Christmas, 1975…once upon a time.
Piles of toys and wrapped boxes sit beneath a fat, twinkling tree, dripping with shiny, silver tinsel. Ornaments made from tissue paper, toilet paper rolls, colored elbow macaroni, and construction paper cover the boughs.
There are also little angels, big green bells, and candy canes. There are red and white felt stockings hanging over the fireplace, with our gold, glitter-glued names spelled out in cursive. A melted plastic Santa, all bearded and blue-eyed, hangs on the wall above our Hi-Fi stereo cabinet.
On the braided rug, a tail-thumping dog expectantly waits for the Christmas “show” to begin.
With giggles and squeals of delight, we three monkey children run from our cubby-hole bedrooms. Two of us still fully believe in Santa Claus, while one of us has become increasingly skeptical. We’ve anticipated this special morning all year long.
Then, suddenly, there is crumpled paper strewn about the room, haphazardly discarded in a frenzy of rushed activity. Our new clothes are respectfully placed to the side (no time to consider them quite yet) while our fingers eagerly work the tape to rip open a veritable mountain of presents. My dad sips coffee from “his chair,” and watches us with a tender smile. My mother is on her knees, in a zipped velour robe, organizing, helping us take turns opening gifts, and steadfastly cleaning the growing mess. She always made it special.
Mass is long and boring and I’m squirming, thinking about all the new things waiting for me at home. My now lip-sticked and gussied mom is up there, next to the altar, in some kind of festive number with a sparkly Christmas pin on her lapel. She’s a warbling, melodic bird, singing her Christ-loving heart out to the joy and merriment of the greater small town congregation.
While one of the memorable priests would lay down the hammer and talk about the fires of eternal hell, the other’s homily was always a bit more gentle and thoughtful. Christmas Mass was his wheel-house. I will not get into a debate about religion, but my personal research shows that a kinder, more inclusive approach to God and spirituality has the (assumed) desired effect of keeping churches full and thriving.
I can still smell the wooden pews of the church; I can still feel myself gliding across the smooth, polished bench to set myself up for the duration. I see myself, along with so many others, inside our choreographed dance of standing, sitting, and kneeling in time on the padded pleather knee rests, reciting the Lord’s prayer, echoing back to the priest in unison. And I can still see all the “Catholic families” too, lined up and down the aisles, and I can still see the row of old lady-bird widows with lace squares draped over their wiry curls, heads bowed, hands solemnly folded in their laps up front.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Grant us peace in our day.
Later, we go over the river and through the woods to Grandma’s house. I’m in a red, plaid jumper, with my long, soft baby hair pulled back. At Grandma’s, our gifts are hidden and it will be a game to find them.
The year I discovered my sleek, blue plastic, toboggan-style sled in the bathtub is seared upon my memory. Not a month later, it would be crowned the fastest in the neighborhood. Me on my sled, bulleting through white drifts, barely touching the ground, is the stuff of New England winter legend.
On Christmas day, or perhaps close to it, my parents would line us up on the hearth. The three of us together for a photo, oldest to youngest, tallest to shortest. In every one, we are a Norman Rockwell painting in matching pj’s—our cherub faces smiling at the camera, expectant, happy, excited, innocent, a captured, treasured moment in time.
A moment when all is right with the world.
Nobody argues on Christmas and no one can argue the tradition of Christmas. It’s a religious holiday and yes, we are celebrating the Lord’s birthday, but for those of us who do not adhere to the rules of organized religion, Christmas is about family and friends and gathering and bonding and laughing and enjoying one another’s company. It’s about treats and surprises and it certainly includes everybody. It’s about showing deep appreciation and extending thoughtful gestures to demonstrate our love for one another. Essentially, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is not about gifts.
It’s about the gift of love itself.
Love for humanity, love for community, love for the people in our lives who straight up love us back. It’s even about love for those who don’t know how to love. It’s about the promise of love and the continuity of it. It’s about showering the lonely, harboring the weary and the weak, and holding true to other dear human beings who are along for the ride through our shared journey through life. It’s about the dream of love, the wonder of it, and the simple goodness it undoubtedly represents.
It’s about how love can ultimately unify us if we let it.
Seriously, what else is there?
And while it takes all year long for the holidays to arrive, between the hustle and bustle of getting things ready—the exhaustion, the expense, the cooking, the depletion—we do it for the sake of love and love alone, not for “the show.”
Christmas isn’t a show at all.
Christmas is what we show and how we show up for each other every day.
Peace and good tidings!