Christmas Peace

The older I get, the more melancholy I feel around Christmas. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the holiday season. I love the traditions and Christmas trees and cookie baking and lights and carols. But the innocent, pure joy and excitement I felt as a child have given way to a more nuanced experience of the holidays.

This year, as I decorated our Christmas tree, I was reminded of my blog post from two years ago entitled Christmas Memories. Just as I related in that post, the powerful remembrances elicited by unpacking our boxes of family Christmas decorations are enough to plunge me into sudden gloom.   Even though I am generally excited about the upcoming holidays (especially for our son’s homecoming tomorrow), I found myself taking frequent breaks (cookies, coffee and chocolate seemed to help) as memories of people and places and times past came flooding back. I grieved over the loss of my beloved parents and stepson, and a broken relationship with another family member. I missed the days when our son was a young boy and I was a young mom. The mere recognition of the passage of so much time causes its own despair.

I find myself grieving over our broken world. The seemingly everyday news of bombings and shootings and ISIS and terror feels overwhelming to me.   I’m often disappointed by a lack of clear moral leadership coming from political (highlighted in this current presidential election circus) and religious leaders.

While preparing for our family Christmas, I heard from two friends experiencing tragic circumstances amidst this holiday season. One friend’s son was seriously injured in a sports-related accident, her father died, and she broke her hip – all within a couple weeks. Another friend, as a result of a series of setbacks, was on the brink of losing her home. I felt heavy and helpless. What am I to do with all this suffering? And how can I feel the joy of the season with so much brokenness around me? I did what little I could for my friends – I visited the first friend, brought her lunch, Christmas cookies and a wreath (since she couldn’t drive to get one). I sent the other friend some money and prayed for her. But I struggle with a sometimes overpowering sense of futility and pain when people around me are hurting.

How can I feel the joy of the season with so much brokenness around me?

How can I feel the joy of the season with so much brokenness around me?

And then last Sunday, as if on cue, God met me and blessed me.   The church sermon that morning was entitled “Waiting for God to Send Peace.” Our Pastor Megan spoke to our challenge as Christians in finding the peace of Christ in a broken world. It was the sermon for which I had been longing and I needed to hear. It reminded me that, although I can’t turn a blind eye to violence around me, my peace comes through my relationship with God. My worldly responsibility is to show compassion in the midst of pain and strife. Pastor Megan reminded us of Jesus’ parting words to his disciples:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

That same afternoon, our church sponsored a concert entitled “What Shall We Give Him?” highlighting Courtney B. Vance reading the Christmas Scripture from Luke 2. I found myself weeping while listening to the music and the words of the sacred Christmas music. When the Christmas Scripture from Luke was read, what initially caught my attention were these words:

In those days a decree went out from emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Ouirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

Holy cow! Was the family of Jesus Christ an early example of Syrian refugees? As I sat contemplating current events in light of this text, I abruptly felt the convergence of the past, presence and future. I was unexpectedly comforted by the words of carols, many I’ve heard since I was a child, but which in that moment took on new and powerful meaning.

Hark! the herald angels sing,

“Glory to the new born King,

Peace on earth, and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled!”

God blessed me with the reassurance that my care of my friends and family, that my voice for good in the world, will make a difference, and that He will give me peace. As I left the church, like Mary, “pondering all these things in my heart,” the words of Scottish poet Alexander Smith finally made perfect sense: “Christmas is the day that holds all time together.”

The All Guys Dinner Party

My son came home from college last week for Christmas break and I threw him the most wonderfully ridiculous welcome home dinner party.  The welcome home party has become a tradition since he left for college – when he comes home on vacation he likes to reinsert himself into the local social scene as soon as possible.  But for past parties we typically set up his XBox, PlayStation and/or GameCube in the family room, put some pizza and soda on the kitchen island, and let him and his friends go for it.

This year, as usual, I decorated the house for Christmas.  I trimmed the tree and hung the stockings.  I spent a whole day baking cookies.  (See previous post).  Then I went above and beyond.  I cleaned out all the boxes in the dining room (which had become a storage space since we normally eat in the kitchen), and then decorated the room.  I had my husband pull the boxes of our Spode Christmas Tree china out of the garage.  I unpacked and washed the china.  I cleaned out the hutch in the dining room so I could put the Spode away.  I went through all the linens I’ve collected over the years, and found coordinating tablecloth and napkins.  I read somewhere that it is trendy to mix and match napkins and tablecloth and china, so I was swinging for the trendy fences.

And then I went shopping.  First I went to Michaels Arts and Crafts – during the workweek, which almost felt naughty.  I felt an odd rush of exhilaration as I walked the aisles with hordes of women whose carts were overflowing with stuff, while Christmas carols blared over the sound system.  I don’t know why I found it all so amusing, but I could barely contain myself as I watched one lady, who couldn’t have been more than five feet tall and could barely see over the mound of loot in her cart, collide with a display of snow globes.  When all was said and done, the cashier refused to give me the discount on the candles I thought were 60% off, so in a moment of liberating defiance, I announced I wanted nothing in my cart and walked out the door.  (I never would’ve done that when I was working because I wouldn’t have had the time to search elsewhere).

Then I headed to Stats, which is a veritable local Christmas wonderland and superstore.  I wandered wide-eyed through the rooms of floral displays and wreaths and Santa Claus figurines. There I bought garlands and candles and pinecones.  Then I went to World Market and found napkins and rings and bowls.  After that I went to Home Goods and Pier One and Marshalls and TJ Maxx and Ross and Party City.  I don’t even remember what I found where at this point.  But I was a woman on a mission.

I even decorated the coffee table to serve appetizers. I knew the small plates and cocktail napkins would be curious to the guys but they would enjoy the extra food.

The coffee table decorated to serve appetizers. The small plates and cocktail napkins were a curiosity to the guys but they enjoyed the extra food before dinner.

And what exactly was this mission?   For goodness sake, this was a party for a group of eight to twelve 20-21 year old guys. Do you think guys that age (or any age for that matter) care whether they are sitting at the dining room table with Spode china in front of them?  Do they appreciate having a decorated house?   Of course not! In a moment of complete and utter lunacy, and which made me laugh out loud like a crazy woman, I raced to Big Lots the day of the party and bought a garland of poinsettias and a Santa yard stake because I decided the light fixture in the dining room and our front yard needed more decoration.

No, this wasn’t just about the boys.   It was about me.  For one thing, I spent the past 10 years, when I was in a senior management role, working really hard at my job and the holiday season was one of the busiest times.  I didn’t have time to plan Christmas parties and it was about as much as I could handle to decorate the house and trim the tree and buy the gifts and send out the cards each year.  I didn’t have time to savor the season.  For another thing, I want to hone my entertaining skills.  While I was busy working, my husband did most of the cooking and I have become rusty (and to tell the truth, I was never that good in the first place).  In September, just for fun, I attended a party planning class with my good friend John at a local high school. The instructor advised us to practice by putting on our own dinner party, and what better guinea pigs than a group of guys who don’t know their salad plate from their dinner plate and are happy simply having something edible placed in front of them?

With my collected merchandise, I decorated and set the dining room table.  Using my party planning class workbook, I developed a menu and a schedule for the party.   I scoped Costco for appetizers and gave my husband a shopping list for the food.  We worked together on the meal, since he is not quite ready to trust me with the keys to his kitchen kingdom.   (Probably itself another post topic.)

The All Guys Dinner Party

The All Guys Dinner Party. Notice the garland of poinsettias on the light fixture and the trendy mix of linens and china.

And was all this overkill for a group of college-age guys?  Absolutely! Did any of them make one peep about the decorations or the china or the music?  Of course not!  Did they enjoy themselves?  Enormously!   How do I know?  By the smiles and laughter I heard from the dining room as they sat around the [beautifully decorated dining] table talking to each other, and later from the family room as they played a board game and I listened in while doing dishes.  And they all thanked me before they left.  Was it worth all the work?  Totally!  Did I have fun?  You bet!  And yesterday, best of all, as I was walking out the door with my son, he asked to take a picture of me in front of the tree.  Then he wanted a picture of himself in front of the house.  After we got in the car, he showed me the “Snapchat Story” he just made.  Which is, after all, the way his generation communicates.  It was a photo of my decorated dining table with a caption that read “Ready to celebrate with friends” and then a photo of me in front of the tree with the caption “Family” and a photo of him in front of our house that read “Glad to be home.  Merry Christmas!”

Christmas Memories

When I was a girl, the Christmas season elicited in me a pure unadulterated joy.   I could think of no good reason why anyone would feel anything but.  As I’ve grown older, though, a melancholy has crept into the Christmas season, with remembrances of loved ones that I’ve lost and seasons that are past.

This past Tuesday, I had the house to myself and I spent the morning decorating our tree.  I was thankful that I was home and not working.  I was grateful that I’ve had the extra time this year to savor the holiday preparations.  I was joyfully anticipating our son’s homecoming next week.

I put on Christmas music and opened a box of decorations brought in from the garage.   The first song that played was Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song” – one of my mother’s favorites.   A flood of memories struck me. Being the only daughter, it was mom and I that worked on Christmas preparations together and it was a cherished tradition for us both.  Even when I was away at college, she would wait until I got home to do the baking and decorating.  I lost my mom five years ago, right before Christmas.   I miss her.

Made with foil and cardboard, our most cherished and beautiful tree topper

Made with foil and cardboard, our most cherished and beautiful tree topper.

Then I began unpacking the ornaments.   We have a collection that were purchased at places we’ve visited (lovingly labeled with the date and place), or received from friends and family, or handmade by our son.  The first ornament that I placed on the tree was the topper.    This is a cardboard and foil star (held together with wire and scotch tape) that I made with my stepson the first Christmas I spent with my husband (then boyfriend).   My husband had been a single dad for a few years and for various reasons the two of them had never bought a tree.   I talked them into getting one, and then had to improvise since there weren’t any ornaments around. We quite cleverly punched a hole in the star to insert a tree light. Twenty-seven years later, I still think this is the most beautiful tree topper. Twelve years ago, we lost my stepson in an accident.   I miss him.

After I married, my parents spent almost every Christmas with us.  My mother loved coming to our house since she didn’t have to do any of the work.  My father absolutely relished his grandson excitedly jumping on their bed early Christmas morning and then frolicking around the house like a kid with him and his toys.  One Christmas my son played a duet at a Christmas piano recital with one of his little buddies, and the two got into an on-stage argument over timing.   That episode quickly assumed a prominent place in comic family lore and my dad always delighted in having my son and I play piano duets at Christmas time.  I pulled my parents’ Christmas stockings out of the box and hung them over the fireplace.  Seven years ago I lost my dad, not long before Christmas.  I miss him, too.

The Little Mitten ornament I embroidered while pregnant.  This was a season of anticipations

The Little Mitten ornament I embroidered while pregnant. This was made during a season of joyful anticipation

I unwrapped a few more ornaments from the box.  One of my favorites is a little mitten that I embroidered while pregnant with my son.   I didn’t know if I was having a girl or boy, and I waited until after he was born to embroider his name on the mitten.  I then sifted through countless ornaments my son made while in pre-school, school and Sunday School.  I loved every minute of those years with my young son and Christmas was hands down his favorite day of the year.  He has since grown into an incredible young man whom I love with all my heart, but I miss my little boy.   I miss that season of my life.

I am thankful for all the blessings that God has bestowed on me, past and present. Christmas is indeed a time for great joy.   But I am also grateful for my melancholy Tuesday morning, alone with the tree and decorations.  It proved to be an unexpected and profound time of spiritual reflection, remembrance and grief for those people and seasons that I loved.