“The supreme trick of Old Scratch is to have us so busy decorating, preparing food, practicing music and cleaning in preparation for the feast of Christmas that we actually miss the coming of Christ.” ~ Edward Hays
All fine and good for you, Mr. Hays, and you do have a valid point. But, there really are a lot of details to consider. Every year I set out with resolve to not get swept into the frantic busyness that is often associated with the Christmas season, and every year about this time I’d like to have a few of Santa’s elves in my own workshop.
I grew up in a remote village in northern Ontario where Christmases were always white and, in my child’s mind, uncluttered. We didn’t put up a tree or do any decorating in our home, but I remember the pure anticipation and excitement that goes with childhood as Christmas approached. The Sears Wishbook would come in the mail, and I would pore over the toy section imagining which toy would be my top pick if I could choose one from each page. Mom would do special baking, with homemade candy being one of my favourite treats. We always had our family Christmas time on Christmas Eve, but before we could open our presents, we would head as a family to go Christmas carolling and hand out paper bags of candy that had been given to us to pass on. The snow squeaked under our boots and the moon was bright in the northern sky as we trudged to our neighbours’ homes to sing. There was this bit of awkwardness in going to a school friend’s home as I briefly took on the identity of the church kid carolling, when I much preferred to be wrangling for the puck with them along the boards. After the carolling and candy bag delivery, we would troop home with our cheeks rosy and stinging with cold, and Dad would light a fire in the Franklin stove in our plank-lined living room where we would open our gifts. Long before the red and green shoeboxes that we often fill now around Christmas time, my most memorable Christmas gift from Mom and Dad was a shoebox filled with odds and ends Mom knew I would like – a Bobbsey Twins mystery book and barrettes with the iconic yellow and black smiley face on them to secure my braids, among other things.
The teachers in our two-room school would organize a Christmas concert that was held at the town hall. One year I was a child “nestled snug in my bed, while visions of sugar plums danced in my head”. Another year we acted out Dickens’ Christmas Carol with my brother cast as Scrooge while I recast Tiny Tim as Tiny Tina. At the end of our productions, we would all sing “Jingle Bells” which was Santa’s cue to come in the back door with a Ho Ho Ho. All the school kids would get a gift from Santa, and I got my first “Little House” book on his knee.
My Dad’s memories of his Christmases past are of coming downstairs on Christmas morning, and he and his siblings hunting for the tin pie plate that had their name on it. When found, this pie plate would have some candy and an orange on it, and maybe a comb or a jack knife. My Mom remembers heading to their Christmas concert in the bright moon light with the horse and sleigh and the sound of the sleigh bells ringing. She remembers coming down one Christmas morning to a doll for her sitting at her place at the table. She still often refers to “Mother’s good candy” – a recipe that continues to elude me!
Christmas may include, but cannot be reduced to, only nostalgia. Peace on earth, declared on that first Christmas, now seems more like a slogan relegated to Christmas cards. Living slow seems more like a privilege than possibility. But can we not be “artisans of peace” within our own realms? Can we not nurture a spacious interior that prepares room and checks in rather than checks out? Can we craft our gatherings around a table in a way that really notices the people with whom we are gathered? There are stories at our own tables that will never make the headlines or even the table conversation, but these tales with their own hollowed and hallowed gut, need us to pause and breathe love.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. ” ~ Ian MacLaren
Let’s hang our stockings with care, but let’s not stop there. Let’s also wrap our words in kindness, and toss our expectations into the fire. Let’s not measure goodness with presents or lumps of coal, but let’s kindly see goodness in unlikely places and faces. Let’s adopt grace and graciousness as our default and slow our hurry down.
This God of “mystery and manger” comes to us right where we are now, but the mystery of it and the ordinariness of the manger, may have us peering off into the horizon, looking for what is already here. Let’s pause. Let’s look into our own ordinary, everyday lives. The very places we want to hurry through, the feed troughs in our barn, may be the very place that Mystery comes to us, swaddled in the disguise of both the now and the not yet of this our own, one and very life.
Soon we’ll be sweeping up the pine needles, making turkey noodle soup, and maybe losing ourselves in the pages of a new book. The days will slowly begin to lengthen, and the geraniums on the windowsill will grow with fervor. Our waiting does not magically disappear with the close of Advent, but a Hope has been placed in the very thick of our darkest places.