Escaping the tyranny of our strange, sacred December traditions
The first Christmas my three children declined to help me decorate our tree, I was sad until it dawned on me that perhaps I could have a pretty tree that year. I could think about colour and spacing, and I wouldn’t have to sneak around after they went to bed and rearrange things, moving the giant Styrofoam snowmen heads from front and centre to side and low.
That year I had seen pictures in magazines of trees with clustered decorations, elegant little trios of colour-coordinated glass balls nestled together at the end of green branches. I could do that.
"It’s okay!" I shouted up the stairs in case anyone was about to change their mind and charge down. "It’s all good!"
I took my time. I listened to Christmas worship music. I enjoyed unwrapping ornaments from their little tissue paper homes and laying them all out on the couch before I placed each one thoughtfully on the tree. Mostly on the front of the tree, as it turned out.
After an hour or so I stood back to admire my work, and sighed with contentment at how lovely and sophisticated our tree looked. Gorgeous. A few peaceful seconds passed. Then my beautiful tree fainted forward and fell flat at my feet, spilling water and shattering glass balls. The kids heard the crash and came running. I burst into tears.
It was everything I hated about Christmas – the striving and the failing, the tyranny of the non-Jesus-y parts, and the way I consistently set the bar much higher for cooking, gifting, decorating and activity than time or talent would ever suggest is wise, like I have to prove something.
Eventually I allowed myself to question the type of Christmas that made me take to my bed at two in the afternoon, hiding from relatives and texting my daughter to please bring me a cup of hot tea.
How would Jesus plan His own birthday if He were in charge of this 12-day festival of food and gifts? I wondered.
First, we shrank the number of gifts we bought for our children to three, modelling our giving after those wise men. And we bought better gifts we thought would last longer and hold more meaning. But the truth is kids of a certain age would prefer to get lots of junky gifts instead of three good ones. Trust me – I know. Still, we pushed through.
Christmas was beginning to make a little more sense. It was the turkey though that really changed things. The Christmas turkey has never been my friend. It is a problem to be solved – math and mess. I circle around it, raw on my counter, and weigh my options. I have cooked it upside down in the quest for a juicy breast, soaked it in a bucket of brine, filled it with homemade or boxed stuffing, left it unstuffed, and roasted it on the day before and the day after Christmas.
I have also begun pots of turkey soup, stock bubbling away to less and less all day long until the pots were abandoned and left on a cold stove all night. I would toss it out in defeat. To do all that other work and then make soup? It was all just too much. I replaced turkey with prime rib, only to discover the actual fact of the turkey, big and bold, seems essential to Christmas.
Then one year our daughter Holly said, "Our church should hold a Christmas dinner for the community." So we struck a committee. We met in the church basement and divvied up jobs, and Christmas Day changed forever – and for so much better.
With a worship service on Christmas morning, our family shifted to opening presents after Christmas dinner, late in the afternoon. Our boys grumbled, "Great idea, Holly!" and then shone like lights flicked on in a darkened room. They visited well with the mostly lonely seniors from the community who had come, happy to find company and a good meal.
Elderly veterans told their war stories and some shared sad stories of family gone wrong. Old scars mean new wounds at Christmas, and our church basement became a first-aid clinic where listening was the medicine – that and a few hours of eating and singing carols together, led by my husband (the pastor), and a little group playing guitar, and a portable keyboard set up in the corner near the Sunday school supply cupboard.
In a way, it was ironic that adding something this huge to our Christmas celebrations lightened it all up. It was a chore that counted, a busy full of beauty.
In a way, it was ironic that adding something this huge to our Christmas celebrations lightened it all up. It was a chore that counted, a busy full of beauty. Working together with our church family to serve was one way to have Christmas make more sense. Our work to feed and be present with others brought value because it was not about us – and that is always when we are especially blessed.
Giving really is receiving, as it turns out. We just need to remember this again and again when we lose our minds a little bit at times like Christmas.
But it was more than just serving at the dinner that made it special – it was the partaking. It was the feasting that fed us. The first year I still came home and cooked our own turkey. As I pulled it out of the oven, I was struck by the superfluousness of this big awkward bird. Why wasn’t the only table we needed that same long table where we had sat with strangers in our church basement?
This became an important theological question for our family. Were we eating with our neighbours or not? Was the food that was good enough for them good enough for us? Or wasn’t it? It ended up being the last Christmas I roasted a turkey of our own (hallelujah and amen to that). We became both hosts and guests at all the church dinners that followed.
A few years in we moved from Port Perry to Ottawa and a larger church that had been serving Christmas dinner for decades. This dinner was different from the one we had come from. It welcomed more people who were not just lonely, but also harshly marginalized with very little income. Some lived without adequate housing. They arrived in the warm church hall out of the freezing cold of Christmas Day – for singing, shelter, turkey and I think tenderness.
When my parents visited one year, they were put to beautiful use as they sat at the end of a long table and, in the fullness of their grandparentness, held the happy baby of a young family who had just moved into the city and knew no one.
So much better than sitting in my living room drinking eggnog and waiting for me to snap.
This was Christmas, truly. This was Jesus, who had arrived on this day in the manger, and yes, in our city, here in this room, and was making everything in the world make sense, finally. We left Christmas dinner full, not needing anything else from that strange, sacred day.
We are all guests. Jesus is our host at a vast and endless table we ourselves do not build with all our striving, but He does with His grace and with His goodness. We are the invited and the welcomed to this quirky party. We can relax. And yes, we can even enjoy it.