Hello readers! I know it has been a long time since I have written here, but I have been very busy between choir concerts and an online memoir class I took through the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. I cannot wait to tell you more about that! But first, I feel inspired to share some thoughts that have been on my mind regarding Christmas this year. This year was the second Christmas adhering to a counter-cultural way of eating, prioritizing health over tradition. So once again, I helped Mom bake Christmas cookies, but didn’t eat a single cookie myself, or even lick the chocolate from the bowl or spoons. But although I was successful in keeping this spiritual commitment, in some ways I found it harder than it was last year. Last Christmas, with a lot of weight I still needed to lose, and the humiliating doctor visit still fresh on my mind, Christmas cookies actually didn’t even interest me. But this year, having lost 40 pounds and been commended by my doctor, I had that devil on one shoulder sensation, whispering “you have lost so much weight, you could have one Christmas cookie.” I also had an inexplicable craving for coconut macaroons in particular, and came as close as putting Chocolate Coconut Chew Larabars in my Amazon cart to satisfy this craving. As I mentioned last year, Larabars aren’t terrible in and of themselves as most flavors have no added sugar and are made of dates, nuts and spices. But they are large and high in calories, and eating them every day contributed to my weight problem. I confess that the week of Thanksgiving, I had two Pumpkin Pie Larabars from a left-over box that had been sitting on a shelf in my bedroom all year because I couldn’t resist the craving for pumpkin pie. But I caught myself after two days eating them and put the rest in the break room at work. I don’t know if they were eaten, or thrown away which they might have been if they had expired, but I was relieved to see that the box was gone when I returned for lunch, and didn’t care what became of them. I just needed them out of the house! But at least I successfully stayed away from the real pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, and I am proud to say that I got through Christmas without buying the Chocolate Coconut Chew Larabars. The angel on the other shoulder won! One factor that I think helped the angel win is a song my choir sang for Christmas this year.
Every year, my choir’s Christmas concert is beautiful. The choir director always does an excellent job of selecting sacred music that really highlights the true meaning of Christmas. But this year’s Christmas concert was especially beautiful as the director decided to change things up, and rather than having a traditional concert where we sing a song, the audience claps, repeat, this year’s concert was formatted more like a church service. The concert was called Lessons and Carols, and was modeled after a traditional old English service held on Christmas Eve. The service consisted of nine lessons, which were bible passages read between songs that spanned the whole bible from the passage about Adam and Eve and the Fall which created the need for a savior, to the birth of Jesus, to future prophecy when He will return. I came away from each of the two concert performances even more in the Christmas spirit than usual, and in the car driving home, Mom and I agreed this was a refreshing return to the basics, and the true meaning of Christmas in a culture that has made Christmas too much about commercialism and excess and forgotten about Christ.
I loved all of the songs we sang, but my favorite was called Sussex Carol, not only because of its lively melody, but because of one particular line in the second verse which says, “Why should men on earth be sad, since our Redeemer made us glad?” (The video I linked to is not my choir.) Unfortunately, I did not actually get to sing this line as this verse was just for male voices, but outside choir rehearsal, I found myself singing this verse all the time. And as I was stirring together chocolate, butterscotch and peanuts for the nut clusters I wasn’t allowing myself to eat, it hit me that Christmas was never supposed to be about making or eating cookies, decorating a tree, buying presents, the eager anticipation of Santa’s arrival which I believed in as a child, or even the perfect meal with family gathered around the table. Christmas is about our Redeemer, so no matter how far from idyllic Christmas turns out from a worldly perspective, as long as you believe in our Redeemer whose birth, death and resurrection would pave the way to forgiveness and eternal life, there is no reason to be sad.
There is a saying that the only constant in life is change, and Christmas sure has changed a lot over the course of my life. Like most children, I whole-heartedly believed in Santa, and was so excited for Christmas morning that I couldn’t sleep the night before. The first Christmas after learning the truth, I was kind of sad, as some of the childhood magic of the holiday had been lost. When I became too old for toys and started receiving things like clothes or lotion on Christmas, I was kind of sad. How do you spend Christmas day when you don’t have a new toy to play with?
Eventually, a new tradition of playing board games took shape, but last year, my siblings wanted to play Settlers of Catan most of the day, a game that is inaccessible for me. It wasn’t until after supper that we played a game of Trivial Pursuit that I could really participate, and this made me feel a little out of sorts, especially since it was the first year I wasn’t allowing myself to eat Christmas cookies. What do you do on Christmas when you cannot participate in the family board game, or eat cookies? So I spent most of last Christmas in my room writing, afraid that if I was in the living room but not actually engaged in a game, I would slip up and start mindlessly eating cookies.
This year, my sister who lives in New York and my brother who lives in Oregon could not come home for Christmas, and my brother who lives about an hour and a half away could not come until late in the evening. Dad has no interest in board games and will only play when we guilt him into it. Mom and I often play Scrabble together on winter days even when it is not an official holiday, but on Christmas this year, she spent much of the day doing laundry and preparing for our visit to Indiana relatives Friday, so this year, there were no board games on Christmas. But this Christmas, the weather was unusually warm, feeling more like Easter than Christmas, so Dad and I took a walk, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and we met several neighbors doing the same thing. When I came home from our walk, Mom had put a new set of Christmas CDs in our living room stereo, and the CD that was playing was David Phelps’ One Wintry Night, an album someone gave us but we had never really listened to. It was fantastic! I especially loved one song, a rock-‘n-roll take on the Hallelujah Chorus which was stuck in my head and filled me with joy the rest of the day. For lunch, Grandma came over and my parents cooked fish on the grill, with baked potatoes on the side for them, and riced cauliflower for me. We had a wonderful dinner with my brother when he arrived, and exchanged gifts with him the following day when I got home from work. So Christmas was a little non-traditional this year, but by no means sad.
But I recognize that since the only constant in life is change, Christmas traditions will inevitably continue changing over the course of my life too. I hate to think about it, but there will come a time when my parents will naturally need to downsize to an apartment in an assisted living community or a nursing home decorated with an artificial Christmas tree instead of the beautiful real trees my parents are still able to cut down every year, and where it will be the responsibility of my siblings and me to bring dinner to a community room, or else eat in the cafeteria. And I really hate to think of this, but most likely, there will come a time when my parents will pass on and it will be up to my siblings and me to make new Christmas traditions. My sister is already married and often spends Christmas with her husband’s side of the family, and if my brothers get married, they may do the same with the families of their spouses. No one knows what the future holds, so I may get married someday too, but I kind of doubt it, since I may be medically unable to have children, and I know of people who have never married and the freedom and independence they enjoy sounds appealing to me. So if I don’t get married, I may be alone on Christmas. But I hope if this happens, I won’t turn inward and get depressed, but look up and remember, “Why should men on earth be sad, since our Redeemer made us glad?” Spending time with family is wonderful and important, as Christians show their love for God by loving one another, which includes family. But if my family is ever unable to be with me on Christmas, I hope I will remember that family alone is not what Christmas is about anyway.
On a similar note, ever since experiencing Christmas from an adult perspective, something has always bothered me about how our culture handles this holiday. Of course, the commercialism and absence of Christ from Christmas is a big part of the problem, but this year, it occurred to me that another factor may be at play, as even people with a solid faith in Christ still fall into the trap of high hopes and expectations for Christmas. I know of people who have come to terms with the loss of a loved one every other day of the year, but on Christmas, become depressed over the absence of this person. I know of Christians who know in their hearts Christmas is not about gifts and decorations, yet still fall into the stress trap our culture has created at Christmas, running around in a frenzy the days leading up to Christmas. One year I saw a news story the day after Christmas about Amazon gifts that arrived late, and customers interviewed said Christmas was “ruined” because their packages didn’t arrive on time, and they had to return home and didn’t get to see a loved one open their gift. And full disclosure, when I was in sixth grade, Mom found me in my room crying because I didn’t get an American Girl doll I really wanted on Christmas morning. (It turned out Grandma really wanted to get me that doll, and I received it when she arrived from Indiana later that afternoon.) But it also struck me this year how many Christmas songs express a longing for peace on earth, goodwill to men, love and joy that never ends. Does that sound familiar to anyone familiar with my blog? Can you sense where I am going? Behind all of the excesses of Christmas is a longing for the restoration. At Christmas time, our whole culture does what I did Memorial Day 2018, or in New York City Thanksgiving of 2017. We as a culture are longing for peace on earth, more fulfilling lives, relief from stress and anxiety, reunion with lost loved ones, a reason for hope and joy. People who do not subscribe to a Christian worldview don’t know how to satisfy this deep longing, and even Christians get caught up in worldly traps and forget what we know. We as a culture have placed our ultimate hope in Christmas, seeking to at least temporarily satisfy the ache in our hearts with cookies, beautiful decorations, getting and receiving the perfect gifts, idyllic gatherings with family, and when Christmas doesn’t turn out the way we hoped or expected, we are devastated. But the reality is, for now, we live in a broken world, even on Christmas, and only the restoration will satisfy this ache in our hearts.
I wish I could have composed these thoughts in time to help readers who may have needed this message this past Christmas, but time flies, and before we know it, we will be celebrating Christmas 2020. So my hope is that when Christmas comes around again, we can all, myself included, remember the true reason for celebrating Christmas–why should men on earth be sad, since our redeemer made us glad?–and if circumstances lead to a Christmas that is not what we hoped or expected, that we remember we were never supposed to put our ultimate hope in earthly traditions, take things in stride and focus on the restoration. As Elvis so beautifully sings on his Christmas album, “if every day could be just like Christmas, what a wonderful world it would be.” Well, I believe someday, every day will be just like Christmas, not in the sense that every day we will gather around a tree and exchange gifts, or be able to eat cookies to excess and not gain weight, but in the sense of the true spirit we long for at Christmas of peace, love, fulfillment, joy. That is really what our culture longs for.