Wednesday, December 31, 2014

How to Have A Merry Christmas Part Two - Christmases Past

In Part One we talked about keeping Christ at the Center of Christmas.  Well, this wouldn't be the blog with my own name as the title if I didn't talk a little about how I came to not just know this theoretically, but practically. I am Christian of course - Christ had always been a part of Christmas, so it's not like keeping Christ in Christmas has been a revolutionary idea. Rather, as I have journeyed throughout the Christmases of my lives I have increasingly realized that I have consciously needed to focus on Christ during Christmastime, and that just being a religious person did not automatically ensure religious experiences.

I caught my first real glimpse of this ten years ago.  In 2004 I did a fall semester study abroad in Egypt, and after the program ended in early December there was an optional two week add-on, where we spent one week in Jordan and one week in Syria.  That Christmas we had a whie elephant gift exchange with the twenty or so students and our trip leader Dil, and his wife and daughter.  One student had packed a small tree all the way from America and carried it around on our travels for just such an occasion. She pulled it out, and we stacked our little gifts under it. I don't remember what I got, but I do remember giving a complimentary pad of paper, pen, and small sewing kit that a previous hotel had in their rooms. Our hotel had a special Christmas Dinner for us as well (remember it was mainly a Muslim country, so no Christmas was celebrated).

That night we gathered with Dil and his family to sing Christmas carols, like we had some nights of the trip. It was a long tradition in their family that leading up to Christmas atevery night they gathered around and each person picked a Christmas song and then the family sang it. Dil handed out packets of song lyrics, with everything from Here Comes Santa Claus to Silent Night printed on its pages. As a group we sang, our simple melodies carrying the Christmas spirit together in our hotel in the middle of Jordan, so close (yet so far) from where Christ himself was born.  

The next morning my roommate from the study abroad, who had also come on the trip, opened a few presents that she had received from another friend on the study abroad.  For the only time in my life, I opened no presents. I had no gifts I had given or received. I had no family nearby, and while I felt a general friendship with the group I was with, I had no close friends. I was engaged to Avram, but no way to contact him except by email (I sent him a long email later that day). For our activity that day we went to Mount Nebo, and visited the church built on it's top, where Moses looked across the River Jordan, and the Lord told him he would never enter the Promised Land, and he was carried away into heaven.  Dil gained permission for us to enter the nave, and we gathered on the semi circle of bench seats and sang several Christmas songs.  Afterward all the people also visiting the church applauded, thinking we were an official concert.  

And that was Christmas.  

I didn't quite know how to feel. Normally the glow of Christmas that slowly built all December long and culminated in a thoughtful Christmas Eve reading of the Nativity and the joyful of frenzy of gift opening on Christmas morning was all missing.  As we rode the bus up Mount Nebo I felt a little empty, a little like it wasn't Christmas at all.  I also felt, though, that Christmas came just the same, although it came with no presents, no fanfare, no family, no traditional food. I had never been a Grinch, but like him, that year I had the personal experience of Christmas coming without ribbons or tag, packages boxes or bags.  That Christmas laid the invisible seeds where I began to see that Christmas comes, even without all the trappings.  I had always known that Christ was an important part of Christmas, but without the other obfuscations, good, bad and indifferent that being in my normal American life gave me there was nothing else that came Christmas day but the Christ child.

And although I had not depended on the physical and family trapping of Christmas to know that, without all the extras I also saw that I could not depend on others to bring me the true meaning of Christmas wrapped up with a bow, either.  I needed to make room in my life, my schedule, and my heart to prepare for Christ's coming every Christmas - to bring Christ into my home and life every year, or else the flurry of all else could easily cover up that which I always acknowledged to be the most important part of Christmas.  Without that intentional courting of the true Christmas spirit I would always feel a little empty come Christmas Day - something that I had unknowingly observed and could now pinpoint from previous Christmas Days. I had thought at the time this came from the inevitable growing up, from not being a child wherein Christmas seemingly came once in a lifetime, and where filled stockings and wrapped presents provided more magic than one child could conceive of, but that Christmas in Jordan gave me the first glimmerings of this truth - that only through centering on Christ will His Spirit provide the only ful and living Christmas Spirit.

 As Christmases have passed, this has grown, even through the coming of my children, who in turn do provide a renewal of that simple Christmas joy and excitement that comes so naturally to them. 

In England three years later Avram and I celebrated our first Christmas alone, with 22 month Lydia with us. That year we had so little money that instead of trying to surprise each other and perhaps unintentionally creating a remake of the Gift of the Magi story, we decided to each pick out something we wanted ourselves.  Avram picked out a fleece sweater with Queen's College's (his college at Oxford) seal on it. I picked out the big mortar and pestle I had been coveting for weeks. Lydia received a few gifts, some chosen by us, and some shipped over by Grandparents.  We had asked our families to please just send us some money instead of gifts, because Avram had not yet found a job, and we were living on the ends of our savings we had brought.  We had bought a little five pound prelit fake tree and some wooden ornaments, and had it on the table, along with a little stocking I had knit for Lydia.  We had walked in the woods behind our Yarnton Manor, where Avram's program was based, and had gathered greenery that we hung around our home. We did not even have a camera, as it had accidentally gone with our friends who had visited us before Christmas in a long layover to visit his parents in Dubai.  

That morning was very quiet and dark - we did not even wrap our personal presents, but laid them aside our little tree. We helped Lydia unwrap her few presents and enjoyed that quiet time together in the glow of the Christmas tree without even the impulse to capture this moment forever via a camera.  In that darkness the truth of what I had learned before in Jordan echoed again - Christmas truly cannot be found in trees or presents, not in prosperity or baked goods or even family.  But with all of those so present and loud, it can be hard to remember to focus in on Christ, to notice if I am not doing so.  

Thus, over the years since then I have increasingly realized that in order to keep Christ in Christmas, in order to remember the nativity over all else, however worthy other holiday pursuits may be, I would have to not just be open to it, but make conscious action to bring Him in, to remind myself and my family time and again of who we are celebrating - because the world doesn't care.  The world wants you to buy!  To do!  and then buy some more! Sure, buy because you love others, because you care, for a good cause, because you deserve it, but remember, most of all to buy!  There are so many voices calling for us during this season, and it took two Christmases away from my own culture, in a small cocoon without all the usual trappings to help me better receive the largest gift of all - Christ.

I have not in my own family jettisoned the American Christmas - we are not moving to other countries and only using two foot tall trees if at all - we are not getting rid of gift giving, and we happen to enjoy having friends and family around us. Rather, throughout the years we have tried to work out ways that we can best focus on Christ while still enjoying much of what the American holiday season also has to offer.  We have embraced the manger, but also enjoy watching Rudolph, think Ginger cookies are pretty great, and can eat candy canes without reminding our kids that they represent the shepherd's canes.  We even like beating back the darkness by lighting up our tree and home, and are okay with it being an extended metaphor and not innate symbol that this is Christ. Increasingly, though, we have tried to focus our greatest efforts for ourselves and our children on Christ, and kept the other traditions only when we have felt that they are solid contributions of merryness, beloved traditions from our childhood, family bonding time, and are sources of joy and not stress.  Finding ways to celebrate Christmas that bring Joy and not stress and contention goes for all kinds of Christmas activities, whatever the focus.

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