A Perfect Christmas in the Desert

My son's first Christmas was not spent in the snow. There were no trees. There was hardly anything living but the cactus which bristled up through black, wind-sharpened rock. We were a small group of travelers in the Gran Desierto of northern Mexico.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Commentator and naturalist Craig Childs and his family celebrate Christmas. And last year their holiday was about as far away from the comforts of home as you can get.

Mr. CRAIG CHILDS (Naturalist): My son's first Christmas was not spent in the snow. There were no trees. There was hardly anything living but the cactus, which bristled up through black wind-sharpened rock. We were a small group of travelers in the Gran Desierto of northern Mexico. It's a vast wilderness swept by sand dunes and scarred with the craters of dead volcanoes.

My leather boots were worn thin from weeks of hard walking. My wife drove in on an old dirt road. She brought our baby to meet us at the edge of an old lava flow. It turned out to be an ideal place to spend Christmas.

The holiday, as I know it, is about something that happened in the desert. It's about a celestial event, a bright star showing the way. Our group had been navigating the desert mostly by stars, walking during the evening and at dawn to avoid the relentless daytime sun.

Christmas also concerns an infant child. My son Jasper was a few months shy of one year old. At that age he knew nothing of holiday festivities, but we planned a fine Christmas for him. Everyone brought wrapped gifts, small colorful tokens laid at the foot of a stately Saguaro cactus.

We hung a silvery length of garland around the cactus and a handful of ornaments from its spines. It stood tall and narrow against the luminous horizon of Christmas Eve. Jasper pointed at our Christmas cactus glittering in the last light, excited sounds pouring from his mouth.

I felt as if I were a witness to a myth in progress, a child naming the world into existence. When a powdery sheen of stars covered the sky, my wife and I laid Jasper under a blanket. Around us the Earth stood black and rigid. Twisted shapes of lava hemmed us in.

Our son didn't need Santa or a room full of presents. All he needed was this: a perfect Christmas in the desert.

INSKEEP: Commentator Craig Childs. He's spending this Christmas in deep snow at home in western Colorado with his family, including Jasper's new baby brother, Jaden. His upcoming book is "House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest."

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