Friday, December 23, 2005

Merry Christmas-- for real this time!

A few things, and then I'm done with blogging until after Christmas...

1) My baby sister is 24 today. Happy birthday, babe, and have a great time in Michigan snowboarding! I fully expect the video you promised of you "shreddin'" or whatever you call it.

2) Our annual family crappily-edited proves-we're-freaks iMovie is now up and available for viewing. If you know 1) my primary email address, and 2) how .mac homepages work, you can find it pretty easily. If you don't know my primary email address, it's probably because you just happened upon my blog sometime in the last few weeks. If you really want to see video of me lip-syncing "The Humpty Dance" and of my husband being incredibly white, you can email me at thinkingsoutherner at mac * com and I'll think about sending you a link.

3) Christmas is my favorite time of year, and even this year, which is a bit more confusing than most, there's a certain peace about me and my family. Growing up, our family had some fairly non-traditional Christmas traditions. We rarely ever attended church. Period. Except for the occasional visit to grandparents at Easter. For a good number of years, my stepdad had his own "House Call by S. Claus" business, and would do parties, deliveries, and business get-togethers as Santa, in a super-fly, high quality, real velvet suit and full theater makeup, including latexed aging on his face and hair-gray around his temples. So, Mom would sometimes work all day the day of the 24th, and then Dad would spend the afternoon and evening delivering presents to rich family's kids. My siblings and I would spend the evening circling the Christmas tree like birds of prey, counting the presents, sorting the presents, shaking the presents, sniffing the presents-- anything to pass the time until he came home. He'd usually get home sometime between 10 and 11 pm, and we'd groggily but excitedly tear into our presents as soon as Mom and Dad would let us. A tradition for our family, yes. But not very traditional. Such is the life of a weird entertainment family, and for the most part, that weird life was a lot of fun.

For quite a few years, my parents were instrumental in planning and pulling off the "Lowcountry Christmas Festival" in Charleston. My sibs and I tagged along, and got to help out wherever they'd let us. Some days, I'd help Margie with the decorating. We'd put up over 30 different color-coordinated or themed Christmas trees, from three-footers to the towering live trees that filled the two-story lobbies of the Gaillard Auditorium. Other years, I'd get to be a costumed character, and spend hours in a giant Ted E. Bear costume, hugging kids, dancing, posing for hundreds of pictures with little kids. Everything there smelled good-- from the cinnamon and spice in many of the decorations for sale, to the pine smell from the trees, to the fresh-baked bread smell that came from the booth that the local Mormon church set up each year. I'd gorge myself on fresh bread with homemade honey butter, funnel cakes, and other goodies, and wonder why every day of the year couldn't be as beautiful, wonderful, and warm as the inside of that auditorium was when the craft and gift vendors were set up. The Christmas festival was one of the first memories I ever have of Christmastime being truly magical.

The second was when I was 20 and going through a bit of a rough patch in my life. I was invited by one of the sisters of the Order of St. Helena to come spend a bit of time at their Augusta convent for Christmas, an opportunity I couldn't resist. Having primarily experienced the joys of a warm and inviting, but thoroughly secularized, Christmas, being in a place whose sole purpose is to glorify God and be His instrument at a time of year that we celebrate the birth of Christ-- that was incredible. Sister Rosina, who came to the United States from Ghana many years ago to become a nun, and who is now an ordained Episcopal priest, led a beautiful ceremony in which we blessed the creche. Her Sunday homily focused on the dangers of allowing a completely secular and cultural Christmas to overpower the quiet and subtle, yet mystical and profound, true message of the birth of Christ. What had originally been intended as a three or four day getaway to celebrate Christmas at the convent became a 2 month hiatus from my regular life, during which time I was able to give myself fully to praying on, thinking about, reading about, and otherwise exploring what that infant's birth truly meant for me, and for the world.

Now, I have children of my own. I've been fairly deliberate about the kinds of Christmas memories I want to create for them. Not wanting to completely extract our family from the culture in which we live, I've tried to blend societal, cultural, family, and religious traditions into something we can all be pleased to remember. We have a tree and presents and all that... The children each get to open one present from underneath the tree to open on Christmas Eve, and the rest are for Christmas Day. We've never told our children Santa brings gifts; they just know that the real St. Nicholas, on whom the Santa story is based, lived a long time ago, and that now lots of people act as "Santa's Helpers" to make Christmas special for children and families, and that the mystery is in who your particular Santa's helpers are. Before bedtime on Christmas Eve, we read nativity stories from the Bible, and pray together as a family. On Christmas Day, after we've opened the rest of the presents, we bake a birthday cake for the Christ Child, and either spend more time with family, or go to church (as we will this Sunday).

This is what I want my children to take from our family's Christmas traditions-- that Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the promise of God's love, and the warmth of a family. It's a time to enjoy the fun and magic of gift-giving, tiny lights reflecting off of shiny ornaments, warm cake just out of the oven that crumbles in your fingers, the smell of pumpkin bread and cinnamon, the sounds of beautiful music and kids playing with new toys, and being reminded, once again, that your family will always love you and be there for you. This is what I want to take from Christmas for myself. This is what Christmas means.

I don't think any of us can escape our society's messages about Christmas, even if we tried. And trying, in the end, often leaves us looking silly and combative, unwilling or unable to participate in a society that doesn't believe exactly as we do. Is that really the message of Christ? I can't take our cultural, secular Christmas traditions and pretend that they don't exist; I can only transform them into meaningful messages that extend beyond consumerism and fictions... I can't change them for everyone, but I can change how my children do now, and always will view such traditions... as only a small part of a much greater celebration.

Whatever and however you celebrate this time of year, may it be truly meaningful to you and to those around you. And if you celebrate Christmas, Merry Christmas from our family to yours. May wisdom be ours this Christmas season, and may we always follow what is true and holy.

Matthew 2: 1-2
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

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