It's now December. September was the last time I published a blog. Excuses, excuses! They fill my calendar. Life is just too busy it seems. Looking through my list of posts, there were at least five that I wrote and never published. In trying to figure out why, I re-read through some of them and realized that at those times, I just needed to get thoughts out of my head and onto the page. They definitely were significant at the time, but it wasn't necessarily anything that anyone else might find interesting, so they sit in the draft pile. This moment in this season seems like a good time to catch up with writing.
Over the past month, Christmas traditions fill our thoughts and plans, some good and anxiously anticipated, some just obligatory. Usually, decorating the house and the tree, hanging twinkling lights and playing the Christmas tunes all build spirit and excitement weeks before. It was difficult this year for us in the decorating part, almost all of our Christmas decorations are in storage where they've been since May. We put up the tree, but if it didn't have lights already attached, it would be bare. No ornaments, no tinsel, no star. It's almost comical, but I just don't see the point of purchasing all the same stuff as I have sitting in storage, only to have twice as much next year. When it gets dark and we turn on the little lights, somehow the shadows cast on the ceiling and walls seem soft and have a romantic, magical glow. It does feel like Christmas.
Then there the matching Christmas lists that are sent via text or email with the list of possible gifts I want to give people in my life. This really begins the process of thinking about those individuals on a deeper level. We start to shine a light on their position in our life, how has the relationship been this past year and what gift could possibly reflect the amount of love we feel for them. All the while a little nervous and apprehensive about whether it will be received with all the love we attach to it. Can a gift really do that?
While it all starts with joyous thoughts, high expectations of peace and love spilling everywhere, and every recipe we make turning out perfectly, it doesn't always go that way. Things happen to be so busy during this season that it's even possible to burn microwave popcorn, which typically anyone can make without much attention. I love the frenetic pace of the holidays just as much as anyone, but as the years go by I am starting to understand why it is the most depressing time of the year. Many people slide into a deep funk and find it hard to get out. The joy, peace and love just can’t catch up to them, they are resistant to it or there’s no one in their life that can be a source for these three precious things. Reality and realizations set it and it can be a very emotional time of year.
Prior to 1995, the last time I had celebrated Christmas was 1967. I’m not kidding.
As a child I remember celebrating Christmas with my family, watching my parents put up a tree. Some years it was a silver metallic tree with brightly colored ornaments and a revolving color wheel sitting just beyond it to cast an ever-changing stream of multi-colored light onto the tree. With all of the house lights turned out and it dark outside, this was amazing ambiance to a little kid! I could sit in the living room for hours dreaming and fantasizing about what might be in the wrapped packages underneath. I remember going to my grandparent’s house for Christmas dinner, bringing gifts to all my cousins. One year it was a coloring book and small pack of crayons for each of the 15 children there. My parents probably sacrificed something to make that happen. I remember one year having family over to our house and my Grandpa and uncles pretending that Santa was close by. Watching the live specials on TV that tracked Santa’s whereabouts, sneaking outside and throwing stuff up on the roof and then telling me it was Santa’s reindeer walking around up there. Then we’d run outside to see if we could catch a glimpse. But no, we somehow missed the big show, again.
Then one year after we had moved to a new state and a new home, we celebrated Christmas and my Dad told us that it would be our last Christmas. Having been taught not to question adults, the explanation he gave us of “our new church doesn’t celebrate Christmas” went unchallenged. Unlike children of today who don’t hold back at challenging an idea with their parents, we were in complete compliance knowing we didn’t have a choice. As this was the pattern of relating to my parents, I showed no emotion, no grief or no disappointment. Instead my attention was directed towards looking forward in anticipation of our new “opportunity” to be a part of this church. I liked change, even as a child, but I really didn’t know what to do with a change like this. Something that represented a family time, a connection to a story about Jesus who I’d learned about in Vacation Bible School, and those magical lights, what would the next year be without them? It was like telling a child that you weren’t going to celebrate their birthday anymore. Oh wait, we stopped celebrating those, too. I still struggle with the memories of that day in my life.
Every December, I reflect back to that particular season and every year since where Christmas was absent in my life. I say until 1995 because that’s when it all changed. Having bought into the teaching long enough that Christ, Christianity and Christmas was something to be ignored, and after having exited the church my Dad brought me into nearly 30 years before, we were faced with the idea that now we could enter into that time to celebrate. My children were 11 and 14 at that time. They had never celebrated Christmas. It was going to be a new thing in our household.
That first year however, we had a difficult time giving ourselves permission. So, with no hesitation, my son, Chris, took it upon himself to handle things. He took the small, unassuming, 4-ft Norfolk pine tree I had in the living room into his bedroom. He closed the door and began to be very busy. All afternoon he was working on “something” but wouldn’t tell us what. Came time for Christmas Eve, he revealed what he had been so involved with. Inviting us into his room, we sat on the edge of his bed, and were in complete amazement that he had taken the Norfolk pine, gently hung a small string of tiny lights around it, and placed a few items fashioned into ornaments hanging from the branches. He had made a Christmas tree. Underneath it, he had placed items he carefully wrapped in any kind of paper he could find. He knew what to do. He had been observant the previous 11 years and being especially attune to detail, he wasn’t about to miss anything significant. He then gave each of us a present. Un-wrapping it, I had to hold back tears because the preciousness of that moment was too much. He had taken things that already belonged to us, sneaked them out of our rooms and wrapped them for Christmas gifts. He wasn’t going to let Christmas go by without us not doing something. He also drew a fireplace in a piece of paper, complete with red brick, a fire blazing and a mantle from which hung four stockings. I cannot think of this moment and not weep for so many reasons. I know that at least one picture was taken of the tree, but it has escaped me all these years. What I wouldn't give for that picture.
One of those reasons haunts me today. Up until that point, my children were deprived of celebrating Christmas their entire life. Those tender, impressionable years when children are developing their emotional attachment to their world, there was no connection with the Christmas story, with Jesus or who He should be in their life. They didn’t get to celebrate the awesomeness of knowing this baby Jesus came to save the world. They didn’t get to believe, wonder and then not-believe in Santa Claus. They didn’t get to feel special and showered with gifts, each one representing love in a tangible way. They didn’t get to experience the aura of the lights wrapped around the tree that created a magical glow that’s not repeated in any other way. They never had a stocking filled with treats. Not at Christmas and not even on their birthday, when love should saturate every second of the day and a person should be made to feel like their existence in this world matters.
Even though after this “Christmas-hating” church we tried to move towards traditions and elements typical of the season, I’m not sure we ever ran on all cylinders, there was always something we didn’t get quite right. My personal belief is that not being able to start this until late in their life, there’s not the same emotional connection that I had when I was small. I see my daughter Sara beginning to teach Wyatt, who is one year old, about Christmas. I recently saw a picture of her tree, complete with a star at the top, decorations they picked out together hanging on the branches, the stockings prominently hanging in a special place and the “must have” picture with Santa. How precious this is. At the same time, my heart breaks because they missed that when they were small. I missed that when they were small. They missed the wonder that it all brings, they missed the feeling of being special enough to get presents from Santa, and they missed the anticipation of something really fun and exciting happening on December 25th. As in most things, when we contrast the “not having” with the “finally having,” a deeper sense of gratitude usually accompanies the emotions we associate with it. I really hope this is true for them, more so now than ever. I also pray they can forgive where I failed them and create new memories that will fill gaps where there are none.
If I let myself dwell on this part of the story, I’d be wrecked for days. Instead, even though this year is a little different for us, not being with our children or grandchildren, not putting up many decorations and really not purchasing even the usual amount of gifts, we can still be moved by the Christmas music, feel deeply about the messages of Christ’s birth and anticipate spending the day together, if not with others. It’s reducing it down to a common denominator, being able to rest there and absorb its full impact that even makes it possible. The common denominator is this,
“To us a Child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.” (Isaiah 9.6-7)
I can be all depressed, emotional or full of regret, but the reality is that this baby who was born was called “Immanuel” meaning God with us. Even throughout all these years, regardless of our choices of how to celebrate this day, whether acknowledged or not, whether we exchanged gifts or not, whether my children got to experience it or not, He was God, born to be with us in this life. He stepped into our world to embrace us and love us in a way we know for certain that we matter. Through strong emotions such as these, through despair, depression, regrets and through the loneliness that we can feel, acknowledging God by being in adoration of that once baby Jesus will carve out some feeling of importance. We are important to Him. That’s all that matters.
Merry Christmas. I, for one, am happy and thankful to celebrate.