In nature, time is marked mostly by meteorological events, by the rising and setting of the sun, and by the waxing and waning of the moon. In temperate regions, such as what we enjoy here in the northeastern United States, it is also delineated by the changing of the seasons. Other than that, none of the markers that humans have created matter here, which makes Christmas a day like any other to the vegetative and vertebrate creatures who are entering their most challenging time of the year.

While the ideal Christmas day dawns across a snowy white landscape, such is usually not the case. We’ve had mild rainy Christmases draped in fog as well as bitterly cold bright ones when porch boards snap and pop as we make our way across them during our festive comings and goings. And I have often returned from such an outing to a flurry of feathers as the birds take a break from feeding to make way for my arrival. Once I’m safely inside, the activity resumes, for to them, food and survival trump all else. In their world, it’s a day like any other during which they will feed as much as they can and then disappear into the treetops where they will spend the dark night hours in anticipation of the next sunrise.

Certain motifs found in nature that to the wild creatures are merely commonplace and familiar hold great meaning for us at this time of year. Evergreens in the form of firs and spruces, holly, mistletoe, poinsettias, cranberries and Yule logs all figure in our traditions and decorations. And light, the force without which nothing could exist, is one of the most cherished symbols, from the flames that encircle our Advent wreaths and the lights that brighten our trees to the star that hung over a stable in Bethlehem and that marks, according to Christian belief, the entrance into the world of a new way of thinking.

In the woods, you’d never know it’s Christmas. It’s quiet and still, and the crisp air clears the mind of all that holiday clutter and cacophony. If I didn’t know what time of year it was, there’d be nothing to set it apart from any other. The crows are still up high in the trees waiting for word from other avian relatives that food is available nearby. Chickadees, nuthatches and titmice frolick among the lower branches, diving and swooping as they snatch at tidbits on the frozen ground. Hawks still circle high overhead, patiently awaiting the sighting of a hapless victim, and the roots of the green growing things settle into dormancy until the earth quickens again in spring. In the natural world, it is business as usual.

As much as it can be fun to rush around shopping and exchanging dozens of gifts with loved ones, there is also definitely something to be said about a day that is not encumbered by such activities and that has room for the serenity that only nature and the woods can provide. It’s a quiet sort of celebrating, with not a word spoken or sentiment exchanged between myself and whatever bird happens to land on my railing looking for a handout. After all, that red-bellied woodpecker has no idea that it’s Christmas, and continues to communicate with me simply through its presence outside my window. And as for music, well, the chickadees and blue jays supply that willingly, especially when the feeders are full and all is well temporarily in their world.

Unlike my days that are often broken up by outside obligations such as doctor’s appointments and errands, theirs spill over into each other without so much as a break in their constant search for food and shelter. And it is this urgent and instinctive constancy that lends an almost solemn air to this season apart from its more conventional meaning. I find such quiet joy in simply enjoying the calming landscape with only the trees and birds as company; and I celebrate silently and privately to have been granted such a gift of being once again in the midst of all this.

In a very real sense, to me anyway, it’s always Christmas in the woods, unbeknownst to all the creatures that call it home. There’s never an end to the gifts that nature gives freely to those of us who see the greater and more lasting value in those things that cannot be contained, wrapped, or beribboned. My mother often said that Christmas was for children, and I understand now that it does take a childlike wonder to most fully appreciate, not only its hidden wonders, but those that nature bestows upon us 365 days a year without fail.

Merry Christmas!

— Rachel Lovejoy, a freelance writer living in Lyman, who enjoys exploring the woods of southern Maine, can be reached via email at [email protected]