If on Christmas Day of 1975 you were for some harebrained reason outside on the frozen Belgian tundra and you squinted up your eyes against the shiny white landscape to look east from the edge of the little town called Zichem, then you would’ve almost certainly noticed in the houseless distance the improbable sight of four overcoated and possibly harebrained missionaries-dressed-as-local-businessmen trudging along a slippery, messy path next to a big field.
They weren’t exactly sure of where they were going or even of whether the person they were going to see was interested in seeing them, but they kept trudging on anyway because Christmas was a time to try extraordinary things.
They’d actually begun trying such things the night before, on the plush mauve carpet of their magnificent new living-room church, where they’d organized a combination housewarming/Christmas-pageant extravaganza to celebrate not only the season but the fact that they were out of their bar-room church at last. But it’d turned out that not all that many people’d been as excited about the extravaganza as the four missionaries dressed as local businessmen’d been. In fact the four of them’d made up four entire fifths of the audience that’d come to watch a few of the few local Mormons act out the parts of the Christmas story requiring only a very very few characters.
It’d also turned out that the fifth person in the audience, the mother of the teenaged girl playing Mary, ’d happened to have some very strong opinions against acting out any part of the Christmas story, and she’d decided to stand up and voice those opinions just as her daughter was making her way in full character across the mauve-colored Egyptian desert: this story, insisted Mary’s mother at unnecessarily high volume, is too sacred as a common skit performed to be. This’d caused the teenaged boy playing Joseph, walking next to Mary in an ancient terry-cloth bathrobe, to do the unthinkable and break character.
Turning toward the audience to look at Mary’s mother, instead of looking stage left and forlornly into the desert distance the way he was supposed to, he’d started moving his scarf-covered head back and forth and raising his voice at her in return. This’d only caused Mary’s mother to raise her voice even higher, this time in her native German, her more natural yelling language, but Joseph knew that language well enough to yell in it too. Mary’d just veiled her face hoping everything would be over soon, while district-leading Elder Shepherd’d broken character as an audience-member and intervened.
In the end, the German-speaking scene in the Egyptian desert set in a living room in Flemish-speaking Belgium’d calmed down, the Holy Couple’d finished their journey to Bethlehem (the kitchen), and the evening’d ended well, with everyone apologizing to each other for so many offenses freely given and taken in the Spirit of the season.
Christmas Day’d started better than Christmas Eve, not least because the four local-businessmen-looking missionaries knew they wouldn’t have to tract that day, which would have been too much for Belgians whose patience was already stretched thin by the bell-ringing and door-knocking carried out by said local businessmen at other sacred times, like dinner and Sunday afternoons. Today all the four of them had to do was attend a Christmas dinner and go around bearing gifts like the four local magi, which gifts they quickly realized endeared them a lot more to people than did appearing on doorsteps empty-handed, the way they usually did.
Their first stop that morning had been at the home of precious Zuster Jans, who they called Zuster even though she’d never been Mormon and never would be. In fact the four local magi liked to call all the precious old ladies Zuster, not so much because the ladies liked the title but because by saying it the local magi could feel like they were still sort of doing their missionary job, like they were subtly reminding the ladies that the invitation to convert was still out there, even if they were as old as Sariah.
Zuster Jans was even lonelier than most precious old ladies, because she had no family at all, so today the local magi’d brought her a card and a tart from a good bakery (open Christmas mornings because high Belgian dining standards demanded it). They’d prayed that Zuster Jans would offer them some of the tart itself rather than some of her endless peperkoek and bubbly water, which she like all precious ladies supposed they loved. The prayer’d been partly answered, because she’d brought out a tray filled with both peperkoek and the new tart, which they’d managed to get entirely down.
The four filled-up local magi’d then taken another tart to their next stop, Christmas dinner with the Mormon Jaspers family. The family wasn’t close to rich, but of course they’d brought out their best today in the form of countless courses, starting with a feast-day favorite like shrimp cocktail, then moving on to tomato soup with little meatballs, then Koninginnehapje (the “Queen’s Dish,” or in French Vol au Vent, a fluffy round pastry covered with a sauce of chicken and mushrooms), then the main course (which might actually be two courses disguised as one) of potato croquettes and pork roast adorned with peas and carrots, and/or meatballs topped by a heavy sweet sauce of half-apricots, then dessert of tart and herbal tea (coffee for most Belgians), then cheese, and then capped at last in most homes but not here (unless young Willi Jaspers was sneaking something in the other room) with cigars and brandy. How salvific it’d been to the four local magi to taste real food after a week of eating stale Christmas treats sent long ago from home and after months of oatmeal boiled and fried and maybe poached.
The local magi’d had to leave the dinner a little early and a little embarrassedly around 2:30 in order to get to their third and final destination of the day, which turned out not to be very local at all: a house in the country out near Zichem, Flemishly named after the old Canaanite town and about 35 kilometers away, which meant they’d have to go by train. In that country house lived a women the local magi’d just learned was officially part of their little branch but who’d never even come close to showing up for church. The four of them’d decided that they’d go introduce themselves and wish her Merry Christmas by bringing her (surprise) a tart as well.
How in the world had this woman become Mormon, they’d all wondered as they sat on the slow (only) train to Zichem? All they knew was that she was poor, and that her house that lay another 5 or 6 kilometers from the station hadn’t exactly shown up on any of their torn-at-every-fold maps, mostly because it didn’t have an actual street address but was just out in some direction somewhere.
After arriving at the station, the local magi’d been able to pin down the location a little more precisely, thanks to the help of the few genuine locals who’d happened to be outside that afternoon, which’d led them to realize that any bus they’d hoped for to get themselves closer to the mysterious house did not exist, and not only because it was Christmas but because the roads leading to that home were mostly dirt paths, not roads. If the local magi wanted to reach their destination, they’d have to walk across some fields and through the woods and maybe over a river as well.
Which was how anyone outside would’ve been able to see them in the distance today, looking like hunters in a Bruegel landscape.
The farther the little band of local magi trod through the frozen and half-frozen mud in their ill-suited dress shoes, without seeing any houses along the way, the more they wondered whether the local fellows at the train station had maybe played a trick on them, ‘d maybe given them wrong directions on purpose, the way people sometimes did to them for a laugh. But they decided to trust the locals and just keep going, hoping that they’d get to the house before dark (around 4:30), and thinking that if they made it there then they could find their way back to the station just fine, dark or not.
The unexpected and unsought-after epiphany came to The Protagonist (one of the local magi) three or four kilometers in, around dusk. He didn’t know exactly where they were, and in fact’d never be able to find the spot again in his whole life even though he would try. He just knew that when it happened he was looking to his right (west) down into a slight valley with slight rolling ground and rickety-fenced fields that stretched all the way to the horizon where the sun was probably just setting (you couldn’t tell for sure because as usual gray clouds were over and behind everything).
But what he saw most of all as he looked west was the low white mist that seemed to rise from the little valley, a mist so white that he could barely make out where the white snow-covered ground ended and the white-trending-gray heaven began, but still low enough that he could see over it to the gray horizon.
And suddenly from The Protagonist’s slightly raised angle looking across the valley into the last remaining light of the day, the whole scene was no longer a frozen field bordered by rickety fences and a half-frozen path, but something ethereally magical. The big puffs of white mist veiled the white ground here and revealed there, and moved up and down where the terrain moved up and down, which only made everything even more beautiful than it already was. No one was saying a thing, and except for some occasional sloshing where the snow hadn’t entirely frozen, it was completely silent.
The Protagonist didn’t know whether the other local magi were seeing what he was seeing, or maybe just happened to be turning their heads to the right like he was, but he was smitten, overcome by not only an unfamiliar calm but an unexpected joy too—at seeing all this, at being in this place, and in this land. This beautiful gray and occasionally white land.
The French writer André Gide once stood near a meadow in summer as a boy and saw a young girl move into it: when she did the whole place was transformed. Anyone else walking by at the moment might have seen a scientifically defined geological formation—meadow, hills, sunlight—and a young girl. But Gide saw a vision. That’s how it was for The Protagonist near Zichem in winter: he saw a vision where someone else might have seen the usual bunch of gray clouds in the background and some freezing mist and partly-sloshy really cold snow in the foreground, and not because he was more perceptive than anyone else but because he was made to see this place this way.
He was even more content as he continued walking toward the unknown woman’s home. Just as darkness arrived, they reached it. They thought. There was no other house around, but there wasn’t any nameplate or identifying address hammered up somewhere either to declare that this was absolutely the place. But this had to be it, didn’t it? It sort of fit the vague description they had from their file, and the really vague coordinates on their torn-at-every-fold map, and the especially vague directions from the chin-scratching fellows back at the station. The house stood at the edge of a bluff—not exactly a big bluff, but any bluff was big in the flat Belgian landscape. No one answered their knock, and not because they were pretending not to be home this time but because they really weren’t. Like half of Belgium today, they were at someone else’s home. The local magi hadn’t called in advance because the woman didn’t have a phone, so they’d just taken a chance. But no luck. And now what to do with the big Christmas tart in the big bakery box that they’d taken turns carrying all this way?
They couldn’t leave it on the unsheltered porch, they decided, because there were probably wild animals lurking. The only sheltered place nearby was the chicken coop. That was it. The obvious place to put a fancy Belgian tart was right inside a chicken coop, at least if you were a pathetic city/suburb boy.
The local magi reasoned (sort of), well the chickens were in individual cages so they couldn’t get at it, and there was a door to the coop that could be latched so no animals from outside could get at it, and someone from the family would have to come home pretty soon to take care of the chickens, and so even though the tart might stink to high heaven before the woman and her family found it, even though it might taste like the stink too, even though it might be completely stale by the time they got home, at least it wouldn’t get rained or snowed on or eaten by the wrong people/creatures.
And what a shock it must have been for the family if/when they discovered the fancy Belgian tart in the chicken coop with an unsigned note on top that said just Vrolijk Kerstfeest. The local magi’d decided to give their gift anonymously, supposedly in the spirit of pious giving but probably to avoid the embarrassment of being identified as the idiots who’d left a tart in a chicken coop. Real locals might’ve talked about that for weeks if they’d found out.
The local magi never knew what the family or any other locals thought, though, because they never went back to see the woman again, and she never came to visit them in town, which meant that the local magi’d sort of defeated their purpose for going out there, which was to identify themselves. And which meant that the woman would forever be completely oblivious to the thing that’d happened to at least one of the magi.
The four of them headed back toward the train station in the dark now. They couldn’t see any misty field anymore or much of anything else either, because everything had faded to black, but like Gretel in the fairy tale they’d marked their path if only in their minds. Along the way back, they noticed something they’d missed the first time–the ruin of a castle tower, which was when it’d hit the The Protagonist for the first time that more life’d gone on here and all around than he could possibly imagine. Someday he’d learn some of the bloody things that’d happened around that tower, and they were a lot less romantic and a lot more horrible than he could possibly imagine too.
Even though when they finally reached the station they had to wait almost an hour for their train, it felt good to at least have tried something extraordinary that day, however harebrained it’d ended up being. But mostly what The Protagonist remembered about the day was the field, and the ruin, and the transformation of the formerly obscure land of Belgium.
Once he started seeing it for what it was instead of what he thought it should have been or what he wanted it to be, it was more beautiful than he’d ever imagined it could be. Maybe that’s how it was for any place. Or thing, Or one.
It was the best Christmas The Protagonist’d ever had, and maybe the best he’d ever have. But when he finally flew back home, and people asked him as they always asked newly returned missionaries to tell a Christmas story from their mission, it didn’t turn out so well. Because even though people said, Tell us a Christmas story from your mission, what they were really saying was Tell a conversion story that happened at Christmas, Conversion Motif 1M or so, which included the usual finding the convert at the last door on the last street on the last hour of the day, but added the seasonal touch of some holly and ivy and exceptionally good cheer to the picture, all of which made everyone listening feel even better than they did when listening to an ordinary conversion story. Make us feel even better than usual! was what people were even more really saying when asking for a missionary Christmas story.
The reason The Protagonist knew this was that the one time he tried to tell his Christmas story he just got a lot of blank and confused looks. Oh, his story was a conversion story all right, but not the sort that the clamoring crowd’d been expecting. It didn’t include a baptism, and he couldn’t even come close to getting across what he’d seen in the landscape, and of course he left out the most personal bits that really gave the story its meaning—and bowdlerized like that even The Protagonist had to admit it sounded like a dumb boring story.
The smiles of anticipation the crowd’d had at the start of the story, the knowing looks of knowing for sure what was coming, just kept fading and looking more and more puzzled as he went along, and then at the end just screwed up into absolute confusion. That was it? No baptism? No liturgically white Christmas but only environmentally white? Just a pie in a chicken coop for some people you never saw and who never even got active again and who might never have actually even seen the pie and who come to think of it might actually not even have lived there? That was it? What kind of a Christmas story was that? What kind of missionary (eyebrows furrowing now) were you? Next story from someone else! The Protagonist never told it again.
Even though he didn’t, the story still meant everything to him. Seeing gray old Belgium in a new way got all tied up with seeing himself and people around him in new ways too. All the things that’d bugged him about Belgium started either not bugging him so much or became not necessarily the wrong way to do things but just another and potentially interesting way, including the bad-tasting witloof and the gray and the whiny motorcycles and the sometimes closed-mouthed people.
He started understanding that people shook hands like they were holding a dead fish because they didn’t want to come across as aggressive rather than because they were weak or unenthusiastic.
He started liking the horses he saw pulling plows instead of thinking they were so backward.
He started liking the old farms instead of thinking they were smelly, and liking the lumpy pastures with rickety fences instead of thinking they were messy.
He started seeing the benefits of serious cloud-cover as opposed to the 105 degree heat of his hometown.
He started waving in a friendly and not sarcastic way to those old ladies who never ever let missionaries in and thus never became precious but just kept watching fearfully from the window.
He’d already liked the old men on the street who would stop and talk to you about the wars anytime you wanted, all you had to do was say 14-18 or 40-45 with a question mark and off they would go, but now he liked them even more.
He started liking the funny dialects people spoke at him instead of thinking they were just bad Dutch.
He liked the food even more the more he understood how things went together and what food meant here, and without even trying he started learning the names of a lot of the 300 local beers he didn’t drink.
He saw better how kind people in general were here once they got over their suspicions, even if they rarely wanted a first discussion much less a second or third, like the really sweet lady on the old-fashioned (as in non-electrified) farm who one night let them inside and said she didn’t want to hear any talk of religion but gave him and Elder Klein some warm cow’s milk and told them in all sincerity that she saw halos around their heads, which wasn’t just the result of the dim firelit room, she assured them, which’d made them feel surprisingly good.
Of all places, Belgium was inside him, more like something he discovered was already there instead of something he learned, because when he later saw Flemish art and read Flemish history they weren’t the only art and history he liked around Europe or even the world, but they always felt the most familiar, and not just because he was partisan but because they somehow already fit him, just like the Flemish language, or the Flemish landscape, especially the landscape with snow on it near Zichem. Okay Belgium wasn’t exactly the most famous of countries, even with all its immortal art and food. It wasn’t exactly the country you’d expect a guy to pick as his favorite. But it was perfect (and perfect not meaning flawless here) for him.
Oh sure, his mood’d been helped too by moving into the new mauve-carpeted house, a move made possible because the Mission President’d visited town and gotten a taste, or more precisely a whiff, of the bar-room church and had immediately told them to look for something else, which they compliantly and joyously did. The living room was the church, the upstairs bedrooms were the Sunday School classrooms (classroom), and the modern kitchen was the modern kitchen. They couldn’t live in the bedrooms/Sunday-School-classrooms upstairs, said the rules, but they could live in the little spare room just off the kitchen, which was separate from the rest of the house, and so the four of them had gladly squeezed two bunk beds and maybe one armoire into that little room.
But what changed The Protagonist’s view of Belgium and Belgians even more than pile carpeting and efficient heating did was his epiphany just before Epiphany while walking unsteadily alongside a big misty field somewhere in the frozen environs of the once-sad town called Zichem.
This is another excerpt from a manuscript I’m writing, tentatively titled Young Men Dreaming: The Pretty Clearly Troubled But Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary (as opposed to the strictly musical sort of missionary).