The passenger to my right is already asleep. The woman in the aisle seat stares at her empty tray table. It’s nearing midnight. The cabin is silent, and most of the cabin lights are off. There is nothing to see 30,000 feet below. The world is dark.

It’s Christmas Eve.

I am flying from Minneapolis, my hometown, to my new home in Oregon. My wife is flying from New York, her hometown. Our plan is to land in Portland about the same time and make a cozy, quick drive together to our house in Eugene. But it is not meant to be.

Snow and ice, a lot of it, has delayed flights around the country. Thousands of people will not make it to wherever they want to be in time for their Christmas Eves. The airline people are apologetic; you can tell that our plane’s crew is as disappointed as we are.

We’re just all very tired and want to be home, or closer to it, instead of here in the cramped darkness next to strangers. At first, we offer half-baked quips about substituting the real-deal turkey or ham dinners we’re missing for a tray of airplane food. And one still-cheery soul tells those of us sitting nearby to keep a lookout for Santa from our windows. But for most of us, the series of delay announcements, the increasing certainty that time is running out and the helplessness have smothered what is left of our holiday spirit.

We just want to be home.

We reach the Rockies. Even in the blackness, or because of it, the snow-packed peaks below us are gorgeous. But they make us feel so small, so alone, so unimportant. That something so achingly beautiful can create such angst is physically painful.

Then the silence is broken. We hear the static of the onboard PA system. What now?

The flight attendant’s voice cuts in and out, but we can hear fragments:

“Folks, can I please have your attention.” Phrases like “interrupted beverage service” and “potential bumpiness as we cross the Rockies” and “remain seated with your seat belts securely fastened” are clear enough.

So is the ominous announcement that she will provide us with the latest connecting flight changes “when they become available.”

What follows even a seasoned traveler finds unnerving: “Folks, this is the captain. At this time, we have an additional important message, so please listen carefully.”

The silence in the cabin deepens. We just want to be on the ground — and home.

I don’t celebrate Christmas. But I’ve lived my life surrounded by it and have come to enjoy, vicariously, its lovely message of peace, comfort and hope. I am happy when it snows on Christmas Eve and disappointed when it doesn’t. I enjoy the joyful commotion of the season and its peacefulness, as well.

The onboard PA shuts off, then turns on again. A moment later, I look at the now-awake passenger to my right and the staring lady to my left, who is touching my shoulder gently. Both are smiling, just a little.

The cabin remains as quiet as before, but it’s a different quiet now.

That’s because someone — we’ll never know who — accompanied only by the muffled sound of the jet engines, is singing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”

Soon we land. We are closer to home.

 

Richard Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.