Every Christmas season my extended family traveled to my maternal grandparents’ home. Like every family, we had a few traditions. There was, of course, the obligatory ham dinner with creamy mashed potatoes, green beans with bacon, buttery sweet rolls coated with cinnamon and always some kind of unnaturally colored jello salad rife with fruit chunks and marshmallows. (Just the sight of these “salads” gave me the heebie-jeebies so I learned to serve myself a very small portion, chew once or twice and quickly wash it down with a swig of apple juice.) Though our ham dinner was a feast of smells and tastes (except for the jello salad), food was so abundant in the Ford household that it was almost unremarkable.
I preferred other traditions like presents. We children connived, cajoled, complained and otherwise sweet-talked our way through a multi-year campaign to win the right to open a gift on Christmas Eve. Of course, we each chose the gift that was the largest or made the most noise when jiggled. We always knew if the gift was from our grandparents; those were labeled from Frosty the Snowman, Mrs. Claus, Rudolf, and even, occasionally, friends like Betty Boop or Strawberry Shortcake.
Perhaps our finest and most under-appreciated tradition was packing our five family units into defrosted vehicles to crunch over the snowy streets of Youngstown, Ohio on our way to Evangel Baptist Church for the candle light Christmas Eve service. We arrived after twenty minutes, the car heaters just starting to thaw tingly toes stuffed in our Sunday-best but winter-worst shoes. We’d enter Evangel, drape our heavy coats on the clanging metal hangers and move into the sanctuary to be hand-shaken, bear-hugged and cheek-pinched into a bashful warmth. The Ford family filled two pews in the front, closest to where our grandmother perched at the organ. We children sat, hushed and squirming in the reverent low light of candles, the silence broken only by the sniffling of our thawing noses.
The service was always the same. Hark the Herald sung, the nativity story pieced together like quilt squares from Matthew and Luke presented in monotone by a man in a drab suit with a scarlet or powdery blue tie, my grandmother traveling from the organ to the center microphone to offer another soulful rendition of Sweet Little Jesus Boy. The service concluded as we passed a small flame person to person, one taper candle bowed to its neighbor, turning glossy white wicks to blackened tinder. Once the unison melody of Silent Night drifted into quiet, we extinguished our candles, quietly bundled in our coats and braved the cold again for our return trip to the Ford home.
Our arrival home was like the clanging of a bell, marking a new chapter of life. We went from hushed, taper-lit reverence, to the bustle and brilliance of the kitchen preparing for a party. Wassail was passed into waiting hands as grandma uncovered the frosted marble sheet cake, dotted it with pastel colored candles and lit the wicks with a match. Then, with nearly 20 bodies packed into the small eat-in kitchen, we sang a boisterous rendition of Happy Birthday, for Jesus.
Twenty years later, I can close my eyes and see those Decembers like cherished memorabilia framed, thick and gold, and hung above the mantel. I wouldn’t change them if I could. But as an adult, and as a pastor, I don’t want to perpetuate only the sentiment of Christmas. This is more than a holiday, it is a holy day. There’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia. I don’t want to scrooge all the merriment, but I do want to focus on the spiritual gifts of this season. I want to cherish the family traditions, but hang my heart on the miracle of what began two thousand years ago when Christ was born.
For years I’ve read the early chapters of Matthew and Luke and skimmed the parts about Elizabeth, Anna and even Mary. Because I’ve always loved babies and Jesus, I skipped to the good part about Jesus being born, about him bundled in something soft to protect him from the hay of his trough bed while surrounded by a cuddly petting zoo. I zeroed in on the fairy-tale moments like the prismic star that led foreigners to the new infant king and to the choir of angels singing in the night sky. But as an adult, I’ve learned something about stories, and about life, that I missed as a child. When reading, it’s the skimmed over parts, the slow parts, the seemingly unremarkable details that build to that unimaginable moment, to the moment of discovery, to a new spark of life within.
It was the smell of cinnamon, my grandmother’s vibrato, the heat of wax sliding onto my fingers during Silent Night, the way the candlelight flickered across my cousins’ faces, the crunch of snow under our tires – all of that led up to the moment were we sang Happy Birthday to Jesus. It’s the details that build the arc in any story. I’m a better writer than I was five years ago and a much better reader than I was twenty years ago because I’ve learned to I slow down and pay attention to the details. And that’s exactly how I can enhance my experience of Christmas and my understanding of Christ’s birth.
This month we’ll spend hours planning, shopping, wrapping gifts, decorating, attending parties and baking and that’s on top of our regular schedules. We’ll be like jack rabbits leaping through December at a frenzied pace, zigzagging all over the place in search of a tasty morsel. To keep Christmas about Christ, we have to choose to slow down, to stop, and to settle into the details of Advent.
That’s my plan, anyway. I’m taking walks so I can get away from the distractions in my house. While I walk, I focus on breathing deeply and praying. I’m reading the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew daily, now with an eye for detail, seeking out the snippets that I may have glossed over. Suddenly the bits about Elizabeth, Mary and Anna glow from the pages like taper candles. The stories of these women are significant in ways that I never saw before. These sages of Advent are helping me understand not just the miraculous birth of Jesus, but the grandeur of his entire story.
Christmas is not a story in itself; it is the beginning of a story. We don’t celebrate Advent simply because a baby named Jesus was born. We celebrate because Jesus grew up to travel his land preaching good news to the world-weary. Strangely enough, we celebrate Jesus’ birth because he died, and because through his death he defeated sin and death. We celebrate because Jesus rose again to life and because he ascended to heaven where he lives and reigns eternally. And we celebrate because his story, and ours, is not over.
To celebrate well, we need to begin well. That’s why I advocate for Advent, the season of anticipation that builds to the Christmas celebration. That’s why I’m slowing down and focusing on the details. That’s why I’m listening to the sages of Advent. Join me in looking closely at Elizabeth, Mary and Anna, so we can better celebrate Jesus.