I am writing this post while sitting next to our Christmas tree. Typically, our tree is our final act of decorating – when the kids were younger, we did not want little hands tearing off ornaments; now that the kids are older, we did not want to visit the tree lot until everyone was home – but COVID has changed all that with tree shortages and on-line classes. Will the tree dry out and drop its needles as it occupies the Living Room for more than three weeks? It is likely, but for now, I will enjoy its familiar fragrance and its meaningful memories.
As I look at the tree, my eyes first focus on the ornaments. A few of them are pieces of foam or felt fashioned by tiny fingers, taking me back to a time when my children were a bit smaller and their wonder of Christmas was a bit larger. Most of them are commercially produced, whether they are a reflection of a “1st Christmas” (my grown or growing children all wanting their own to be placed highest and centermost) or a reminder of the year we purchased them. There is an ornament from Jeanine’s college days and there will be an ornament, I am sure, from this season of life. Each one serves as a mnemonic device of our time together.
Behind the ornaments are the lights, red and yellow and green and blue twinkles that are just bright enough to illuminate their immediate surroundings. Alone, these bulbs are insignificant, but putting 500 or so together casts enough light to give the room a certain glow. Unlike the ornaments, the beauty and significance of the lights are not in their individual meaning but in their collective impact: at night, just as we are retiring to bed, Jeanine and I sit by the tree, with only its light filling the room, and remark at ‘how lovely are your branches’. It serves as a mnemonic device of our beauty together.
Finally, there is gold garland that, literally and figuratively, ties all the aspects of the tree together. Wrapped around this fragile, living (and dying) evergreen is a cord of shimmering splendor. It makes this ordinary plant something special. I do not typically think about the garland, which I usually regard as a finishing afterthought to my tree decorating, but today I am in a mood to recognize its significance. I consider the garland a glimpse of Christ within the Christmas tree – a touch of royalty surrounding the rustic. This cord envelopes the earthly with the eternal and the ordinary with the extravagant. It serves as a mnemonic device of Jesus, fully human and fully divine.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
I appreciate the tree beside me because it reminds me of God’s blessings, God’s community, and God’s presence. Whether real or artificial – or not even a tree – I pray that there is something near you, as well, that jogs your memory of the goodness of God this Christmas.
As much as I try to maintain the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ (through the images I choose to reflect on Christmas cards and wrapping paper, the musical selections of carols in the midst of secular songs and our participation in Advent), one trapping of the ‘holiday’ season that I cannot seem to eliminate is the Christmas stocking. I recognize the secular source of these socks hung over the hearth – I have seen the documentary “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, which cogently gives the history of the holiday hosiery as a means of Kris Kringle avoiding the mandates of the mean-spirited Burgermeister Meisterburger so that the children of Sombertown could receive ‘outlawed’ toys.
There is another possible origin story involving the real Saint Nicholas. It seems that there was a once wealthy nobleman who had three daughters. This nobleman fell upon hard times and could not afford a dowry to enable his girls to be married. This inability to accept proposals filled the family with shame. Nicholas heard of this man’s misfortune and, having riches from an inheritance, secretly gave the young women bags of gold, throwing them inside the house through an open window. One of these bags made its way into a stocking. As religious and pious as the story sounds, it is as dubious and as unlikely as the imaginative plotline of stop-motion animators Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass.
Whatever the source, stockings have always been a tradition in my family. We are (okay, it is probably more me than anyone else) peculiar in our practice of ‘stuffing’: the trinkets are never wrapped or labeled (everyone knows they are filled by Santa), there is always at least one toy (since that is what Santa brings from his workshop) and there is always at least one piece of fruit (it is anyone’s guess why). The stocking is the first thing that is ‘opened’. While it may contain small, inexpensive and ordinary items, it is an important part of our family’s Christmas.
The stocking is a sort of microcosm for the nativity. In both, there are a number of ordinary things grouped together to make a whole that is so much greater than the parts. There is the humility of Mary, the righteousness of Joseph and the simplicity of the shepherds. There is a single star, a meager manger and some common cloth. The ‘real’ gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – arrived days (if not weeks) later. Yet, when combined, they amount to so much more than a simple, albeit rustic, arrival of a first-born child. It becomes the greatest gift the world has ever received.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
My hope and prayer for you this Christmas is that you will see the glory of the one and only Son. Whether your stockings are hung by the chimney with care (in hopes that St. Nicholas soon will be there) or you enjoy some other Christmas tradition, may the ordinary aspects of your celebration accumulate to much more than you can imagine.
Yesterday was our youngest son’s eighth birthday. Joshua had been looking forward to his ‘special day’ for a long time, but not for the obvious reasons. Sure, he was excited about presents and cake and ice cream, but he was anticipating his eighth birthday for another reason: it was the day that he was no longer required to use a car safety seat. We were counting the days with him until he could sit in the van ‘like everyone else’ and, to his youthful delight, yesterday we moved the car seat out of the car and into our curb-side recycling.
For me, as his father, this action was bittersweet. A car seat/booster seat had taken up permanent residence in the backseat of our car for more than 21 years (7,765 days to be exact). The combination of black plastic, metal and fabric (or one of its numerous predecessors) that we removed from the car has faithfully protected my precious cargo, my four babies, but now it is gone. One final layer of protection and one final thread drawing me back to my children’s infancies is now gone. Joshua, like his brothers and sister before him, have reached an age where his body can withstand the impact of a car crash.
As I worry about my eight year old surviving without a safety seat, my mind drifts to Christmas and the love of the Father as he gave His only begotten son to us. I wonder if God the Father and God the Son had a conversation prior to that moment of conception in Nazareth: “We have spent an eternity together, but Adam’s children need help. I need You to surrender all You have and be born of flesh, trusting those who have rebelled against Us to care for Your every need.” “I will go, according to Your will.” No safety seats, no safety nets and no safety pins – God became defenseless and lived among us.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14
The Almighty Creator of the universe who harnessed His power to speak the world into existence became embryonic; the one who breathed life into Adam was birthed among the livestock. He required His crowning creation, a limited human being, to supply His every need – food, shelter, comfort and protection. He who dwelled in sinless and perfect paradise from before time began was now deeply embedded in the earthly environment of dirt, disease and danger. As a father, I struggle with letting go of a car seat…I cannot imagine turning over my pre-born progeny to imperfect strangers to raise as their own.
There is just one question that remains: Why? Why would the Father give His son to us? Because He loves us so much that He will refuse us nothing we require. In a much less spectacular way, it is the same reason why there is no longer a safety seat in my back seat; I love Joshua so much that I would deny him nothing he requires, even if it pains me to do so.