By Alice Winship
Chorus: The farmhouse sleeps in the winter night,
The wind blows cold on the empty plain.
Long miles of black, but the dreams burn bright
Till Christmas morning comes again.
High in the corn crib, the Snowy owl,
Her feathers fluffed to keep warmth in.
Down long dark fields the coyotes howl;
The cattle drowse with their tails to the wind.
In the farmhouse the books are stacked like hay,
With tales of adventure from far away.
Bridge: Frost in the night
Sparkles on the ground
Stars twinkle bright
Stillness all a round
There are voices on the wind tonight
From years plowed under long ago.
Settlers and cowboys at firesides bright;
The Indians camping in the snow.
Forgotten voices, like fallen leaves,
When the wind comes howling round the eaves.
Walnuts painted silver and gold
Are hung in the corner on the tree.
A fragile pine cone, decades old,
Was blown from glass in far-off Germany.
Aluminum foil makes the silver star
That guided the Wise Men from afar.
The piglets are warm while the old sow snores,
The cats sleep snug with their tails round their heads.
The orchard is bare and the apples are stored,
The children are tucked in tight in their beds,
Dreaming of magic and ships at sea
And what they will find underneath the Christmas tree.
Winter Night draws on my memories of growing up on a farm in Eastern Washington, although the place is not specified in the song, so it could be about any farmhouse in the West.
The details are all based on things that actually happened, although not all at once. The snowy owl came along later than the rest, in the 1970s. There was one particularly cold winter, when quite a few snowy owls came to the Columbia Basin. They usually winter farther north. One owl apparently took a liking to our place, and came back to the corncrib every winter for many years. She had bed and breakfast there – a sheltered place to roost, and handy meals in form of the mice that fed on the corn, which the cats could never quite eliminate.
I wondered about the past of this big empty land. Most of them are gone now, but when I was a child, the Columbia Basin was dotted with abandoned, unpainted wooden buildings, small farmhouses and barns left by the early settlers. The climate goes in cycles there, and sometimes there was enough rain for a decade or more to raise wheat. Then the drought years would return, and the farmers would give up and move away, leaving a shack door banging in the wind. This is the land now irrigated with Columbia River water by the Columbia Basin Project, which drew our family there.
Before the farmers came, this was cattle country, with huge ranches, range cattle and wild horses, rounded up by the cowboys every year. When I was a child, I found some cow bones in a sand dune and brought them home, but my mother didn’t like them and made me take them back. Before the cowboys and ranchers, the Native Americans made their home in this harsh land for many centuries. I wondered about them most of all – what they were like, and what they thought.
To a child on Christmas Eve, it seems like anything could be out there in the vast dark – Santa and his sleigh, or somewhere the Christ child lying in a manger. The wind blows strong in Eastern Washington, funneled by the Columbia River Gorge, and on winter nights the wind sometimes seemed to shake the house. It frightened me a little. It seemed that the wind might be strong enough to blow right out of the past, and that all those people who lived on the land before we came might be out there, somewhere, in the dark night.
Like other children who seldom have playmates, I found my friends in books. Like the lonely child Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, I loved the tales of the Arabian Nights and Robinson Crusoe. Books filled my head with stories of magic and adventure on the sea, which I had never seen. We always had a lot of books in the house. Like hay is stacked to feed the animals, books were waiting to feed the mind on dark winter evenings.
The silver and gold walnuts were painted by my parents for their first Christmas together, when they had no money for ornaments. We hung decorations that we had made from folding brown cellophane bread wrappers into fan shapes, and some wonderful old German glass ornaments that someone had given to my mother. They were so light and fragile. Every year, we made a star for the top of the tree from aluminum foil from the kitchen.
I wrote this song the weekend after Thanksgiving in 2011, the week that Teresa Morgan committed suicide. The song contains the message of the solstice, which I wish Teresa could have found in time, that no matter how long and dark the night is, morning will come again. Although Teresa is gone, her voice will not be forgotten.
- Written by: Alice Winship
- Arranged by: Alex Sturbaum
- Laura Bassett: lead vocal
- Wendy Joseph: harmony vocal
- Michelle Cameron: cello
- Helen Gilbert: bells
- Alex Sturbaum: bouzouki