There are some things of value that may get lost in an age of electronic miracles and moon probes, and one of these is Christmas in Castine. When I had to return to Maine at Christmas for the first time in 25 years, it was a step back in time to a white and mysterious December.
Most of the customary transportation methods are not on schedules at this time of year. I had thought of myself as thrown against the silver sky in a shaft of steel, riding the clouds like a jet-set Santa. But the only locomotion geared to Maine travel in winter is a roadbound Greyhound bus. Mine was choosy and discriminating - only stopping at major cities like Boston and Portland on the way north from Connecticut. But once over the border in Maine it changed its mind and began to pause at every stationery store, discharging and inhaling passengers, and pawing the ground like an impatient silver dinosaur.
Somewhere in the interior of Maine, a fellow traveler turned to me and spoke for the first time that day. ''Are you going all the way through to Bangor?'' he asked. I told him I was and he heaved a sigh and sank deeper into his seat. ''Lord, what an experience!'' he said.
Since moving away I had seen Maine only in the summer and I was excited by the panorama, which looked like a magnificent collage of Christmas cards. The construction of the earth was as visible as a skeleton, and the snow, spread in all the right places, accentuated the framework of the land. Houses, indispensable white churches, and soft yellow lights were almost too much to take. The rivers ran to the ice-clogged shore and the pine trees marched out in formation to have a look. It's easy to believe that while the rest of the world will change, Maine will continue to hold its churches architecturally pure and keep its landscape virtuous against the markings of industrial expansion.
It snowed all the night I arrived in Castine. I sat with the family before the fire and listened to the storm. There's a sound to winter silence in Maine. It's as if you could hear each tender flake hit upon another. A fox barked all the night in the dark and the wind bellowed at the bay. Branches tapped against the windows and the snow fell without ceasing. When the Christmas season came to Castine, this too was provocative and mythical like the reliving of an old discarded wish. We had hot mulled cider by the gallon - a drink I hadn't tasted in years. We decked the living room with boughs of pine and hung handmade wreaths on the door. We strung white popcorn alternately with red cranberries and draped the tree with the lengths of chain, as we used to do way back before the old farmhouse knew what electric lighting was.
The villagers had been invited to come to our 150 acres to pick their own Christmas trees and have a sip of cider with us before the fire afterward. Small bands of people, tall and short, arrived in a stream - done up like Eskimos and all unrecognizable. We plowed through acres of snow, dispersing and regrouping in the silent woods. ''I've got a good one!'' yelled Frank, and off we stumbled in the direction of his voice, muffled in the winter denseness and in his scarf of wool.
This hooded and mittened band of foresters, cut trees set against their shoulders in the winter woods, tunneled back to the house, jubilant and breathing fog. We needed a hot drink and a good fire about then. Christmas took on the shape and fragrance of tradition while people shouted ''Merry Christmas'' out of their hooded heads and strapped Christmas trees to the roofs of station wagons and jeeps and burrowed back through the snow that the wind reshaped with a cold but gentle hand - back to their own holiday hearths.
If it hadn't snowed, perhaps I wouldn't have been so filled with nostalgia. And maybe hot cider isn't all that good. I didn't find the fox that had barked his message at the night, but, looking for him the next day, I found his footprints in the snow and in the process met a startled white cat that had taken squatters' rights to our old barn. Like a huge and angry snowball, he bolted out of the hayloft, a winter white, all but the angry eyes.
Christmas on an old Maine farm has to take these beasts in its stride, and it's all to the good to know that real animals have certain housing privileges in this white and frosty frontier. I was tempted to check the roof for reindeer footprints; since nostalgia took on such a third-dimensional proportion here, they seemed a possibility.
I went back to Connecticut in time for our own tinsel and electric lights, brilliantly spanning an all-aluminum tree. There's a lot to be said for progress. I like it a lot. But Christmas in Castine, just now and then, has something to do, I believe, with the balance of nature.