What Is It About Christmas in Iowa?

December 20, 2010 | 16 comments

I can pinpoint the exact moment when I stumbled onto Christmas.

As usual, the moment wasn’t strung in lights or wrapped in shiny paper. I didn’t find it under a prelit tree, or on my iPod or out on the Information Superhighway.

Rather, I found Christmas just off a quiet country road near our Iowa farm.

It was a cold December morning, and we were huddled inside a ramshackle shed on an old farmstead about a mile from our little country church. We moms had driven our costumed children here for a Christmas pageant photo shoot. It was the coldest day of the season so far, but this was the day we’d arranged to take photos inside a makeshift stable, so we moved quickly.

Racing against the cold, we posed a shivering assembly of wee angels, shepherds and two reticent teenagers — Mary and Joseph – near the crèche.

Our boys were dressed in old bed-sheets. Our girls wore glittery wings pinned to the backs of white dresses. One shepherd insisted on holding a blue Matchbox car, and we could see the words on my daughter’s Okoboji sweatshirt peeking through her stained, white gown. But the most glaring error in the Nativity lay in the manger: our baby Jesus was a girl.

We’d dug through toy bins in the church nursery to find a doll. All we could find was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby wearing pink pajamas. But on short notice, what were we to do? This baby would have to play the part of a Jewish, Nazarene newborn, so we disguised her in a brown blanket.

None of the flaws mattered much, though, compared to the bite of a 15-degree day. It was cold, and we had to hurry before the three-year-olds in threadbare bed-sheets lost patience.

We posed our children, and gave
orders for them to pleeeee-ase stand still so we could all go home soon.

And right then and there – in a rickety old shed, on a blustery December day – it happened: Christmas showed up.

It was that sort of moment when you forget about the bitter cold; when sunlight streams in perfectly to lighten up dark corners; when flaws and stains don’t seem so big anymore; when you discover that peace can enter unexpectedly, and life’s burdens seem lighter, and you forget – all at once – the ugly rancor of the world around you.

This is Christmas.

It’s here, close to gritty Iowa dirt, where Christmas makes its entrance – simple and unadorned.

And for me, that’s the way it has always happened. Every. Single. Year.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in a farming community. Maybe it’s because I’ve always brushed closest to Heaven in places where I could dig toes into earth.

But even if you’re living in the city, you might know what I mean. We’re rooted in dirt.

But what’s so appealing about an old-fashioned Christmas? Perhaps it’s because it looks and sounds and feels like this:

Re-sewn bed-sheets on four-foot-tall shepherds; brown-paper goody-bags full of peanuts and fruit; a pillow-enhanced neighbor who plays Santa at the Kiwanis Pancake Feed; Christmas carolers harmonizing in the hallways of the local nursing home; darkened sanctuaries where folks, under tall steeples, hold candles and sing “Silent Night” with the fresh sting of tears in their eyes.

Christmas grew from seeds of simplicity, not in a palace or high-rise. And, that may be why we find hope descending on an uncomplicated place like a rundown barn.

So I find my Christmas here – simply and unexpectedly in a ramshackle shed on a cold December day in Iowa. My holiday doesn’t require blinking lights or fancy wrapping or four-star accommodations – even when the cold blows in.

For the sweetest moments? I’ve found them in the unadorned places – close to earth while brushing up against the hope of something bigger than myself.

A post from the December 2009 archives. I wrote this essay last year for The Des Moines Register’s Christmas Day opinion-page cover. Photos are taken by Angie, a member of our church.

by | December 20, 2010 | 16 comments


  1. Jo-Ann

    Thank you for sharing this — I was one of those "Christmas carolers harmonizing in the hallways of the local nursing home" last night and it was wonderful to put away the "trappings" of Christmas for an evening and concentrate on Him. It was such a blessing to see some of the clients with a gleam in their eye singing along to the familiar carols — hope in a sometimes very lonely place.

  2. Sandra Heska King

    Precious. Precious.

  3. Seams Inspired

    LOVE this! Thank you for sharing your heart. New follower who's happy she found your blog. :o)

    Merry CHRISTmas!

    PS…The line to see JESUS starts HERE.

    Larri at Seams Inspired

  4. Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus

    Jo-Ann — Thank you for sharing your story. So often, the folks in nursing homes are overlooked, forgotten. God bless you for your ministry of music! I'm sure you brought much joy to many folks.

    Hi Sandra — Thank you. Merry Christmas, sweet friend. It's been a joy to cross paths with you in 2010.

    Welcome, Seams Inspired! Nice to meet you. I'll head over your way sometime soon and say hello!

  5. Amy Sullivan

    I am so glad you reposted this. My favorite line? ". . . close to earth while brushing up against the hope of something bigger than myself". Aren't we all hoping the same thing?

    Merry Christmas, Jennifer. So thankful for your words.

  6. Duane Scott

    Thank you for writing.

    You are in my top 5 favorite bloggers. 🙂 Well, okay, I have a LOT of top 5's, but you'd be there if I were to sit down and think about it.

    I love Christmas in Iowa.

    And your last statement was beautiful.

  7. David Rupert

    Who can resist angels?

    Love the recounting of your life there. and to think, some people say Iowa is boring? It's inspiring!

  8. Nancy

    Yes. Christmas just shows up. It's all grace, all gift. Blessings to you for a beautiful Christmas, Jennifer.

  9. nance marie

    beautiful children
    beautiful light

  10. The Soap Sister

    Does He know how to light up a photo shoot, or what?? Fabulous!

  11. Linda

    I just finished reading (again) Jan Karon's "Shepherds Abiding." Your post is a fitting postscript to it. Woven through her book are moments just like this one – quiet, simple moments when Christmas fills the heart.
    This is beautiful Jennifer.

  12. Sarah

    The simplicity of Christmas. Simple message. Simple gospel. Simply wonderful.

    Have a joy filled, love overflow Christmas and shout with me Happy Birthday Jesus!


  13. A Simple Country Girl

    And I found Christmas Friday night on the back of a trailer… Amazingly we find Him when we hold still long enough to focus our sights.


  14. Julia

    Isn't it amazing how God chooses to reveal himself to us? It's like he put a piece of his creation there just for the purpose of saying to you, "You are loved, child." That epiphany moment, when we see Him, we see the message He's trying to get through to us–breathtaking!

    What a beautiful way for Him to reveal Christmas to you!

  15. prairie sisterchick

    Kind of like the Baby in the Manger in the first place. Simple and unadorned. I do think having grown up on a farm that it is cetainly easier for me to picture Christmas. And I agree it always shows up in the littlest of ways. Thanks Jennifer!

  16. amy

    oh i love this. the pictures are amazing. i adore that little matchbox car in the shepherds hand, it is so perfect.
    "we're rooted in dirt"
    thank you jennifer.
    merry christmas.


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