Tag Archives: Christmas

the joy of small things

This third week of Advent celebrates joy, and it even has its own special candle, pink, but it’s not mandatory the candle you light this week be pink. But maybe it helps.

Because what are we to make of joy in this brittle season? Where might we find it, this kind of happiness that is more than happiness? Deeper, more intense than happiness is joy, and in the stillness we are to be cogitating on joy, and it is a heavy lift.

We are weary, we are sad, we have strung lights and decorated our homes before Thanksgiving, just to feel a little bit of it, joy. Sitting here on a cold and grey afternoon, I wonder when the corners grew so dark, and why I have been so lazy in getting my tree up, for surely those little lights might cheer me. I put on Christmas music to tide me over.

I’m not in the mood for chestnuts or sleigh bells so I dial up Gregorian Christmas chants and what was I thinking? They are beautiful, yes, but also mysterious and weighty and maybe a little creepy in a certain mood. Not always, but they fall hard on my ear just now, this year, in this season.

Handel’s “Messiah” might be a better choice since I sang it in high school when the choral society was short on altos. But no, not that, either. So I’m back to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and that suits me just fine. You can almost hear the horses’ hooves thundering across the steppes, the words and music Christmasy, but with a rasping icy urgency from the North, complete with a Cossack kicker and Mother Russia at her loom, weaving each and every song, each and every arrangement.

Which is all the more remarkable because they are Americans.

But still, the music is big. It’s bold. A little rough around the edges. And through it runs a sincerity, an abandon that sounds very much like joy. And I feel joy, imagining these musicians creating moving Christmas music as if they are shouting lyrics at their mics ten feet away, while they flail at guitars, keyboards, drums, all heavy rock and sweating.

Not tinkly Christmasy, but then, oh, so Christmasy.

I drag the Christmas tree stand in from the garage, clear the corner for the tree. I buy a proper tree skirt because every year I have to listen to another Douglas fir moan and groan about the sheet I wrap around its feet, while I try to convince it the sheet is snow.

Each year I set up my tree and recall the evening I invited my younger brother and sister to help me decorate it after work. I approached the task with great joy, all happy and bright, while they sat on their rumps, eating all my food, entertaining each other with bad jokes and adolescent humor—though they were in their twenties— and neither one touching a single ornament.

It didn’t matter. We remember that night every Christmas and laugh and long for the comfort and joy we felt in each other’s presence then, grown, but not grown, adults being kids, or maybe the other way around, in a little upstairs apartment, windows rattling in the wind.

This long hard season has tried to teach us the joy of little things. We shopped at nurseries and garden centers for seed and mulch, rediscovered our backyards, had time to finally hear the birds that nest in our trees, learn which ones peck the ground for food. We’ve knelt in the dirt, grime under our nails, not cared. We’ve had nowhere to be and no rush to get out of our comfy clothes.

We discovered ZOOM, and loved it, then hated it, then loved it again. We see our families, our book groups, our buddies. Without thinking too hard I count six new friends I’ve made via ZOOM, through classes and seminars. I couldn’t tell you how tall they are, or what they look like in profile, whether their hands are warm or cold, but I could be awakened by a call at 3:00 a.m. and I would know the voice. And this is a joy. And a mercy. And a gift.

We await the joy to the world, but we are most apt to recognize it if we sharpen our senses to the little joys before us. And they are there. Right there. I think I see them. No farther away than my arm is long.

Merry Christmas. There. I’ve Said It.

We come into Christmas now, not the Christmas season—that vague and fuzzy time that begins before the Thanksgiving turkey is purchased, sometime mid-November—but finally, truly Christmas.  It rides in on a dark horse, shepherded by the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice.

The solstice is an eve of an eve of an eve, of sorts, as it points us toward the holiday.  The winter solstice occurs on the day that contains the exact instant the North Pole is furthest away from the sun, a tilt of the earth’s axis of 23.5 degrees. This is dictated by the tropical year and not a calendar one so the date moves around.

Even so, the winter solstice always arrives in late December, and occurs at the exact moment of time for everyone on the planet.  On December 21, then, at 4:23 p.m., CST, the earth’s tilt will be at its extreme, and in the next moment, the world begins to right itself. 

Would that everything could be so certain. Holding on would be a little easier.

We don’t know it or pay attention to it, always, but much of our Christmas tradition—the trinkets and trappings of the Yuletide—even the word Yule, by the way—came down to us from ancient celebrations of the solstice.  Candles, fires, greenery, revelry, gathering of friends and family, all have at the heart of it, a vigilant waiting for the return of the light. And then, a few days later, a child, a star, gold and precious resins to celebrate a new and promised light.

We take all this and bind it together and find in it meaning, mysterious and deeply personal.

For the past few years I have begun my holiday season by attending the Lessons and Carols performed by the Wesleyan Chamber Choir. Held at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, it is a worshipful and lovely prelude to Christmas, moving and wonderfully done.  “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” one of my favorites, was part of the program this year, as it often is.

I  don’t know the inspiration for this particular  arrangement, but it bore almost no resemblance to the carol I have known.  A slow carol, it was slowed even more, discordant at times, and the music washed over and around us, wrapping us in something atmospheric and ancient.  It was as if, straining, we might pick out fragments of familiar verses, but really, we were listening to the Northern Lights.

Haunting.  Moving.  Mysterious.

And here we are, a few days away from Christmas, and writing this I am not sure how to proceed. These days we are so easily offended, or told we should be, if only we were more enlightened, more woke. I  want to send you Christmas greetings. It feels as natural as offering a hello or good-bye. It is my tradition. But is it possible to proceed without creating some offense to someone, somewhere?

I doubt it.

No, let’s be more exact.

Is it possible to proceed without creating some offense to someone, somewhere?

Of course not.

Then, let me offer this.

I wish for you the warmest of regards, and hope for you good cheer and blessings—whatever you need right now, and by whatever word you call it—and I wish for you mystery and gratitude and to be surrounded by those people and things you love.  Especially now, in this deep December.

I hope there are cookies.

I would wish you Merry Christmas, which means for me snow globe villages and jingly songs on the radio and Santa Claus and excitement, anticipation and ribbon, and the second chapter of Luke. 

Your Christmas may be secular or religious and or it may not be at all.  Some of us love and embrace it.  Some of us endure it.  Some of us hide until it is over.  However you spend it, I wish for you the assurance, that always at the edge of the darkness, a faithful return of the light.

Christmas 2016

I grew up on the Grinch.  Horton and Yertle and the Cat in the Hat were in there somewhere, too, but mostly I remember the Grinch, and Cindy Lou Who, and Max, the ridiculous dog and his lashed-on reindeer antlers.

My father, a great reader himself, never read to us except from Dr. Seuss, and he—and we—especially loved “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”  I mentioned this to a school teacher once, when I was about third grade, and she scoffed and sneered—sneered, I tell you, because Dr. Seuss was not proper children’s’ literature, not instructive, or even well-written.  Dr. Seuss was common, she meant to imply, and I could feel, and hear, her condescension.

Like I cared. 

Which is odd, because as a child I cared about that sort of thing very much.  But I loved the Grinch more.

The lesson of the story, of course,  is that Christmas comes without “tinsel and trappings,” without trees, without roast beast.  It comes whether we welcome it or dread it, comes with our full embrace or without.

And it is not about the presents—most of all it is not about these.

But I remember, once I could read, looking at the page in the book with all the toys under the tree, just before the Grinch bundles them up, and there sat a trike with a tag on it labeled Jo Jo, the name my family called me.  I had never seen it in print before, which thrilled me beyond belief.

Deep down, I can admit now, I was profoundly sad about those disappearing  presents. 

I stayed sad about those presents, and the specter of no presents at Christmas until I was shamefully old.  In my callow youth I might give lip service to good fortune, prayers answered, a loved one come home as Christmas present enough, but I didn’t really mean it.

I wanted stuff. 

Or more accurately, I wanted all those things, but I wanted presents, too.

I didn’t tarry in this wallow of self-absorption long, which is a mercy, because, really, is there anything  more shallow and insufferable than the person I just described?  And is that person the most boorish at Christmas?

As I go about dismantling my childhood home I am confronted with “stuff” on a massive scale.  As I write this, I can see boxes of old photos, old papers and letters, the stuff and memories of others, long dead, and my new burden.

Last week I spent quiet time with friends, around kitchen tables, around fires, bundled up on porches with candles for light, a concert here, a play there. At some point in every gathering, someone whispered that this was their favorite part of the holidays, not the big dress-up parties, with the ostentation and performance aspect of it.  But this, us, bathed in affection and goodwill for each other.

Tomorrow, at the request of a niece,  I will bake the cookies that Nana made each Christmas,  but I would make them anyway.  They have been part of every Christmas of my life.  I will take them to my sister’s, where we will spend Christmas Eve together as a family, eating and laughing and doing the mathematics of the heart, tallying our losses and worries, and totting up blessings, our dreams for the future, newly minted adults with diplomas, new relationships, retirement,  new travel or nesting.

And then to midnight service, walking in the dark the short distance to church, seeking the ancient and divine with others gathered for the same purpose.

Before the sun dawns on Christmas Day I will have re-read the nativity story in Luke, will have re-read  “A Christmas Carol” and Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”  I will have listened to a scratchy recording of Dylan Thomas reciting  “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

But I will think about the lessons the Grinch learned, too, will think of how his heart grew because he saw for the first time, and clearly, the heart of others. 

The Grinch has a place along side my Christmas traditions, sits on the shelf with my starched white choir robe and big red bow that I wore for the Christmas performance at Buena Vista Baptist Church.  It sits with my mother’s cookies, alongside “Away in a Manger,” and “too excited to sleep.”  It takes up just the right amount of space, waiting for my father to open the cover and begin to read.