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Christmas—so much to mock, so little time. For most of December, I carry that outlook.
Now, in these quiet, unhurried days of Christmastide, my cynicism melts and my frustration unwinds. I find myself savoring, pondering, reminiscing, and rejoicing. Here are some of the things that have recently floated through my soul.
The Friendly Beasts: My mother made this our family Christmas song. It is simple and the animal vignettes speak to the seven-year-old heart. Each of us had our own verse. I started things off as the donkey. Hearing my eldest sister sing “I said the cow, all white and red” was always worth a humiliating glare, especially since she had red hair.
The haircut: On a dreary December Sunday afternoon, I was supposed to be watching our young daughter and the football game on TV. In reality I was snoozing on the couch. I was awakened by my wife screaming “Emma, what did you do?” In the corner of the room, cowered a four-year-old with her bangs missing and mangled. On the low table, around her child-sized nativity set was a nice scattering of hair. “I was only trying to make straw for the baby Jesus.”
Advent wreaths and calendars: It has been said many times, but the repetitions and rhythms are fantastic for children, helping them mark and move through time. With my own children, it was the daily Advent calendar. We’d get a new version every year, and still have them all. In my own childhood, it was the ritual, now seemingly so quaint, of Sunday afternoon family devotions. To avoid squabbles, we would have to chart the entire season between lighter, reader, and blower-outer. Mainly I remember the time my sister set her hair on fire.
Luke 2: The choir may be flat and the sermon flatter still, but if you simply read Luke 2, Christmas worship will be good. Really, the entire sprawling chapter is a wonder. And it taught me to trust the tradition, not to be seduced by novelty. Great stuff bears repeating. No one ever whines, “Are they going to read the Christmas story, again?”
Sioux County cocktail: to a middle-class kid in the 1970’s, this was a sign that we were classy folk. Cranberry juice mixed with 7-Up served on Christmas Eve.
Late night mass from the Vatican on TV: After everyone else has gone to bed early on Christmas morn, I often decompress by watching Christmas mass with the pope. The hushed tones of the announcers, explaining and translating, sound like golf commentators. Francis takes out a 7 iron for his approach to the high altar.
Santons: The nativity sets from southern France are both artisanal treasures and good theology. Everyone comes to the manger—fishmonger, miller, lamplighter, circus performer, village “simpleton,” and even the priest. But for me, they’re also a reminder of being young and in love in southern France in the summer. Christmas may be nice, but being young and in love in southern France in the summer is better. Not better than the Incarnation, but better than Christmas.
Fruitcake: It’s the butt of lots of Christmas jokes. A comedian once suggested there is a national fruitcake repository in a hollowed-out mountain in Utah where all the uneaten fruitcakes are kept until next year. But a high-quality, dark fruitcake is a pleasure, in small quantities. Plus, it reminds me of my dad.