I have a week before I go back to teaching and there is so, so much to do (most of it having nothing to do with school.) But before I do all of the so, so much I need to keep up a tradition. Every year on this blog I have written about Christmas, with the exception of last year, when I must have been too busy with my novel to do anything here except whine about how tired I was. Oops. But anyway, this year there is no frantic writing independent study, only a surprisingly well-rested Alice, too distracted to take on her real to-do list.
This Christmas was quietly different from all the others (related here, here, and here.) It was both more joyful and more painful. As I get older such feelings are more keen, but more often than I used to, I know what they mean and I know what to do with them. I do not, however, always know how to express them.
I thought that I would tell you about the week in the old way, beginning to end, like a story, but it does not have enough narrative thread for that. It has a setting, of course: a Bible camp up in the Iron Range of Minnesota, where the camp director has raised his seven children, and has recently moved his quickly aging parents. Because it is Christmastime children, grandchildren, husbands, wives, and two little boys named after the same great-grandfather have converged upon the camp, where the ground is slushy, but still a bit slick. With them, they bring chocolate and the old family Christmas songbooks. They plan to stay for four or five days.
So that is the stage set, but beyond that, there is no plot, one event does not lead to another, so if I told it like that, it would make no sense. That is was not what it was. The week was not a story in itself, but merely an infinitesimal part of a great and large story, a moment about the length of a heartbeat.
My grandparents are near the end of that story. My grandma is confused and sad and only partly herself. She tries to introduce her grandchildren to one another, but remembers the taste of the orange balls she used to make. My frail grandpa is contemplative and eager for coherent company. While the girls organized a game of cousin knockout on Christmas Eve he stood bent over in the corner of the gym and enthusiastically dribbled a basketball till it bounced out of reach. He stands up in Sunday meeting and says that we are greatly blessed by Christ’s coming. And he asks, again and again, that we all sing “Come Let Us Adore Him.” (That’s his preferred title for the carol, I think, because he does not consider himself particularly “faithful,” but he does know Jesus to be worthy of adoration.)
My mother and her siblings are at another part of the story. A part which is harder and less certain than they anticipated, I think. They take charge and they clean and they cook and they delegate and they worry. They find perhaps that, more than before, they have no one older and wiser to pass their worries along to, save passing them around in a circle to one another. They must go straight back to the Source with it all, give every bit of it up in prayer. Then when next their hands are free on Christmas Eve some one of us bestows upon them a child to hold: a quiet, solemn little gift-baby, theirs for a few minutes, who will nestle his head into their shoulder and rest.
Then there are the grandchildren. (That’s us.) We are at the part of the story in which we have come into our own, some of us without noticing. I can only speak for myself, but the old excitement for Christmas has been replaced by a certain sober joy. My cousins sat on the couch and helped grade the fill-in-the-blanks on the last test I gave, and I remembered sprawling on the end-room bed with them, summers before, reading To Kill a Mockingbird. On the 23rd we dragged down the tree from the attic, set it up with great care, and literally festooned the rafters with lights. On Christmas Eve night, we had a dance party (inspired by Sally’s cautious hip-hop moves.) When we are together now, we want to be together. We don’t care if we dance like Peanuts characters. We are not forgetting ourselves, but deliberately setting ourselves aside. We are slowly, at our own paces and in our own ways, learning the value of what has been given to us: the old summers in the above-ground pool, Proverbs read at breakfast-time, full couches and long legs, parents who name their daughters Hope.
Earliest in the story are Billy and Liam. Small lap-sitters, futures unseen, no worries beyond whether they too are allowed to have some of that candy they see everyone else has got. It is for them that Christmas is intended first and foremost. Jesus’s beginning as infant was his loud, clear announcement of his intentions: that since he was coming as the least of these, he meant to love and save the least of these.
And so, if we follow the story, beginning to end (or end to beginning, as it were,) we find the Son of God at its core: the adored gift-child, bearing in his tiny frame all the fearful hope and promise of his death for our redemption.
Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.