It’s a Celebration!

With Christmas right around the corner—houses lit with blinking red and green lights, wreaths on doors, and bell ringers in front of every store, I (like any normal, Protestant girl) am thinking about the Passover. Okay, maybe that’s not necessarily a natural connection, but stick with me here.

 

From what I can tell, most every culture has its own unique traditions, music, and history. (They each also seem to have their own version of a dumpling, but I digress…) If you dig into what make these groups distinctive, you also find recurring celebrations.

 

After a limited amount of internet research mostly consisting of me and my husband looking at pictures and descriptions of obscure festivals and celebrations after I googled the phrase “Obscure Festivals and Celebrations,” I’ve decided these traditions can be put in one or a combination of four categories: 1.) Celebrations for religious reasons, 2.) Celebrations for political/historical reasons, 3.) Celebrations related to nature, 4.) Celebrations as excuses to do stupid stuff.

 

Take, for instance, the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. It’s a part of a nine-day festival to honor Saint Fermin who was beheaded for sharing the Gospel in France, but it turned into a justification to risk life and limb by jumping in front of giant bulls being herded to the bullring. If you ask me, things got a little out of hand.

 

Each festival I read about told a story of people gathering to commemorate a moment or a movement or an ideal. The reasons vary from sacred and very special to “you just had to be there.” (Like the Cheese Rolling Festival in Gloucester, England where locals attempt to win a large wheel of cheese by rolling down a steep hill after it. Many are hospitalized after they reach the bottom. That better be some good cheese.)

 

The Jewish culture is famous for its festivals and holidays, and why shouldn’t they be? The Old Testament is full of God’s commands to memorialize extraordinary events. There are holidays set aside to seek God’s atonement like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. There are holidays such as Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles, and Hanukah which are meant to remind God’s people to be thankful for His Provision. Then there are holidays designed to commemorate God’s rescue in times of trouble: Purim from the book of Esther or Passover from the book of Exodus.

 

God gave Moses His very specific instructions for avoiding the punishment which would soon be meted out to all of the Egyptian firstborn sons. God said “This is a day to remember. Each year, from generation to generation, you must celebrate it as a special festival to the Lord. This is a law for all time. Celebrate this Festival of Unleavened Bread, for it will remind you that I brought your forces out of the land of Egypt on this very day.” (NLT)

 

After they had escaped Egypt, Moses reminded the Israelites of God’s festival: “…you must explain to your children, ‘I am celebrating what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.’ This annual festival will be a visible sign to you, like a mark branded on your hand or your forehead. Let it remind you always to recite this teaching of the Lord: ‘With a strong hand, the Lord rescued you from Egypt.’” (NLT)

 

Although celebrating Christmas isn’t a command found in the Bible and we can’t pinpoint the exact date for Jesus’ birth, we are told again and again to remember what the Lord has done for us. The word remember is found more than 250 times in Scripture. God calls us to remember.

 

So let us remember what God has done for us. He sits at the Seat of Mercy. He’s the Great Provider. He’s our Rescuer. Let’s celebrate His Son!

The Meanest Man in Town

Mr. Hopper was universally regarded as the meanest man in town. He just didn’t like kids—not in his grass or near his car or close to his mailbox or even in his peripheral vision. At 3:00 pm every day, he made sure to position himself in his front yard with his garden hose in hand. It only took a few showers for the kids to re-route their walk home from school. A shortcut wasn’t worth an afternoon of soggy socks and sodden tennis shoes.

As people moved away and new families moved in, the reputation of Mean Mr. Hopper grew to legendary proportions. Some said his wife had left him, and he hadn’t been the same since. Others said he had fought in Vietnam leaving him bitter and angry. One unsubstantiated rumor claimed he had been an informant for the Feds, now forced into hiding from the Mob.

The neighborhood’s assumptions about him were challenged every year on December 1st. Rain or shine, Mr. Hopper spent the day dragging inflatables and wooden cut-outs from his garage. He untangled miles of orange extension cords and blinking Christmas lights, pausing from time to time to wipe the sweat from his forehead with the bright red handkerchief he kept in his back pocket. He carefully placed the reindeer figures in the seats of the five-foot tall Ferris Wheel before plugging it in and checking that all the lights along the edge worked properly and it rotated smoothly. He set the giant, inflatable M&M near the oak tree then started up the fan that breathed life into the flat green bundle of shiny fabric. Scaling the old splatter-painted fiberglass ladder, he hung the icicle lights on his gutters along the front of the house. By the end of the day, hardly an inch of empty space remained, including the front porch where super-sized versions of The Grinch, Pillsbury Dough Boy, and Mickey Mouse stood guard.

The final piece to Mr. Hopper’s tribute to twenty years of Day-After-Christmas sales was the life-size Mrs. Claus cut from plywood and painted with poster paints. She stood front and center with one hand waving to any passers-by and the other hand holding a plate of tree-shaped cookies. Mr. Hopper would remove his handkerchief to tenderly wipe away any grime she had collected from the dusty garage, then he would stand back to survey his hard work. Without a smile of satisfaction, he would give the yard a nod and walk inside the house to await the increasing darkness that would add magic to his display.

As the days leading up to Christmas tumbled by, more cars would slowly roll past the bright house. On many occasions, Mr. Hopper could be seen peeking out his living room curtains. When drivers caught sight of him, they would speed up to continue down the street rather than risk being on the receiving end of a a fist-shaking from this grouchy neighbor.

“I can’t imagine why a man that ornery would want to do his house up for Christmas,” Mrs. West said to Mr. West as the Hopper house twinkled in the rearview mirror. “They say he’s as tight as a miser with his money. Makes you wonder what he thinks about his electric bills when they come in the mail ‘round this time of year.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

One year Mrs. Haven returned to town on Christmas Eve. She was an elderly woman who had been Mr. Hopper’s neighbor nearly thirty years before but had moved to San Francisco to be nearer her only daughter. Having been the town’s first librarian, she had been invited to the opening of the new public library. At a reception following the ceremony, one of the patrons asked Mrs. Haven if she had kept up with any of her former neighbors.

“No,” she said as she carefully held a plastic cup of punch, “I’ve lost touch with everyone, I’m afraid. It’s too bad because we lived here for ten years.”

“Where was your house?”

“We had a lovely split-level on the corner of Maple and Birch.”

“Oh my! Isn’t that next to Mr. Hopper?”

“Charles Hopper? Yes, that’s right.”

“Muriel Haven, how did you ever stand living next to that man?”

“He was a wonderful neighbor.” Mrs. Haven furrowed her brow with a confused expression. “He kept his lawn neat and his wife baked the best cherry pie.”

“His wife?” The circle of people took a step in toward the center, closing in on Mrs. Haven like a pack of hungry wolves.

“Yes. Charles and Penny were a dear couple. I suppose Penny has passed on now. She would never leave her bed after little Charlie’s accident…” Mrs. Haven paused to sip her punch and glanced at the faces surrounding her. “Of course you all know about the accident.” No one spoke or even breathed. “He was only four when he was hit by a car in the street in front of their house. Poor Penny was such a sweet, meek, little thing. She just crumbled into pieces. My husband and I moved a year or so after the accident and when my letters were unanswered…well, we just never heard what came of them.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

The late local news had ended. Mr. Hopper had just turned off the television set but he had a difficult time pulling himself up from his recliner. He knew he had to turn off the outdoor lights before preparing for bed, but he dreaded the moment when the brilliant brightness would be extinguished. The sudden darkness always made him feel blind and unsure of what lurked just beyond his yard. He reached up to switch off the floor lamp so that he could fully appreciate the cheerful flashing and whirring outside.

Thoughts of a little boy with blond ringlets tearing open the wrappings on a new train set Christmas morning made a hollow ache spread from his stomach to his throat and into the deep sockets behind his eyes. He had spent the past thirty years trying to forget the son who had been a joyous surprise to an aging, childless couple. He had worked hard to prevent any children coming within twenty feet of his door but memories are no respecter of boundaries and garden hoses. He always told himself that he did it for her. He kept them away for the same reason that he put out the lights and decorations every year—to bring her back to him—to make everything the same as it had been before Charlie. In moments of honest introspection, he admitted that he also did it for himself to prove that he was still alive. Sometimes he needed more proof than just the air entering and exiting his old chest.

“Charles?” a weak voice called from the back bedroom.

“Coming, Penny.” Mr. Hopper folded the leg rest on his recliner and stood, then he went to kiss his wife goodnight.

Christmas Awe

Putting up Christmas decorations is an annual battle of my two selves. There is the sentimental side that lives for Christmas movies and swoons for Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Then there’s my practical side: the “waste not, want not” me, the “plan for every contingency” me, the “waiting for the other shoe to drop” me. It is an epic struggle to see which side wins.

For instance, as I’m stringing the lights on our Christmas tree the Oscar the Grouch part of me is asking, “Why am I doing this? In just a few weeks I’ll have to take all of this down and put it away. I’ll have to drag out those dusty plastic bins and try to fit this stuff back in before storing it away in the basement again for another 11 months. And I’ll most likely be doing this cleaning up all by myself with no help from the other people who happened to live in this house.”

The Buddy the Elf part of me is saying (or probably singing or maybe shouting), “I love Christmas! I love Christmas! I love Christmas!”

If only I could see all of this magical Christmas splendor through the eyes of our 5-year old son. This is his first American Christmas—his first Christmas with his forever family—and every Christmas decoration fills him with unimaginable awe. Every Christmas tree twinkling through an open window, every giant Snoopy blowup wearing a Santa hat and swaying in a front yard, every set of net lights thrown atop a bush incites a cry from the backseat, “Oooo, Mom, look! So pretty!”

The Grinch-Me knows his sense of awe won’t last forever. He is partly in love with the sights and sounds of this holiday because it’s new and so different than what he’s used to. After a few years of blinking lights, he probably won’t think everything is quite so amazing. The once mind-blowing may ultimately become the expected and uninspiring.

The Mistletoe-Me believes he will always feel a tingle of excitement when those Christmas songs start playing on the radio and those wreaths start showing up on front doors.

His present level of awe reminds me of a group of men sitting on a hillside, barely staying awake as they were watching their sheep, a couple thousand years ago. There they were, minding their own business then, all of a sudden: “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” (I’m with Linus—King James Version only for this one.)

This was new and different and glorious. They were afraid but fully listening to the instructions given to them via a bunch of angels. I wonder, after the angels were gone, did the Shepherds’ faces glow like Moses on Mount Sinai? When they told others about their experience did they get a reputation for being crazy? Right after the angels disappeared, could they close their eyes and see the remnant of their brilliance, like when someone takes your picture with a very bright flash and you can still see the flash seconds later?

What would it be like to carry that kind of memory with them for the rest of their lives? The experience was strong enough for them to pick themselves up off the grass and head to Bethlehem, lickety-split. Did they feel honored that they had been chosen to receive this information? Did they want to get over to the stable before they could talk each other out of what they had seen, before that radiant, angelic outline they could still see when they closed their eyes had fully faded?

For me, this will be the Christmas of Awe. It will be the Christmas of “Oooo, pretty!” And Lord willing, it will be the Christmas of “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” Just like those shepherds did as they returned to their sheep on that night so long ago.

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Fa la la la la

I love Christmas music. There’s just something about the phrase “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…” that makes me feel all warm and cozy inside, like a thick pair of socks on cold feet or a good, long hug from Brent after a rough day.

 

I can trace the introduction to most of my favorite songs to my mother’s record/CD collection. To this day, I still love hearing the close harmony in the Carpenters’ version of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” And I know all of the words to “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Christmas in Killarney,” thanks to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. These songs just make me happy.

 

Of course, not all Christmas songs are great. In fact, some are pretty annoying. Many people—especially ones with good taste in music—cringe when they hear the song “Christmas Shoes.” You know the one I’m talking about: the kid goes into the store to buy his dying mom shoes so she’ll look beautiful when she meets Jesus. I don’t want to sound heartless, but…shoes? Who thinks of shoes when they’re 1) wanting to look beautiful, and 2) expecting to meet Jesus. How about a cute top or an expensive mascara? I mean Jesus just wore sandals, right? I don’t think He was a shoe-person, any more than Moses was a sweater guy and Abraham had a thing for scarves.

 

Not being a professional musician, I can only guess but sometimes it seems like recording artists are forced into making a Christmas album–possibly at gunpoint–and they panic. They have to write new songs and reinvent old ones. So they take perfectly good Christmas songs and completely ruin them. Case in point: Michael Buble’s version of “Santa Baby.” In the more famous version sung by Eartha Kitt, she kind of flirts with Santa. She tells him all of the presents she wants even though she’s obviously been fairly naughty. It’s not my favorite but it’s a classic. When Michael sings it, he changes all of the words and it’s obnoxious. He calls Santa pally and poppy. What a cheeseball.

 

Another weird rendition of a flirty song is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” sung by Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone (the guy who sings the jingle for the laundry detergent ALL). I know they got together for this duet because they both have roles in the movie Elf—she plays Jovie and he plays Leon the Snowman. When I heard their version this year, I couldn’t help but think Leon was going to slip Zooey a rufie. It’s a creepy combo.

 

I’ve noticed some patterns on my list of Top Ten Christmas Songs. For instance, I really like a lot of songs with questions in their titles: “Mary, Did You Know?” and “What Child is this?” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” All Winners. I’m not sure why these are among my favorites, but here’s a thought: the story of Jesus’ birth brings up a lot of questions. Why did God wait thousands of years before He sent His Son? What did Mary expect would happen? What kind of baby was Jesus? Was He prone to fussiness? Did he sleep through the night early? The genius of the story is that it reflects our lives—starry night, childbirth, the government demanding unrealistic things from its citizens—but it also has an element of the supernatural. The band of angels and exotic wise men catch our attention. It’s beautiful and surprising and amazing. All it’s missing is a little  pa-rum-pum-pum-pum. Oh yeah, thank you, little drummer boy!

Bah-humbug!

With the following post I may lose a couple of friends or at the very least disappoint some, but blogs are supposed to be controversial, right? Right. So…

I don’t believe in Santa Claus. It’s true. I don’t believe in his chimney forays or his over-indulgent cookie-eating or his magic reindeer. Now you know more about me then you’d ever want to. Like finding out that I’m a chain smoker or a democrat. I am the bad guy in every Christmas special. I’m the one that needs to find “Christmas in my heart.” I’m the one who makes saving Christmas a necessity. (In my opinion, anything that needs saving that frequently is pretty lame to begin with. Is Christmas just too big too fail?)

In your mind, I am now one of the following fictional characters:

Professor Hinkle from Frosty the Snowman: (So selfish…He only believed in the magic that could benefit him. Kind of how I feel about couponing. It’s stupid unless I remember to do it and get a really good deal on cereal.)


Ebenezer Scrooge (Such a jerk but at least he had his morning of redemption at the end)

The Grinch (His heart was two sizes too small. My feet are two sizes too big for my height and the older I get the more my hips are getting grinch-ish)

 

I’m more than happy to record these shows for my kids and even watch them myself, but I can’t get into the “Santa’s bringing presents to good little girls and boys…” I can’t think of many creepier things than having this in my house:

A waif-ish little elf who hides in your house and tattles on you to Santa. I don’t want my kids to be good because they want presents from Santa. I want them to be good for the right reason… because they don’t want to hear me yell their full names down the basement stairs. And besides, why should Santa get all the credit for those gifts anyway? I have to force myself to write “daddy” on the tag with “mommy” since I’m the one who did all the shopping and wrapping! I’m definitely not giving Santa any of the glory!

There’s also the subterfuge required to keep the Santa ruse going. You’re constantly checking everything you say about Christmas gifting. And if they ask a question that you can’t answer (like: “But we don’t have a chimney?”) you have to practice some creative lying. How exhausting!


We tell kids all the time that Christmas isn’t about presents. We tell them it’s about spending time with your loved ones and general good will toward men. But what’s the first comment out of everyone’s mouth when they’ve seen my kids since Christmas Day? “Did Santa visit you? What did you get? Were you naughty or nice this year?”
Kids are smart but mixed messages abound. “Please” is not really a magic word, green vegetables won’t actually put hair on your chest, and they won’t actually receive an appropriate amount of toys compared to the preceeding year’s behavior. They’ll get an amount equivalent to their siblings’–no more, no less.I’m not proposing a Christmas Coup d’état. I think the big guy has a lot of value. I’m just saying that if I choose to skip over some of the Santa stuff like putting out cookies but you pay a fat actor in a red suit to “ho, ho, ho” your child awake on Christmas morning, we can still be friends. I mean, we don’t look down on the Dutch just because they put out wooden shoes instead of stockings, right?Look, this is the one time every year that you can walk into a store and hear a song straight from the gospel blaring over the PA system. It’s the time when people are looking for ways to give to the less fortunate. It’s the time when you hug every friend and speak kindnesses to every stranger. I want to revel in that. I don’t want to water down the birth of the greatest man to ever walk this earth with a story about a fictional character. There’s just no comparison.I love traditions. I love Christmas. I promise to try to find Christmas in my heart and keep it there even after I take down the tree.