On Wednesday at 2:37 p.m. a single snowflake floated past my window. It had the unhurried, lazy pace of those first few flakes that fall before the front settles in and the snow begins in earnest. Unfortunately, we do not live in Earnest, where I assume the ground is covered with an elegant blanket of sparkling white; we live in the Twin Cities, where bare brown lawns sprawl naked for miles. Some lawns still have some green, but it's like lipstick on a cadaver, a corpse the sky does not have the decency to cover.

But! A flake! I followed it to the ground, where it vanished -- but surely there would be more. Never mind what the forecast said. We'd have a white Christmas. We had to.

When we stand at the window on Christmas morn and look over the snow-enfolded tableau beyond, we think: This is why we live here. This. Well, this and the moment in late April when it's all gone except for the ice chunk on the boulevard, which we kick apart with our heel, muttering, "Back to hell with you." But mostly, This.

Alas: The flake was unaccompanied by colleagues. Hmmm. When I said we needed snow, I didn't mean singular. Then two flakes descended, circling each other in an impromptu tango. Then another, and more. It's a Christmas miracle! Or we're a few hundred miles downwind of a volcano, and this is ash. Well, these are lean times. Ash will do.

Within the hour, actual snow was falling -- granted, it was thin stuff, an unenthusiastic performance. But in the grocery store where I was picking up some peppermint bark -- it's TRADITION, as Tevye sang -- people were elated. Finally! the clerk said. People looked out the window, smiling: Good ol' Minnesota. We knew you had it in you. Or on you. Or above. WHATEVER. It's snow.

But what if we hadn't even had this? We had a bare December back in 2000-something, and I remember how it snowed the day before Christmas. It was a sloshy, lousy snow, sloppy stuff that tumbled out of the sky like a drunk's monologue. Half-baked snow, if you know what I mean. But it sufficed.

Never had a brown Christmas growing up in North Dakota; all the memories seem almost mythical, with drifts that came to the eaves, boughs bent with the weight of Kringle-spackle, everything as perfect as a Norelco electric razor commercial. The very idea of a brown Christmas was one of those unsettling concepts that made a kid queasy, like moving to another town, or communism.

This is where the columnist hauls out the rusty boilerplate and reminds us that Christmas is not about the manifestation of crystallized cloud-delivered precipitation. It's love and sharing and peace and the Meaning of the Season, as defined by your own beliefs. Having said that, I think it goes without saying.

But there's a certain psychological satisfaction that sings in every soul when the world is buried under the weight of the heavens; it's as if the year we've just passed through has been erased, the year to come encased in a cocoon that contains the things to come. Plus, it's pretty. Plus, it's what we remember from before, when things were happy. And weren't they always?

Not really. Bad Christmases, I hope, are rare for you, but everyone gets one. I got an e-mail from a publicist pushing a guide to getting along on Christmas (hint: smile, repress, nod a lot), and if Christmas is a nervous time because you've just strewn eggshells everywhere and your in-laws are coming over wearing cleats, that can be bad. A young child can have a meltdown. A loved one's ill health is a presence all its own, a cold thing in the shadows in the corner of the room which no fire or bright tree can dispel.

They're not always Merry, but they're always Christmas, and time planes the peaks and troughs smooth. In the end, they're always white. Who remembers the brown ones? We remember the ones where it snowed all day.

Wednesday's snow turned out to be just a dusting. The lawns still leered through the flakes, and you couldn't build a snowman that was bigger than your thumb, but it was snow.

And if it's gone soon? You can say the same about Christmas itself, eventually. Think of it as a play we enact, year after year. It's not the set. It's the script.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/popcrush.