I’m like a Christmas caterpillar. During the holidays, I put on a fuzzy sweater and eat my way through the season. By the Epiphany, the sweater is a little snug. But that’s ok. I think of it as just a phase in my evolving yuletide metamorphosis, as I pass through different stages of development on my way to finally taking flight on beautiful Christmas wings.
Mostly, though, it seems that by the end of the Christmas season I just need a bigger sweater.
I haven’t quite made it all the way to the Christmas wings yet. But now that I have kids, I think I may be getting closer.
The first stage in my Christmas evolution was when I was a kid myself, and Christmas meant “Wonder.” The whole season was filled with expectancy and a special kind of wintery awe. With the coming of Christmas, everything changed. Our house became festooned with red and green from garlands and wreaths decorating our door and stairway and the dining room buffet. A Christmas tree filled the house with the scent of pine, and the colored lights twined among its branches glowed softly during evening prayers. Coffee tables and countertops sprouted all manner of Christmas oddments, from snowman shaped candy dishes to miniature books of Christmas classics like “The Night Before Christmas.” Crèches, candles, and cookies were all part of the once yearly transformation of our humble abode into a magical land of Christmas wonder.
Our daily routine changed along with the domestic decor. Advent candles were added to our nighttime prayers, and we began opening the little doors on our Advent calendar. We even had a second Advent calendar that Mom made special for after school. It was a giant cloth wall-banner that had little pouches sewed on it, one pouch for each day, and each was filled with treats. First thing when we got home from school we’d all run to the Advent banner and it was one person’s turn each day to open the next pouch.
Another tradition was putting straw in the manger for Jesus whenever we did something good, so we could make a soft bed for Jesus by the time He was born on Christmas day. And for one month every year The Fiddler on the Roof was supplanted from its place of primacy in the regular rotation on Mom’s record player to make way for the soulful stylings of Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole singing the Christmas classics.
Even the world outside changed. I grew up in the Midwest around the Great Lakes, and winter meant cold and snow—lots of snow, “deep and crisp and even.” Icicles sparkled, a million criss-crossing tree branches were traced in white, and night settled early over the land. Days were filled with sledding, ice-skating outdoors, and snow forts. Nights we’d lie on our backs in all the dark and quiet, staring at the sky, feeling the feathery, cold touch of snowflakes as they settled on our cheeks and eyelashes, until Mom finally made us come in. Robert Service described the winter wonderland perfectly in The Spell of the Yukon:
The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery
I’ve bade ‘em good-by – but I can’t.
And though “the Great White Silence, not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver” (from The Call of the Wild, also by Robert Service) that Service wrote about was the Yukon territory of the Far North, our much tamer Midwest winters were still enough to bring us kids the same feeling of amazement and smallness in the face of something mysterious and grand and greater than ourselves.
It all combined to fill Christmas with a sense of wonder.
The next phase of my Christmas development began somewhere around the high school years. The nature of Christmas started changing. The sense of wonder began to recede into the background. It wasn’t that I consciously came to consider Christmas less wondrous than I had previously. But busyness, of all varieties and seemingly ever expanding and accelerating, began to fill our lives, displacing the quieter spaces and less scheduled moments that are the natural habitat for wonder to grow and flourish. There were sports and clubs, jobs and friends. Every morning we all hied off in a hundred different directions pursuing our varied and disparate endeavors. An unintended and unexpected consequence of this was that we began to spend less and less time with each other, and more with classmates and team mates and co-workers.
When we reached the point that the first of us graduated from high school, it became even more pronounced. Suddenly we didn’t even live under the same roof anymore. From then on, each August meant a new departure from our little home, as someone else packed up to head off to college. For each expectant new freshman-to-be, Mom sewed the same going-away present: a “College Quilt” in the colors of their new school, to keep them warm and cozy in their dorm room loft. The night before the send-off, we’d all gather in the living room for cake and the unveiling of the new quilt. The next day we’d help pack the departing sibling’s stuff in the trunk of our parent’s car, then wave good-bye as Mom and Dad drove them off to some distant school. It was funny, the more quilts Mom made the emptier the beds got at home.
And once people started graduating from college and taking jobs, we all got to know what busy was really like. It’s a shame you don’t realize how much free-time you actually have in college until you’ve left it behind. Oh the hours I would love to reclaim! But there’s no going back, only forward, and the pursuit of careers has a way of drawing people off to far distant cities. It all happens so fast that in the thick of it you don’t realize the ramifications of what’s going on. Only in retrospect do you discover that a page was turned somewhere back along the way, and things will never again be as they once were.
I remember moving out of Mom and Dad’s house to take my first job in another city. One morning of loading boxes into my brother’s pick-up truck, an afternoon of driving, and then unloading on the other end in a place I’d never lived before, and that was it. By sunset I no longer lived at home, and never would again. At the time, I wasn’t aware what a major life change was underway. I was mostly worried about finding a place for dinner that night and getting my telephone service hooked-up (those were in the days before cell phones). I never paused to think that I wouldn’t be seeing Mom and Dad everyday anymore, or that my time with my other siblings would henceforth be dramatically curtailed.
But even if I wasn’t conscious of the loss at the time, I still felt it. During those years, what I most remember about Christmas was the eagerness to see my family again. I wanted to re-connect with my brothers and sisters and Mom and Dad. And I wasn’t alone in feeling the emptiness of that absence. In the weeks leading up to Christmas Mom became a clearing house for travel information, as all of us kids were constantly calling her for the latest updates: who was going to make it home and how long would they be there? Did John get the days off work? Had Rachel bought plane tickets yet? Was Mark getting a full two weeks?
Then, when at last the office Christmas parties were finally over, the traveling commenced. If you plotted all the individual journeys on a map, you’d see eight red lines, each originating from different starting-points sprinkled all across the country, all converging via plane, train and automobile on one little dot on the map: a forgotten little spot deep in the heart of the snowy Midwest, a spot that held no significance whatsoever to the great wide world, but which meant everything in the world to the people gathering there in a small, happy home. One-by-one the arrivals trickled in over several days until at last everyone was together again. And then—let the fun begin!
Days we’d go ice-skating, out to lunch, or hack around on our musical instruments playing songs together. We also spent a lot of time laying on couches in front of a roaring fire, wrapped in all those quilts Mom had made over the years, snacking and snoozing and reading. Sometimes if you walked in it would make you chuckle. You’d see five or six people all together in one room, sprawled out on furniture, only their feet and heads showing from under the mounds of blankets, and everyone silently reading their own book.
It was during these years that we developed the “Most Boring Book Contest.” Whenever the spirit moved someone, they would call out: “Most Boring Book Contest!” and then each of us in turn would read the very next line of our book out loud. As a group we’d discuss the relative merits of each literary offering and award one person’s tome the uninviting title of “The Most Boring Book.” Mostly it was just funny to hear the lines from such wildly different books juxtaposed with to one another. Snippets of Louis Lamoure westerns take on a whole new flavor when interwoven with Maeve Binchy romances and Tolkien hobbit tales. Jokes would fly as the contestants argued for the non-boringness of their own beloved book and cast aspersions on the selections of their rivals. When the designation of “Most Boring Book” was finally bestowed by general acclamation, the banter would subside back into a contented silence broken only by the soft sounds of turning pages and a crackling fire.
But the absolute highlight of Christmas in those years was the nights. We’d stay up all night talking. It was no wonder we spent so much of our days laying on couches, because we gabbed through the wee small hours every night, night after night. After dinner everyone gathered in the family room for games, usually Trivia Pursuit or one of its many offshoots. Questions and answers—or more often questions and guesses—would be interspersed with discussion, and gradually discussion would digress more and more until eventually the trivia cards were forgotten and we were just talking.
Those were good times. We were all just starting out in life, launching for the first time, whether it was beginning college or our first job, and everything was new and fresh. We were all adventuring into uncharted territory, and we shared with each other our experiences and impressions of the big wide world out there.
It’s funny how things change.
Now all of us kids are married, and most of us have kids of our own. We still stay up all night, but now it’s to tend fussy babies. The last time I was home for Christmas, I met one of my brothers at my parents’ kitchen sink at 2 a.m. as we were both making bottles. When we had finished and were tiptoeing back up Mom and Dad’s creaky, old, wood stairs with the nectar of somnolence in our hands (that’s “formula” for you laymen), we met one of our sisters walking her daughter in the hallway. Under those circumstances, conversations tend to be short and hushed—as in monosyllabic and whispered.
It somehow seems appropriate, though, to have Christmas filled with caring for babies. After all, the arrival of a baby is what it’s all about—“the reason for the season,” as they say—and babies can show us much about Christmas. Like reminding us of possibilities. Holding a little baby in your arms, you can’t help but wonder: who will this little person be? What will they do? Where will they go? What will they make of their life? The possibilities for that baby’s life are real and palpable before your eyes as you cradle them in your arms.
And then, you realize, it’s not just this little baby: our life too has possibilities. There is still an open question as to what we will do, what we will make of our life, what we will be. No matter where we are in life’s journey when the realization strikes, it remains true. The final destination is still open and up to our choosing. It may take a little more courage, a little more truth, more faith, hope, and love than we’ve put into living so far, but despite the difficulties, we know the possibility is there for us.
Christmas is about those possibilities. God hasn’t given up on us. God sees possibilities in us we can’t even imagine for ourselves. That’s why He came. “For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Jn 3, 16. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” Jn 3, 17. And so He came, as a little baby—a new life come into the world—that we might have life also, “and have it more abundantly.” Jn 10, 10. Christmas is about, at least in part, remembering that life and the possibilities it opens for us. Christmas calls us to a metamorphosis that can still be ours. Christmas celebrates a miracle, a miracle of new life.