God’s Christmas improv

I was trying not to do this, blog about Christmas.  I love Christmas, and I absolutely despise the shrill and brittle criticisms it brings out of the woodwork, the judgmental and one-sided reminders that no one lives out the spirit of Christmas.  We social-justice oriented folks are the worst at this, and it tires me.  It certainly is important to remember the real meaning of Christmas, not to shop ourselves into oblivion, or drink ourselves there.  But I don’t think people actually do too badly, most of the time.  We gather with friends, even the poorest among us share our homes and food, our time and love, with people who have less.  We reconsider our lives, reflect on the previous year and hope for the year to come.  We look at what’s important, and at what’s not, and we reorganize our lives according to better priorities.  With or without Jesus explicitly as a part of the equation, I think most of us manage to keep God’s vision of Christmas pretty faithfully.  We allow ourselves to be surprised by grace.  That’s Christmas, to me… God’s improv, God’s giving of something so surprising and strange and lovely that our attention can’t help but be caught.  Maybe a baby in the middle of the desert with the oddest parental relationships imagineable isn’t what does it.  Maybe for you it’s something else, the beauty of the world through a swirl of snow on the street, or children opening gifts with abandon, or an anniversary of sobriety, or eating a meal with a stranger.  I don’t know.   God’s there, too. 

I remember Christmases growing up – my mom loved the holiday, the glory of decorations, gatherings, music, following the Santa traditions.  I believed in Santa until I was nine years old.  He was sacred.  I remember the day I found out Santa wasn’t real and the moment I realized I had to protect my younger brothers from learning the same, from their Christmas worlds shattering.  My letters had swirled up the chimney since I was three, reindeer came and ate cookies and carrots on our porch.  There had been reindeer prints, Santa teethmarks in cookies left in the living room.  I had heard the bells.  My parents were very, very serious about Christmas.  From Thanksgiving until December 25, we lived the myth, Santa-style.  Except. 

We all have, I think, memories we try not to dig out of our mental closets.  Our most shameful behaviors, the most hateful words we’ve ever said.  For me, half of those memories are tied to Christmas mornings.  You see, in addition to the amazing playing out of Christmas stories, my family also did Christmas morning extravegantly.  My brothers and I would wake up and find literally a mountain of gifts, each kid’s pile wrapped in their own colorful paper.  We each had our own corner of the room, filled with all sorts of amazing things.  The tearing, snapping, piranhas would strike, paper would fly, we’d exhaust ourselves ripping apart the piles.  Then, it would be over.  Most years, we’d open gifts like this then go to family’s or on vacation somewhere.  The center of the day was that enormous collection of stuff, our bickering over what the others had gotten, temper tantrums when what we’d asked for wasn’t in the pile.  I remember one year when I actually received a lump of coal in my stocking, my gifts hidden in the other room, because I’d been so angry the night before about a gift I’d received that I hadn’t wanted.  Sent to my room on Christmas.  Christmases like these embarrass me.  I know I started this with the statement that most of us do Christmas pretty well… perhaps I should say that we learn to. 

When I think about my childhood Christmas mornings, and the candle-lit, wondrous days leading up to it, baking cookies with my mom, decorating the house and tree, the traditions she so pain-stakingly  created for us, I realize now that she wanted Christmas for us to be what God wants it to be, as well.  She just didn’t have the right path to get us there.  We had the surprises, there was love, there was generosity (most of the time), but one magic ingredient was always missing… what was the point?  What were we supposed to be becoming through Christmas?  God’s amazing baby-gift had a message.  Santa-Christmas, at least the way we did it, had none.  It wasn’t about anything.  God’s Christmas is about surprising ourselves with goodness, hoping for a better world, living into our potential as seen through the lens of eternity, of doing it as a community of humanity.  It’s about lighting the darkness and bringing love to others.  Done with these things in mind, Santa isn’t a problem for me, but I am painfully aware of how easy it is for me, myself, to return to my childhood habits.  And so this Christmas, I hope you are surprised by love.  Overcome by God’s generosity in your life.  Taken aback by hope of what’s possible in the world.  Drowned in grace.  Whatever this means to you, I wish you a merry Christmas.  Because there’s a surprise in it for you somewhere, and it’s got your name on it.

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