The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world. -John 1:9
As these last few days of Advent draw to a close, the anticipation about Christmas builds. I remember the anticipation I had about Christmas when I was little - it was an almost magic holiday. I loved the electric candles in my bedroom windows, which cast such a special soft light as I fell asleep in the weeks heading up to Christmas. I loved the many wooden Christmas elves and trolls and other special decorations that began appearing all around the house. I loved the smell of balsam. Of Christmas cookies baking. Of my mom's paperwhite narcissus bulbs that inevitably came into bloom right about this time. Of fragrant Swedish rye bread, which would be eaten smeared with butter and eaten with a chunk of cheese. And of course, I loved the tree, all lit up with tiny white lights. I'd sit and gaze at it in the dark room, squinting my eyes to watch the lights go in and out of soft focus. I remember how often I'd say, "I can't WAIT until Christmas!" The feelings of anticipation and expectation were so, so strong and it seemed like it took forever for Christmas to arrive.
These days, more often than not, I find myself wondering how Christmas got here so fast. And instead of anticipation, I can sometimes fall prey to an anxious sense of unease that I still have so much left to do. What is it about adulthood that can turn a magical time into just another pile of chores in an always full in-box? How can we reclaim the magical gift of anticipation at this time of year and not let these last few days before Christmas be overtaken by the demands of a to-do list?
As a child, of course I was anticipating some presents. But as I think about the total-body excitement that came over me at this time of year as a little girl, I realize it was much more than presents that got me as excited as a tail wagging puppy. It was about how a wonderful time was coming around again - a time full of familiar traditions in my life and family. I knew we'd have that big smorgasbord at our house on Christmas eve with neighbors and friends invited in. We'd all eat the special ethnic and holiday foods that only showed up once a year, and everyone would comment on my mom's delicious ham, beans and potato salad every time. I knew that we'd sing carols around the piano and my Uncle Roy, who was rather tone deaf, would sing loudest of all. I knew one a young reader in the family would get to read "The Night Before Christmas" out loud to the whole gathering. And then we'd all bundle up and go to church as a big group late at night and hold little burning candles while we sang Silent Night. I knew I'd be the first to get up and go downstairs on Christmas morning, and that the tree would not have been unplugged overnight this time, but would be fully lit with presents under it. I knew I'd grab the stockings, making sure to check that Santa had eaten his cookies and milk, and run upstairs to see what was in them on my parents' bed as they pretended to be excited and happy to have been awakened at 5am. I knew my parents and I would spend a relaxed Christmas day together, building a fire in the fireplace, playing board games, watching football, and eating the smorgasbord leftovers that had been laid out again for the day. Christmas was, for me, not just any one of these things. It was all of them together. A package of love and togetherness and church and music. And it all happened each year like clockwork. I could count on it. Lord, don't we all love - and need - things we an count on.
Our treasured rituals and comforting traditions were a way for my family and I to lay down the day to day routine and take time to be together in a very special way. I realize now, looking back, that my parents put a ton of work into Christmas each year. That Christmas Eve party was a huge undertaking. And all the house decorating. The cookie baking. The present wrapping. All of it. I don't do nearly that much stuff with my own family. Church has taken far more of a central role in our family rituals at Christmas time and our traditions at home are pretty simple, like having ravioli for Christmas dinner. But it's not what we do, but that WE are doing them all again together that is the most treasured part. The big anticipation each year was, and still is, knowing that the light of love will be made manifest among the people I love at Christmas.
The Grinch was surprised that Christmas came to the people of Whoville without ribbons or tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags because the Whos knew what counted most was gratefully being together. Making time and room for our love for God and our love for each other makes the true light manifest among us, whether your Christmas is traditional this year or is departing from tradition by choice or by circumstance.
I realize not everyone grew up with Ozzie and Harriet like I did. And I also know that people are suffering all kinds of difficulties this and every Christmas. Yet I trust that God's light, the light that enlightens the world, is still coming into the world, especially for those who need it most. And hopefully those of us with plenty to share will find new ways to share it as part of our own Christmas ritual.
So let's not let a long to-do list or a long list of 'shoulds' steal our anticipation. If you've gotten a little lost in tasks and have forgotten the real reason you do them at this time of year, I give you full permission to sort through that list right now, and just draw a line right through anything that doesn't directly support making more time and room in your life for God and your loved ones. Perhaps you can also add a few new items that bring a renewed sense of joy and anticipation into your preparations.
I'm pretty sure that sorting out the true light from what is just flash will help us rediscover a more child-like sense of anticipation, and will make the Christmas season shine more brightly for all.