
True, this is the subjective news from a small bakery in Massachusetts, with plenty of disgust and sadness edited out. Yet sometimes it may be right to do that kind of editing.
In recent months I've traveled to cities overseas that are just opening to the West. Sometimes the faces at the airport gate seem especially hard or worldly, proud to be important or wealthy enough to fly home.
Often the flight itself changes this demeanor. Once it begins, the technology of the aircraft, the drama of being lifted into the sky and gazing upon creation from the awesome heights, the science of aerodynamics and flying - is not completely taken for granted. This can bring a change in the aircraft as palpable as the cabin pressure. One feels lifted, however momentarily, out of one's earthbound definitions into some larger world. It is humbling. And some faces are gentled.
Perhaps the spirit of Christmas is like that. An idea about light shining in the darkness that is great enough to transform and embrace across time and space, and yet close enough to be found in a small bakery. Or a family gathering.
As a family friend said at grace during Christmas dinners years ago: "God's love is embracing all of us, even if we don't know it."