The whole idea of a white Christmas is alien to large portions of the US population. In the South Carolina low country, where I spent the first 12 years of my life, snow had an almost mythic quality. We saw it on television, read about it in books, and heard tall tales that were scarcely believed. But it simply didn't happen in our world.
Still, we wanted it to be real. We sang songs about it, sprayed fake snow from cans, and cut snowflakes out of paper. We dreamed of the white Christmas our favorite shows talked about. But none of us – not one single kid among us – knew what snow felt like against our skin.
One spring afternoon, when I was 7 or 8, we were all playing outside, doing all the things boys and girls of that age did. We may have been playing tag, or hide-and-seek, or cowboys and Indians, or some such game where everybody played and nobody kept score.
Then a flake appeared out of the sky.
I don't know who noticed it first, or what he said. I just know that I was rushing back home through falling snow, thrilled beyond belief because it was true, it was true, it was true! It was snowing, and I'd seen it with my own eyes!
I reached the back door and yelled, "Mama, it's snowing! It's snowing!"
Mama came to the back door and peered at me, then peered at the bright blue – and totally cloudless – sky. "Why don't you bring me one of the snowflakes?" she suggested.
I rushed back outside and caught a snowflake in my hand and brought it gingerly back to prove I wasn't crazy. She came down the three steps and touched the flake. It crumbled into a fine, powdery dust, and my hopes crumbled with it.
"Honey," she said, and it may have been the most comforting tone she ever used with me. "Honey, somebody's burning paper or something. That isn't snow. It's ash."
So I despaired of ever seeing snow. That Christmas season I went through the motions, but I didn't believe. Not in snow, anyway. Christmas was a Northern monopoly. No snow, no yuletide, and Bing Crosby could keep on dreaming.
At school we sang "Jingle Bells," even though we weren't sure what a sleigh was. At home we sprayed the fake snow on the windowpanes and put up a little tree.
We didn't need snow to have Christmas. The carols were still sweet, and the toys were still real. I wore a coat to walk to church the Sunday before the big day and brought home the fruit basket every family received. There may not have been snow in the air, but the excitement built as it always had.
On Christmas Eve, the sky turned gray and cold. I went to bed when Mama told me to and fell asleep when I couldn't stay awake any longer.
In the dead of night, somebody picked me up from my bed, wrapped me in a blanket, and put my bedroom shoes on my feet. I opened my eyes and saw Vernon, Aunt Margie's oldest son. "Shh," he said. "Go back to sleep."
"Where we going?" I asked. We were obviously headed outside, since I felt cold air touch my skin. Mama was locking the door to our little house. Martha, Vernon's wife, was opening the car door.
"We figured that you and your mama ought to come spend Christmas with us," she said.
There was wetness in the air, a misty rain, but I couldn't stay awake long enough to focus on it. I knew nothing of the two-hour trip up to Eastover, S.C., how I got into the house, or where I slept the rest of that night.
But when I woke up, I knew where I was, and I saw my presents. Then I heard laughter, and somebody came in and said, "Come look outside."
The ground, normally sand and scrub grass, was white. Some of it was, anyway. And snow was still peppering down.
The grown-ups sipped their coffee and said, "It's not much. Maybe half an inch. Not gonna stick. Be gone by tonight." And they were right. By nightfall, the weather turned rainy, and the snow became a muddy memory.
But that morning – Christmas – was white. And for the first time, I went out and played in the snow. For a few brief hours, Bing Crosby was right, and the TV shows were true. And although I still couldn't grasp how a sleigh worked, I could believe that such things existed.
You don't always have to believe in miracles to see one happen.