Advent – Christmas Eve, Traditions, And Something New
I’ve already written a bit about my family’s Christmas Eve traditions. But our family traditions were much more than what we did Christmas Eve. December 1 was the day decorating began – not a day sooner or later. And we never decorated all at once. We did it a bit at a time, getting the house ready as we got ourselves ready for the Big Day. One of the most special moments was when my Mother said it was OK to start playing Christmas records. We had so many, but two of my favorites were CBS compilations sold through the old Grant’s Department Stores. One of them started off with that old chestnut above from Steve & Eydie. Putting the needle down on that record, listen to those little crackles and pops, and when those horns entered, I knew it was Christmas season again.
I have this dresser. It’s old. The one person who might have known exactly where it came from, whose it was before it was mine has been gone nine years now. Its provenance is lost, but that’s OK, because it’s made the journey from my childhood home in New York first to our little apartment in Washington, then to Jarratt, VA, and to all our homes here in Illinois. When I was a child, there was a box underneath socks in one of the smaller drawers. It held the Christmas ornaments I put on the dresser. There were painted candles of carolers underneath old gas lamps. There was a painted candle church. I even had a little plastic, two-foot tall tree with ornaments Mom gave me to decorate. Of all the things I set out on top of that dresser, however, the one that meant the most to me – and still means more to me than any Nativity scene I’ve ever seen – was a little plastic one my parents probably bought at the J.J. Newberry store in Sayre, PA, paying no more than a dime or so.
I was surprised on Sunday night when it took me less than five minutes to find a picture of the nativity scene, from a Pintrest page. You see, over the years, I’ve managed to keep the candles and the tree ornaments. My wife took apart the tree and made it into a garland. The candles and ornaments still hang from it, and each year I drape it over the mirror on my dresser. At some point, however, that little plastic nativity got lost. I’ve learned, over 21 years of a very peripatetic life, not to hold too closely or too dear anything material. Yet few losses have saddened me as that. I remember very distinctly, even as a small boy, picking up that little Nativity – and it really isn’t that much larger than the photo above – and considering the scene. It was and remains my favorite and most theologically significant Nativity. It always struck me as so lonely, the scene made even more lonely by the darkness of the paint on the stable. I would hold it, consider it, think about how lonely, how empty, how insignificant, it made the birth of Jesus. It is we, the churches, who have altered what was in fact a nothing event, a moment for shepherds at best, then nothing but a few animals, the parents, and a newborn baby. It has always been the solitariness, the loneliness, this scene depicts that spoke to me.
The first year Lisa and I were married, we bought a live tree at Lowe’s Hardware Store. The store was on Wisconsin Ave. We owned a 1979 Honda CVCC. The sidewalk and streets were covered with ice. The combination of “live tree with heavy root ball”, “very tiny car”, and “ice everywhere”, made just getting the thing from the store to our car worthy of a Laurel & Hardy short. Getting it from the car to our apartment, well, let’s just say we accomplished it in the end. A string of lights was all we needed for it, because it was kind of a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. The plan was, after Christmas we’d give it to the Wesley groundskeeper and he’d plant it and it would flourish. Fred was kind enough to plant it, and honest enough to rip it out a month later when it was quite clear it was dead.
In the years since, especially after having children, we’ve developed rituals and routines, a kind of family liturgy around Christmas Eve that includes attending services, reading the Nativity story from Luke 2 (something both Lisa’s Dad and mine did on Christmas Eve), and we each get to open one present. Our older daughter, especially, relies on these rituals to help order her life, to ensure that things are OK. And isn’t that the purpose of ritual and liturgy, after all? Whether it’s setting out little painted candles, setting a date for house decorating, standing and contemplating a cheap plastic dime-store Nativity, or sitting in the near-dark and hearing, yet again, a story so many of us can recite by heart? Rituals order our lives. Liturgy, the work of these rituals and ceremonies and services, remind us there is continuity.
The irony, of course, is that Christmas is the moment when we remember that all that has been is no longer the same. While Jesus claimed the Law and Prophets would not pass away; that he was the fulfillment rather than the overturning of the Law, the practical result of the life and ministry of Jesus was that all that would be set aside. Since the days of the prophet Isaiah, and even before that in some of the Psalms, we hear how God is preparing to do something new. Our most precious memories, our most cherished routines, our most sacred rituals and liturgies cannot stand against this new thing, this tiny baby lying quietly (no doubt after a good nursing and burping) in a feeding trough full of hay, wrapped in rags. All of it, every bit of all we hold dear to ensure some kind of regularity and continuity in our lives will be washed away, erased in the moment Jesus declares that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Which doesn’t negate our rituals, family or congregational. It only serves to remind us that these are no more permanent than anything else. God is doing something new, which we celebrate as we gaze at the lonely image of a new family in a pitch-black stable, the only real light the Light of the World that will never be overcome by darkness.
Merry Christmas to each of you and all of you. May your lives be filled with joy and blessing and peace and laughter and food and drink. God’s blessings to you all.