What Makes a Real Christmas?

art, Children, Christmas, coronavirus, Creativity, Faith, Family, Food, grief, holidays, Icons, Imagination, Love, mystery, pandemic, poverty, Spirituality

I was cleaning up my condo Sunday afternoon because the Pandemic restrictions have caused my housekeeping to need some intensive care. Between all the various projects I’ve done and my new paintings, plus the seasonal change requiring my closet revamp, I realized I haven’t seen the top of my table in months. Since I’m not receiving visitors, I really don’t have to worry about this, but even I can only live with so much disorder and clutter.

When I was in seminary, my roommate and I would make a pact: no cleaning during exam week and ice cream runs every night. Amazingly, some compacts are easily kept, and studying for finals was less stressful because of our sweet rewards. A little chaos for a short period of time isn’t a problem, but months or years of confusion and neglect can bring about disaster.

I realize chaos is the norm for many people during the holidays, even if we’re not attending parties at work, or visiting with relatives or friends. We still have other rituals to indulge, especially if we have children. One year I stopped to list out all the experiences I remember which make up an ideal Christmas. I never imagined the list would be so long, or that my parents worked so hard to make the season wonderful for us children. As you read this list, feel free to add your own traditions to the list.

Natchitoches Christmas Lights
  1. Writing Santa a letter
  2. Traveling to Natchitoches to see the Christmas lights
  3. Pizza and Car trip to see the Christmas lights in town
  4. Hanging Christmas lights on the house
  5. Finding the perfect Christmas tree
  6. Decorating the Christmas tree
  7. Making Christmas decorations
  8. Making popcorn and cranberry strings for the tree
  9. Family ornaments
  10. Watching the bubble lights
  11. Hanging the Christmas stockings
  12. The brass Angel chimes
  13. Finding a thorn bush for a gumdrop tree
  14. Eating ribbon candy from the jar at my nanny’s home
  15. Candy lifesavers in a book
  16. Special foods, such as Ham and yam, and the green bean thing
  17. Christmas breakfast of biscuits and strawberry jam
  18. Drinking from the Santa mug
  19. Christmas plates and mugs
  20. Making fruitcake cookies and cakes
  21. Wrapping and hiding presents
  22. Dreaming while reading the Sears catalog
  23. Holiday visits
  24. Visit to Santa Claus
  25. Gifts from Santa, rather than from the parents
  26. Christmas candlelight service at church
  27. Children’s Christmas pageant and choir concert
  28. Special music
  29. Nativity scenes
  30. Staying up late to assemble toys
  31. Never enough batteries
  32. Stocking stuffers
  33. New red robe or pajamas
  34. Christmas letters from all our friends
  35. A vain hope for snow
  36. Wreath on the door
  37. Wrapping paper everywhere
  38. Handing out presents
  39. Opening presents
  40. Teacher gifts
  41. Making a Christmas list
  42. Dropping hints
  43. Candles in the window to guide the wise men
  44. Advent wreath candles
  45. Advent calendars
  46. Pine cones
  47. Caroling from house to house, mostly off key
  48. Parties
  49. Christmas clothes and Sox
  50. Garish Christmas sweaters

At this rate, I’d have to accomplish 1.7 per day to get all 50 done in between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Like any big project, no one does it all at once. We always divided it up into smaller, achievable experiences, some of which extended over the whole season, and others we did once a week. How we managed to cram a dozen of these into each one of the four weeks before Christmas is beyond me. These days my work ethic is on furlough and if it ever returns, I’ll probably send it on vacation rather than let it clock back into work. I do lead a simpler life now.

My Christmas Tree Today

Any month of 30 days can be converted to one of these units:

  • 2,592,000 seconds
  • 43,200 minutes
  • 720 hours
  • 4 weeks and 2 days or
  • 8.20% of a standard year

These past nine months of COVID, with its quarantines, terrible toilet paper, and bad haircuts have been exacerbated by the illnesses and deaths of friends and family we’ve known and loved. With over 3,000 Americans dying from this disease daily, celebrating a real Christmas as we once did, seems unconscionable. Those of us who’ve lost a loved one look for any light in these dark days. Like Frodo, we might say, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring).

When I think of my life of seven decades plus, I remember when I was a child, every one of those two and a half million seconds before Christmas seemed to stretch out to eternity. Just as the three months of summer flew by like an icicle on a hot stovetop, the one month between Thanksgiving and Christmas moved slowly, as if I were watching a stalactite grow imperceptibly across the centuries. Maybe this is why my parents organized this magnificent list of projects to keep us children from whining over and over, “Is it Christmas yet?”

Christmas tree skirt from the 1950’s

I’ve never understood how they managed to teach us deferred gratification. After all, every single day in the month prior to Christmas had some sort of activity, and some of those projects extended over the whole season. One year mother decided to bead a skirt for the tree. She bought a “Twelve Days of Christmas” kit, which contained the white felt skirt, a green fringe, and multi colored felt squares imprinted with the patterns. As we worked each night, we filled each design with brightly colored sequins. Some of these early days were so heavy they had no fabric showing. As Christmas came closer and our project was as yet unfinished, we began to limit our decorating. We also were running out of colored beads and sequins by this time.

Handmade Stockings on an Antique Sideboard

Another year mother made new stockings for us kids, with our names on them. She also sewed a small bell on these so our early arising would wake her up. For the first grandchild, she had more time on her hands. That stocking was fully embroidered and had no warning bell. Of course, it hung at my home, so mother and daddy didn’t have to worry about any early bird interrupting their beauty sleep.

My parents did have a rule that we kids needed to wait until the crack of dawn before we entered the room where the tree was. If we got up earlier, and we almost always did, we took our pillows and covers into the dining room. Our old house had French doors separating the dining room from the living room. We’d pile our bedding down close to these doors and look through the bottom window into the magic darkness of the corner where the Christmas tree stood guard over mysterious packages wrapped in seasonal colors.

“What do you think that big one is?” My brother would whisper.
“It’s probably clothes,” I’d reply, “you know those rectangular packages are usually pajamas or pants.”
“Gross!”
I’d giggle and he’d elbow me in the ribs.

All three of us would strain and crain to see the indistinct shapes back under the lower branches of the fir tree. Until the first light came into the window beside the tree, we could only imagine the treasure hidden there. In our eager efforts and earnest desire to meet the rising sun, we often fell back asleep dreaming of Christmas morning. We’d awaken when our parents began their morning coffee ritual, which usually happened in bed, but on Christmas, they drank their caffeine on the couch and watched our joy, as we unwrapped the presents from Santa Claus.

None of us children were ever hungry on Christmas morning, at least not until we’d discovered the answer to all the questions we’d asked in the dark of night. Once those were revealed and our curiosity satisfied, we could turn our appetites to breakfast. Someone always gave daddy a good jam and biscuit gift in a wooden tub, so it was our go to meal for breakfast. We didn’t eat biscuits often, so they were a treat with huge dripping globs of melting butter. We’d go to one of the grandparents’ homes for lunch soon afterwards, so we didn’t need a big meal.

As I think back on these 1950’s Christmas memories, I was too young to know about the hunger and poverty of others. I do remember the poliovirus and the vaccine in my arm. There was the nuclear threat of the Cold War era and I lived in the time of the McCarthy Hearings and the John Birch Society. This is also the time of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement. My parents may have instituted all these seasonal home grown activities not only for us children, but also for themselves. If they were busy with “Christmas,” then they were focused on a spiritual journey and not on the chaos of the world.

Icon of The Creation of the Stars

When my daughter was small, I began buying her Christmas in August, because that’s when I got my first paycheck as a schoolteacher. I bought one little thing at a time, and put aside a little more money on a couple of larger gifts in layaway. I wasn’t going to buy anything for myself, but the choir at my church gave me a ham and a little love offering so I could have a bright red blouse for Christmas. I recalled the year after my marriage, my husband gave away some of our wedding gifts as Christmas presents “to keep up appearances.” We shouldn’t have to lie to the ones we love, especially at Christmas, but not everyone can live with the truth. Christmas isn’t about the gifts we give to one another, but about the gift God gave to humankind.

Creation of Light

Sometimes it seems like our world has gone mad, and folks can’t tell a truth from a lie. My daddy used to say there were folks who’d say the sun was shining even when it was pitch black outside. I’d shake my head in disbelief, but I hadn’t been out in the world as much as he had. Even if we now live in a world gone crazy, we can take comfort in these true words from the gospel of John (1:1-5)—

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Icon of the Nativity with Visit of the Magi

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