The Spirit of Christmas Past & Present

            Maybe because this will be the first year I can remember not spending time with family around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I’ve been seeking solace in remembering past Christmas gatherings from childhood to parenthood.  Maybe it’s because all four of my children are now young adults and it’s harder each year to come together as a family to enjoy each other’s company from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.  Maybe it’s the cold weather and age creeping in on me, together, reminding me time moves forward as my physical body takes longer to “kick start”, shift through variable speeds in a day, and meet the challenge of endurance events holidays seem to require. It also comes with a more acute realization that none of us is guaranteed another opportunity to share our lives with those we care deeply about, whether it be day to day routines, or holidays. 

            This year, winter has not officially begun, but the bleakness of the season is upon us as celebrations flash their traditional décor, music, and festive cuisines.  It’s as if the gears are in motion all around, setting the stage, while I fight feelings of discouragement, anticipating a work schedule that will keep me from being with those I’ve always made a point of joining around this time.  I’m caught between thankfulness for a new job I enjoy, and resentment that “business” robs anyone of something as valuable as time with family.  What gets me up and going through emotional passages like this are animals depending on me to feed them (at home or at work) and bills that always seem to reappear shortly after they’re paid. (A great gift would be utility companies and creditors who give you some sense of accomplishment before sending out the next “payment due” notice; but that would be along the lines of a miracle too great to hope for in today’s economy.)  After all, weren’t there animals in the stable where Jesus was born? Surely they needed care, and the presence of a caring Savior, even if just a child, who must had some beneficent effect on their lowly states.

            Watching re-runs of favorite Christmas shows like “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” are reminders that we evolve out of our upbringings, find comfort in the familiar, and sometimes allow ourselves reflective moments that put our lives into perspective allowing us to grow beyond preconceived notions.  “Growing up”, sometimes means we don’t get to do the things we’d prefer to do, and the realization that counting our blessings is the root of contentedness. 

            Join me, if you will, as I travel back through time, recalling some tender and memorable moments I’ve been blessed to add to my storehouse of memories.   If you live vicariously, or find yourself remembering your own special moments around the holidays, let it be a Christmas gift to you—-one that doesn’t come wrapped in fancy paper or a shiny bow; but never the less, the greatest of gifts born out of and sustained by love.

            As a young child, we had grandparents and a mother who made sure the “reason for the season” was clear: we celebrated the birth of a Savior named Jesus.  All denominational differences during this time seemed to vanish, at least for a few days, when everyone agreed that a time for reflection and celebration was in order.  If for no other reason, it became one of my favorite seasons.  I can still feel the hush and glow of walking into an evening candle-light service, whether it was in the Catholic church of my paternal grandparents on Christmas Eve,or the reserved austerity of a northeastern Presbyterian sanctuary.  In my adult years, the liberty to worship in spirit and truth in a celebratory parade of banners, liturgical dancing, and the singing of reverent songs by contemporary artists, as well as traditional Christmas hymns, became the new tradition.

     As a young child, there was no competition or conflict of interest in our world when we visited relatives in Texas around the holidays.  Christmas Eve was always the time for visiting my dad’s parents, who were German immigrants.  Christmas Day was reserved for my maternal grandparents and a host of aunts, uncles, and cousins whose houses we visited throughout the day after opening gifts.  Always we went to bed with full stomachs and hearts filled with gratitude, knowing we were loved by everyone “in the fold”.

Part of my paternal grandparents/ Christmas Eve tradition included preparing and serving a feast of Bavarian dishes, including: sauerbraten, spaetzle (a soft, boiled, squiggly noodle), red cabbage, brussel sprouts with a lemon-walnut glaze, and an assortment of home-made cookies and kuchen (cakes).  My “Oma” (grandmother in German) once told me she started making the cookies after Thanksgiving and hid them in tins until their appearance on meticulously arranged plates for Christmas Eve’s repast. (The year before she died, she made each of us a tin and mailed them to us, wherever we were living at the time.) “Opa” would be looking for a chance to escape the vigilant eyes of grandchildren, who wondered about the disappearance of the little “Krist-Kind” (Christ-Child) Bell always at home on the curio cabinet.  Excusing himself to the kitchen near the back of the house, where a door to the outside was carefully opened and closed, it didn’t take us long to solve the mystery, but we played along every year:  Soon after dessert was finished, a clear ringing could be heard outside the dining room window.  Shortly afterwards, we’d hear it again, at the end of the house where the Christmas tree waited  behind lace curtains hung over closed French doors.  It was the Christ-child, coming to bring the gifts we would find under the tree. And this would be the first time any of the younger members of the family would see the tree with all its lights and familiar ornaments collected over the years.

            Our maternal grandmother’s Christmas tree was always white, silver, and red.  Early Christmas mornings, we would appear in our pajamas and house shoes to hunt and shake and sort packages by name tags. Whoever could read was at an advantage, but we eventually took turns delivering packages to each family member, before opening them, one a time, around the circle. It was expected that all would exclaim loudly or “ooo” perceptibly with each unveiling until a huge pile of paper and ribbons could be jumped in by us children—-a last bit of silliness before embarking on an afternoon of visitations to relatives’ houses where we had to be more “grown up”. We would always sing carols around an upright piano or organ our “Aunt Inez” played while her sisters or children stood around her harmonizing.  Food was laid out buffet-style on every available table and counter, and we hurried to finish eating so we could play billiards or dominoes with our cousins in the game room.  Elders sat on long couches and armchairs to reminisce.  Time with extended family was the gift.

            During our adolescent years, my mom frequently endeavored to make us things for Christmas that required hidden hours of preparation. One year, particularly busy because of school, work, and athletic training, we unwrapped new pajamas and bath-robes to find straight pins still holding the seams together. Everyone laughed, but she was quick to finish them before the winter settled in for a long nap.  Her intentions were always good and there remains a certain degree of self-sacrifice in all her gift giving to this day.

            Small children brought a multitude of opportunities to our household for Christmas preparations and celebrations.  We made ornaments, cookies, and even gingerbread houses.   We joined in church activities that resulted in special services where lighting, music, and special attire identified the reason we all got so excited this time of year.

            When my children entered the picture, their “Poppo” ( American-German for grand-dad) and his wife, Cathy, hosted Christmas Eve dinners meticulously planned and beautifully executed.  From food to gifts and playtime til bed-time, laughter and spontaneous entertainment were common.  In 1986 when my daughter, Joanna, was 11 ½ months old, she suddenly stood up without holding onto anything for the first time, and ran around the house when the Christmas tree lights were switched on.  She and my dad danced with scarves to Christmas music that year as he held her and twirled to the stereo playing softly in the living room.  He entered into the playtime when gifts like LEGOS, Super Mario video games, and puzzles revealed themselves with gift opening.

            My mom never ceased to amaze me with her resourcefulness and how she would include all four of our growing brood in holiday preparations and celebrations.    She was the one who insisted it was enough just to be together….and that gift giving was secondary and really not necessary.  I love her practicality but also her whimsical finds that humoured us…sometimes a bit too serious about the occasion.  And I’ll never forget the year our dear “Sandy”, the Golden retriever who is every family’s dream child, stood on her hind legs at site of the tree with lights, and how she was satisfied to play with the paper and bows taken off gifts. It was my mom’s delight to include her with a special candy-cane bone.  Who could ask for more?

            Even though both of my parents had occupations beyond their classical music and vocal training, music was always present in our home. Despite all that may not have been sweet or peaceful, music, especially around Christmas, added an indelible richness to the season that will warm my heart forever.  Traditional hymns like “Away in a Manger”, “Silent Night”, and “O Holy Night” supplanted the brash commercial tunes extolling Santa Claus, magical reindeer and frosty snowmen.  Being a child was not diminished by the focus on these faith-based songs, because I held fast to the wonder, promise, and simplicity of the Christmas story. 

            There remain vignettes in my mind of worship at Christmas-time: the 1st Baptist church choir of Dallas adorned in magnificent robes projecting rich harmonies;  the Presbyterian candle-light service exhibiting its reverence in reserved tones and slow, measured movements within the sanctuary;  the Catholic church of my German grandparents where Mass was conducted in Latin as the aroma of frank-incense and myrrh replaced the mustiness of old wood and worn velveteen kneeling benches, beneath hardened statues of saints; a hand-bell choir and fresh greens accented by red and white Poinsettia’s in the Methodist church; the gathering of children around a pastor who told the Biblical story of Christmas and somehow made it contemporary to their listeners, in more than one denomination; the lavish banners, liturgical dancing, and reverent nativity scene re-enactments of the Non-Denominational Evangelicals of more recent years.  All have impressed upon me the unique origin of a Christian faith I’ve professed in the past.

            In my young adult years, as a student and parent of young children, there were special holiday concerts in Baltimore I can never forget:  Almost 2 decades ago, a Czech children’s choir by the name of “Jitro”, hushed an audience of host families and guests at the old St. Paul School for Girls where my sister taught dance and theater arts at the time—their pure tones and perfect harmonies humble me to this day;  a concert of Handel’s “Messiah” at the Naval Academy Chapel by midshipmen and women from Hood and Smith colleges, in the company of fellow Bible College classmates, immersed me in a heavenly waterfall of voices that remained in my dreams for weeks; an exceptional choir director, who was the Director of Music at the High School I graduated from in Maryland, who happened to be my brother-in-law at the time, raised the bar more than one year as his students sang not only the commercial Christmas tunes, but religious songs that would probably be banned in today’s public school “Winter Concerts”.

Then there was the year my dad bought all of us tickets to hear the unconventional  group  “Helicon” at Goucher College.  Ken Kolodner with his hammer dulcimer, Robin Bullock on his flute and a Celtic drummer with his Baran accompanying, gave new meaning to the concept of “festive”. We could always count on the finest recordings of any music from my dad, who was a violin prodigy as a teenager, and student of musical composition in college. 

            A few years later, shortly after my dad’s passing, I found myself shopping at a new LL Bean store in Columbia, Maryland.  My income from work that year had been exceptional, since the real estate market had not yet crashed.  Confidence brimming, I was carrying on the tradition of finding and giving high quality, practical gifts to my children and remaining family.  In the midst of my selection-making, sweet strains of a stringed quartet playing Christmas music filled the store.  It was too pure for a sound system, and soon I found myself drawn to a small circle of musicians playing in the center of the store. Suddenly, I remember feeling enveloped by the spirit of my father and a vision of him with closed eyes conducting the small ensemble filled my mind’s eye. Tears were unavoidable as I stood transfixed until the set was finished an hour later.  It will remain one of the greatest unexpected gifts from my Heavenly Father and earthly father, who had finally come to terms with one another, it seemed.

            And so, this Christmas, as I anticipate not being with family, I try to count my blessings “instead of sheep”.  Though I am poor in some ways, I am blessed and rich with memories of past holidays.  And it cannot keep me from continuing to dream about one day hosting my own family and friends in a large house with a warm fireplace, plentiful food, warm beds, and most importantly, a spirit of peace that envelops and reminds them all that Love came down, became less than He had to be, in the presence of the lowliest of creatures….so that we might be reminded there is hope and purpose in everyday events. 

            To my family and friends:

            I love you.  Wherever you are, wherever I may be….” I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams”.


Karen (Mom)

Dec. 17, 2013

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