I never believed in Santa. Never. Really. He was just a story with ancient origins that my parents would share to illustrate how even one person could make a difference by doing something kind.
But the Christ Child, he was real. Christmas was all about the Christ Child. And it was he who brought us gifts on Christmas Eve.
My memories of Christmas as a child are wonderful. They are everything we want our childhood memories to be: filled with laughter and joy and delight. After weeks of Advent, of preparation and anticipation, Christmas Eve would finally arrive and the Christ Child would come.
Our family always attended church on Christmas Eve and the Sunday School kids would recite the nativity story from the book of Luke. The service was filled with candles, and organ, and hymns. And then we would run home and up to our rooms to change into pajamas. When we came down, we would discover a pile of presents for each child. Unwrapped, of course, because the Christ Child didn’t have elves in a workshop, but he did always have time to deliver our gifts. While we squealed with delight, plunging into our individual trove of treasures, our parents would bring out a tray of cheese and a mug of slush for each of us. Then we would settle in to open all the wrapped presents from family that had been gathering in the living room throughout December. Presents were opened one by one and as we waited patiently for our next turn, we would pound the slush and scoop it into our mouths.
(My mother’s recipe for Slush is made with cranberry juice, lemonade, and a little bourbon – just enough to keep it from freezing entirely and just enough to get us to sleep at a reasonable hour. My mother was no fool. Regrettably, every church woman who deleted the bourbon in the church recipe book was. This treat is still a family tradition, though these days we add a lot more bourbon. The small dose for kids is never enough for adults. 😉
Everything that makes Christmas special for me, is celebrated on Christmas Eve.
But Christmas Day? The truth is, I don’t remember Christmas Day as a kid. I suppose we ate breakfast like any other Saturday and then played with our new gifts. I really don’t know. I have no memories.
As an adult, that changed.
I was twenty-four years old when my father died on Christmas Day, just after 8:00 AM.
Honestly, it was a perfect day for him to leave his body. My stepmother illustrated the bulletin cover for his funeral with the words, “Oh Jesus Christ, thy manger is my paradise.” Like I said, it was fitting. He knew he was dying. And if he couldn’t hold on until Easter, then he would have to die before Lent because, as he said, his funeral included too many hallelujahs. He liked to joke that he would die on Epiphany, so he could travel home with the wisemen. But his body couldn’t hold on that long. When we celebrated his baptismal anniversary on December 23 by anointing his head with oil, he was lucid enough to know he only had two more days to wait until the promise of his faith was fulfilled.
He knew it was Christmas Eve when my stepmother and I left for church. It was only the second time I had left his side in two weeks. And when we returned, he had begun his transition. He was in that in-between space, wiggling free from his body and leaning towards the light. I got into his bed and spooned him until 2am when it was time for my stepmother to sleep. I woke and heard the grandfather clock chime eight times. Then Judy called for me. I held his hand on one side as she held the other and he took his last breath.
The rest of the day, well, I remember it quite clearly. As I do many of the Christmas Days that followed. For years, I would spend it with my sister. We would watch old movies while eating a spinach rice mushroom and cheese concoction we now call Christmas casserole. I still eat that casserole every December 25th.
So you see, my traditions of Christmas haven’t really changed. Christmas Eve is still special to me and Christmas Day, well, if anything, my father’s death made that day holy too.
What I celebrated as a child is still what I celebrate today: the birth of the light, the light of the world. With the return of the light, the darkness wanes. The prophesy is fulfilled. Sunnier days are ahead.
For me, the most anticipated holiday of the year is Winter Solstice.
Christmas is just one of the many holy days during this winter season which share the same theme: the return of the Light and the renewal of life. At Hanukkah, we are reminded that there is always enough fuel in the lamp to keep burning, even when that seems impossible, even when the days seem darkest. And then Solstice arrives and the earth seems to stand still for a moment, for a few days, until the course is corrected, the nights get shorter and the days longer. The Christian celebration of God arriving in human form was deliberately set for December 25 to coincide with the Solstice (which was originally that date). It fits perfectly with our ancient human need for good news when everything seems bleak.
When God answers our prayers, we rarely see the results immediately. Instant miracles, well, that’s the stuff of legends and stories. Our daily truth is much slower. We are sick, the fever breaks, the infection is beaten, but it still takes time to restore our strength. The Sun is *born* again but it takes days until we see the fullness of it. The twelve days of Christmas begin on December 25 because traditionally it took twelve days for the yule fire to burn. Twelve days before we see the sun lengthen. Twelve days to Epiphany. A sudden knowing, a light. While the miracle has already happened, it is twelve days (or really two years) until the wisemen arrive with gifts.
Today I celebrate the Solstice. The beginning of a promise fulfilled.
Tonight, I will light candles in every room of my house and my home will be ablaze in a warm glow. I will read stories from multiple traditions and will sing one of my favorite hymns, Thy Strong Word Did Cleave the Darkness. I will meditate on light on dark, awash in metaphor. And I will keep celebrating through Christmas, all the way to Epiphany.
I hope you will too. May you, too, celebrate the eternal light that is in us and around us. Always. Even when we can’t see it. Even when we forget. Our prayers are answered. The promise is fulfilled.