“Gran’pa, it’s cold out here.”
“That’s why we have a thermos of hot chocolate.”
“We have two thermoses.”
“Yes. And yours has hot chocolate.”
My grandfather sat back in his rocking chair and stared up at the night sky. When he pulled the chairs out onto the front porch, I had expected my grandmother to yell at him, but she didn’t. This woman, who never allowed shoes to be worn inside her house, was letting her husband take indoor furniture outside. Instead of objecting, she smiled a sad, wistful smile and said nothing.
Almost as big a surprise to me was when he announced that he and I would be sitting up night together. My grandfather was a kind man, but he was also a stickler about bed times. My mom once told me that she had to be in bed by ten until she moved away to college. Suddenly, just a few days before Christmas, he expected me to have an all-nighter with him.
“So why are we staying up?”
He didn’t answer right away. Just continued staring. I looked to the sky myself to see what had his attention. My grandparents lived out in the country, so there wasn’t any light from a city or even other houses to dim the stars. You could see a lot of them on a cloudless night. I always loved looking at them, but I couldn’t see anything special that night.
“It’s tradition.” His voice startled me a little, as I had been entranced by the night sky. “This is the longest night of the year. We keep watch to make sure it ends, to keep the sun from getting lost.”
I was young and unsure whether he was trying to pull my leg. “The sun can get lost?”
He smiled just a little. “Probably not.”
“But you said . . .”
“I said it was tradition. When my grandfather passed it on to me, I asked him if he believed it. He never said, but I think maybe he did. And there’s no reason to take a chance.”
“So you stay up to make sure the sun comes back?”
“Tonight, we stay up.” With that pronouncement, he fell silent once more.
I went back to staring up. Because I often spent time at their house in the winter, I already could recognize a few constellations easily. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia were the first. While looking at them that night, I saw a shooting star.
“Good eye. That’s from the Ursid meteor shower. My grandfather used to say they were guides helping that sun find its way. I think that part he made up. Still, it never hurts to make a wish when you see one.”
I kept watch for awhile and spotted two more shooting stars. Eventually, the cold and the lateness began to have an effect on me, and I started to nod off. My grandfather caught me. He shook me awake and poured me more hot chocolate.
With his occasional help, I stayed up all night with him. Sure enough, the sun rose late the next morning. I had seen it come up before, but that was the first time I remember being anxious about it, the first time it seemed like a miracle.
After it was safely above the horizon, my grandfather took me to bed, and I slept until early afternoon. I don’t think he slept at all. Several months later, he passed away, and ever since, I stay up on the longest night of the year to make sure the sun comes back.
I’m not telling you this story because I’m going to die in the coming year. You don’t need to worry about that. I just want you to understand why you are staying up all night with me. Would you like some more hot chocolate?