No Filter Christmas
I can’t say that I’m feeling the holly jollys this Christmas. A year ago, we were on the eve of moving into a new house after two Christmases in tiny apartments. My family was eager to spread out and welcome people into our new home for Christmas 2017. I had a storage unit of treasured ornaments I looked forward to seeing again. But not long after we moved into the house, life took a turn I couldn’t see at the time (maybe should have but not the point) and this Christmas, I have not felt like looking inside the first bin of Christmas decorations. Never mind the perfect picture window in the living room that begs for a tall evergreen. I’m just not up to boxes of memories this year. And, besides, an 80 lb puppy makes a tree without deep roots a bad, bad idea.
On Christmas Eve, I will tune into the BBC broadcast of Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge while I bake something with ginger or cinnamon. I will think of Johnnie Bakkum standing in the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church in Dalton, Georgia, reading that first lesson to me when I was a young mother determined to have her wiggly one year old in a sanctuary. (I’ve learned a thing or two since then. You can bet that Barks the puppy will have had a very long walk before the broadcast, and I will be prepared with a well-stuffed peanut butter Kong!) It is my prayer that in these quiet moments, Christmas will come as it has so many years before. (If you can’t have otherworldly angels, Jewish shepherds, and stinky animals, then candles, spices, and British accents will have to do, right? In my mind, angels announce good news either in the voice of a young English boy – or Linus – who taught me all of Luke 2 before a Sunday School teacher or seminary professor ever had a chance.)
But I’ve given myself permission to let go of anything else that doesn’t call to me and bring me closer to the mystery of the unexplainable birth of God in whatever way I’m able to experience it. And this is what is speaking to me this year….
A few weeks ago, I went for a long walk with a new friend who taught me to see the forest with fresh eyes. We clipped branches and even weeds, peeled back moss, and dug up mushrooms – fungus!!! – that became a garland on my mantle. I studded it with simple candles that reflect in the mirror above and wove in a wide gray ribbon reminding me that not all gifts glitter. It’s not the fancy garland of years past, and it won’t make the pages of Garden and Gun, but it was fashioned with my own hands. It reflects the truth of December in Tennessee. I gathered it while breathing the damp morning air. And it twinkles with tender and quiet light. (It’s going to be a mess to clean up, but we’ll get to that in January.)
Below the garland hang new stockings for my boys. Made of simple burlap but monogrammed in an elegant script, they remind me of how my babies are growing into strong young men with beautiful manners and souls even if they have scruffy, rough faces. And it is good. Very good. Stocking filling is probably my very favorite Christmas thing. It is a privilege I have reserved for myself for 18 years, and nothing is changing that now. (My favorite stocking stuffer – ok besides the little Reese cups – is the Wendy’s Free Frosty key tag. Did you know that for $2, you can give your teenage sons – both of whom will have car keys this next year – a Frosty a day for a year???)
And the tree. Like I said, I couldn’t do the ornaments. It might have been okay, but I just didn’t want to risk it. And then there’s the puppy. So I opted for a 3’ table top LED birch tree. It’s not an evergreen, but it’s also not a symbol co-opted from another tradition. It feels true. This year, for me, it’s important to come to terms with reality that seasons bring changes. Leaves fall off trees after a blaze of glory, but the tree isn’t dead. There is so much going on deep inside that we cannot see but later pushes forth as new growth, vibrant and green, and even blossoming. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the strong backdrop of a steady pine or fluffy fir, but there is a different kind of beauty in the twisting, crossing branches of a tree without leaves reaching to the sky anyway.
Over the past week or so, my little tree has garnered two unexpected ornaments that found perfect homes on its branches. The first arrived with a friend last weekend, cut from another tree and bearing the words that have sustained me all of these hard months, “Be still.” The other came today as the gift of life-long friends who entrusted me with their teenagers years ago. It’s a woodland owl – the bird who flies in the night – who sees so clearly in the dark.
The garland will go soon after my kids un-stuff their stockings. It’s a fire hazard by now. But the tree will remain. I’m moving it to my bedside table where it can both bless and protest the darkness for a few more weeks until the daffodils push their heads up through the cold ground and these roses I didn’t plant bloom again.
Spring will come. The Christ will come. A light will shine in the darkness and we will receive grace and mercy we didn’t know to expect. But we need not force things to be merry and bright when they just aren’t. There is a special comfort in the earthy smell of straw and hay and the simple glow of candles and starlight. That’s all it took for the birth of Jesus the first time. And if his promise is true, that’s all it takes now.
So if your days sparkle with tinsel or you are guided just by the light of one distant star, I pray for you stillness, quiet and deep and abiding hope.