Frost crocheted like lace flutters over the windows and waits for the sun to melt it away. The morning sunlight leaps and dances over the new fallen snow, and the blue abyss of sky stretches forever in cloudless wonder over the trees that droop with their burden of wet snow and icicles, which scrape the whiteness below.
The chill of the outside world contrasts sharply to the warmth of the crackling fire, the ruffles of red and green ribbon, the golden globes of glass and the silver bells that adorn the fireplace. The tree in glorious splendor stands in the corner, shimmering with tinsel and garland. Christmas is here! The traditions start to unfold, and the world is changed for a season.
Tradition is written in the songs that float from the radio, CD player and the MP3 players; they linger in our hearts. “Silver Bells,” “White Christmas,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” waft through the air like the sweet aroma of pine, cinnamon and cloves. We breathe in the sweetness and sigh out our longing for more. Carolers come to the door serenading with “Joy to the World,” “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” We smile our gratitude and return the blessing of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
The traditions continue as we bustle about the kitchen in our crisp white aprons turning out Betty Crocker originals with agile perfection. Not a speck of flour falls to the floor, and the world is filled with the delicious aroma of baking. Homemade tea rings, fudge, divinity, candy canes, donuts and popcorn balls in perfect piles fill the counters waiting to be carried to well-deserving neighbors and friends.
The children enter with their thoughts of Santa. They are always genteel and generous. The girls are dressed in red velvet decked with bows and buckled shoes, and the boys are dressed with clean trousers and immaculate shirts. They write letters to Santa. Their lines are penned with thoughts of the poor and needy, and their list of desires is appropriately short. Soft giggles of delight fill the air as “visions of sugar plums dance in their heads.” Verses of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” have been their theme song for months. They have honed their behavior to the occasion.
Christmas Eve we light the candles, and the flicker of the fire dances on reverent and grateful faces as we listen to the story of the first Christmas.
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David; which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:1,3-14).
Sometime during the night Santa comes in a reindeer sleigh. He slides down the chimney without a hitch. In a flash, he distributes shining gold, red and green packages tied up in magnificent bows. He eats the cookies and drinks the milk beside the note that the children so painstakingly and lovingly left. He looks around at the Christmas perfection with a satisfied smile. Then, putting “a finger to the side of his nose,” he magically slides up the chimney and is gone in the night sky with a glorious shout of, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.” He doesn’t leave a credit card bill in the top drawer or in the mailbox to be paid in excruciating increments over the next five years. He simply leaves a wish for peace.
Then I wake up from my dream! I find myself lost in never-ending tasks and shopping lists. I wade through unfulfilled wishes from expectant eyes, wondering how we will afford Christmas for another year. “It’s not supposed to be this way,” I complain, as I clean the flour from the floor, my hands, my face and my elbows. I wash my hands of the failed gingerbread house and put the remains in the garbage, and I yell at the kids to turn down the TV. It’s driving me crazy! I remind them of the “better watch out” line, and it’s not because Santa is coming to town. I’m greeted with, “It’s not my fault! I wasn’t doing anything!”
I go to bed with tears on my pillow as I fail once again to create the perfect Christmas. I finally come to the conclusion that Christmas is a pain in the neck.
I long for the days of childhood when Christmas magic floated everywhere like a delicious mist. There really was a Santa Claus. I really waited to hear reindeer pause on the roof. But I am stuck in reality! Christmas isn’t much fun when you are reaching for holiday perfection – an illusion of a dream that someone else dreamed up.
I think of the first Christmas. Quiet labor pains in a stable filled with the smell of animals and the chill of the night air settling over the place. Bleating sheep and lowing cattle are witnesses to the most magnificent event the world has ever known. A vigilant worried father hovers over the mother who is scarcely more than a child herself. She rests on the hard ground, snuggling the tiny infant to her breast.
Then the strangers come; they are shepherds from the fields who smell of sheep and hard labor. They clamor to tell of the angel who announced the birth of this wonderful son. The mother shares the infant in humility, even though her body still aches from the ordeal of giving birth. She doesn’t shoo the men away. She simply ponders the moment “in her heart.”
Christ didn’t come into the world with the fanfare of Christmas. He lived in quiet dignity seeking to be known only by those who are pure in heart – those who seek his salvation and peace. He spoke only when it was necessary and then only to utter words that fit the occasion. When confronted by men wanting to stone the adulteress, he knelt and wrote upon the ground, and said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). When he stood condemned in a mock trial and was spit upon by false accusers, he stood in awesome silence allowing his enemies to condemn themselves. Christ truly lived by the adage, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5: 9).
The man-made traditions of Christmas are the trappings of peace. They were designed year by year to bring peace into the world as a reminder that Christ is the Prince of Peace, who once lived and walked the earth. Like so many of the world traditions, they miss the target. We look for peace where peace will never be found. The only place peace exists is in the heart. We can be quiet, subdued and live in immaculate surroundings and still not be peaceful. Storms of fear, anger and frustration can rage in our hearts behind a wall of silence. The Prince of Peace plants peace in the heart. Through constant desire and reaching to Him in prayer, we can become more like Him. He will fill our hearts with charity. When our hearts are full of charity, love spills over to others. He gives us power to become calm when everything is a shamble around us. He gives us the passion to “love our enemies” and “to do good to those who despitefully use us and persecute us” (Matt. 5:44). He gives us peace, and in peace everything feels like perfection.
Let’s not give away the sweet traditions of Christmas, but let us remember that it is not in the trappings of Christmas but in the Prince of Peace that Christmas becomes a glorious occasion. PD