Santa was a leading character when I was very little but still I had a keen sense of the Christ in Christmas from a early age. My family wasn’t religious which may be why I so clearly believed the stories and the carols. A Being as big and grand as God, a Being that created the whole universe–loved mankind. It was magical. A Christmas Carol, The Littlest Angel, A White Christmas, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life–each of those stories were mixed in with the Bible accounts I heard during advent and somehow painted my understanding of the character of God, the nature of man, and the hope we’re ALL given. I believed in Christmas!
In all honesty I thought the Church was about spreading the news of hope by meeting the needs of the poor, the hungry, and the down trodden. I believed if everyone would just believe in Jesus peace would reign. I believed giving my dimes to the little cardboard church we were handed at the beginning of advent meant all those starving children in Africa my mom liked to talk about were going to get to eat and I didn’t need to eat my rutabagas after all because the children wouldn’t be starving any more and I could forget about trying to figure out how to send my rutabagas to Africa. I could just throw them away. (I never was convinced starving kids would want rutabagas, anyway).
But about thirty-five years ago I started to grow up. Life got “complicated”. I disappointed my family, took too long to graduate from school, picked up some bad habits. I got married, had a family of my own, and disappointed my family some more with the choices I made while raising my children. I got washed away in religion. And, I nearly drowned.
I forgot about Christmas.
We still celebrated every year but the holidays became a set of expectations. Send out Christmas letters. Make fudge. Get the package to Michigan (or Montana) sent by the 15th. Feel guilty if you didn’t meet the deadline. Go to the relatives for Christmas Eve dinner. Make your children wear uncomfortable clothes. Stress when they don’t put their napkins on their laps. Invite the family for brunch. Be sure to have a present for everyone even if your budget can’t afford their taste, you don’t have a clue what they like, or they already buy themselves everything you can think to get. After the presents have been opened and you had another bite to eat let your “guests” make a bee line for the door when you suggest bowling or your children look depressed when you don’t. Sit around and make small talk about the weather, the food, the family, or the Grizzlies (sports). Drink as soon as everyone’s gone home.
This year as per our usual the Friday after Thanksgiving we put on the Christmas music. My oldest daughter makes a point of NOT playing it before Thanksgiving so when I noticed it was on I took it as a signal that Thanksgiving was over. No big deal. As expected it was playing in the background Saturday night when my husband, our two daughters and I played cards. Sunday before I got busy with my never ending art project and after our daughters left for church I put a CD by Johnny Cash on the player. My husband sat by the fire with his laptop while I did up some dishes. We might have gotten the CD last year but I forgot it was mostly Cash telling stories and not really singing. As I listened I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the fact that I had grown up believing in Christmas–the Christmas he talked about on the CD. Somewhere along the way I had lost that faith, but I wanted it back.
I wanted to reclaim my childhood belief in Christmas.
I tried to tell my husband what I was feeling but somehow the words got to be too many and what I was saying morphed into some other conversation. My husband put a different CD in the player and eventually I went out to work on my art project. (Honestly I should be working on my project right now. It’s the last week of school and deadlines are looming). But I can’t shake the need to somehow, for someone other than me, make what I’m feeling make sense.
I know I will still make fudge, still buy presents, and still invite the family to brunch. I’m NOT going to throw the baby out with the bath water. And I’m NOT trying to say I need to do everything I’ve done over the years differently. I like seeing my home transform into evergreen boughs, bright red bows, and festive candles on the mantle. I look forward to seeing my husband’s childhood manger scene sitting on top of the old radio. Making sugar cookies with my daughters will be fun. It is always fun to laugh and make a mess with my children.
I AM saying that today, and hopefully tomorrow and the next day as well but at least today, I need to hold onto the hope a baby in the manger gave me as a child. I have to trust the promise of peace on earth and goodwill toward men. I need to believe reconciliation–in my family, with my God, within my own heart–is possible and if it’s possible on a small scale it is also possible on a much larger scale. If I am going to reclaim Christmas from the burn pile so much of Christianity has become for me I must do so every day, with every decision I make about how I participate in this holiday season. Yet, I must do so without religion–without duty or obligation or legalism, the rules I attach or the rules others do.