My perpetually cheerful mom knew how to make the Christmas season merry regardless of our circumstances. In early December, Dad drove into the East Texas woods and chopped down a freely available cedar tree—one with an aesthetically pleasing shape to his eye in shape and form. While he set up the fragrant tree in the corner of our family room, Mom joyfully played Christmas hymns on her piano. They pulled out our vintage ornaments—including many from my aunt and a hodge- podge of familiar family pieces—and we began decorating once Dad had strung the colorful lights.
Mom’s Norwegian heritage compelled her to bake, so by then we breathed in the aroma of cinnamon, ginger, vanilla and cardamom spices which delightfully wafted in from the kitchen. Dozens of gingerbread men dressed up in Red Hot buttons waltzed across the cookie sheets and into our waiting hands. Eagerly, we pinned up our homemade stockings either over the fireplace or staircase, or in a designated corner, depending on where we lived that year. Mom was also a prolific correspondent, so she wrote and collected Christmas cards and these, too, were arranged on a wall or table.
Because my father was self employed: a woodworking artist, we virtually worked until the days leading up to Christmas–our busiest season. All of us–cutting and cleaning the glass panels in his wooden candlelamps, cutting, routing, sanding, staining the wooden sides, pedestals, top and base of the lantern. My parents glued and assembled, and then we all loaded up the back of Dad’s Pontiac Phoenix for his selling trips. Oh joy, when he returned with a car devoid of lamps and in their place goodies! “Hey kids, guess what I picked up!” And the stories he shared of meeting people, ministry opportunities, and trade or bartering deals. He loved people and a good deal.
Everything we did was centered on the pursuit of the will of God, my father’s passion, and at times a little heavy. My raised-Lutheran mother led us into opening the Advent calendar windows and reading the daily word. We knew the legends behind Christmas trees, stars, Santa, and even gift-giving, preparing our hearts for the wonderful story of the first incredible gift. Christmas, mom taught us, wasn’t just about gifts or food or even the tree, but the merriment of the season was built on hope, ultimately, in the perfect gift. We knew about Santa, but never for one moment actually believed in a real Santa who slid down the chimney with a sack of goodies.
My father’s sister, our Aunt Lena, was an eccentric former-teacher who loved mail order catalogs. Every year, her packages were wrapped with the same aging red paper and contained an odd assortment of peculiar gifts. These we opened on Christmas Eve as we savored the Hillshire Farms boxes of sausages and cheeses, chocolates and buttered toffees, and treats another aunt and uncle sent.
Christmas morning, we opened gifts and stockings—oh joy, to see what our parents, grandparents, and “Santa” brought. Compared to most families, our pile of gifts was relatively small and practical—usually around five each—but we joyfully opened and enjoyed. The books, ah, my favorite part, were everywhere. We were a family of readers. I found an old photograph of my brother, sister, and me plus our daschund dogs–Bulova and Rolex–and pet goats kneeling before the tree on a particularly cold Christmas, joyfully beaming ear to ear. I don’t think we kids had any idea how close to the bone my parents were financially, or how precarious our living situations were at times. My parents chose to make merry.
Moving forward thirty years, I have tried to carry similar traditions into my own family: baking, Christmas carols—”Mom, please don’t sing”—classic movies and joyful pursuit of a real, fragrant tree (Home Depot) followed by tree decorating. My children are older now yet still treasure their personalized stockings, baking and sharing cookies, gifts and family merriment.
There are no goats under the tree, but we have a fat, fluffy, burnt-ginger cat, Lord Peter. Our stockings and ornaments are still in storage from our temporary relocation last August, but last Christmas, our first away from home, we discovered merriment is an attitude, a choice to rejoice. It is not tied to our possessions. I wrestled with God and had to choose to release all of the uncertainties of our present and future and rejoice in the birth of my Savior, the perfect child. To celebrate with the angels that Christ has been born, a son given.
My gingerbread men have Red Hot buttons and the fragrance from my cardamom-infused Norwegian Julecaka awakens every sense and is a highly valued treat. No piano, but the computer joyfully plays Christmas carols while Mark creatively decorates a much smaller tree. I’ve already ordered tortilla-shaped blankets for the kids and chicken-feet socks to add humor to the celebration.
The Bible tells us that a merry heart doeth good like a medicine.
So, I am choosing merriment.
I am choosing to make merry, all because of Christ.
Joyful, joyful, we adore You,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flow’rs before You,
Op’ning to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!
2 All Your works with joy surround You,
Earth and heav’n reflect Your rays,
Stars and angels sing around You,
Center of unbroken praise;
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
Flow’ry meadow, flashing sea,
Chanting bird and flowing fountain
Praising You eternally!
3 Always giving and forgiving,
Ever blessing, ever blest,
Well-spring of the joy of living,
Ocean-depth of happy rest!
Loving Father, Christ our Brother,
Let Your light upon us shine;
Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine.
4 Mortals, join the mighty chorus,
Which the morning stars began;
God’s own love is reigning o’er us,
Joining people hand in hand.
Ever singing, march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife;
Joyful music leads us sunward
In the triumph song of life.
Henry van Dyke
The beautiful featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and used with her generous permission for The Cultivating Project.
Mary has cherished life-long literary dreams coupled with a passion for ministry, all of which lead her to study English literature and later theology and counseling in seminary. She has been designing artisan jewelry for eight years while homeschooling son Ian and daughter Julianna. She and her husband Mark Miller have been in ministry for the past thirteen years in San Diego and temporarily moved to Washington with their cat Lord Peter Wimsey while Mark finalized his dissertation. Dr. Miller is now pursuing ministerial opportunities nation-wide. Mary enjoys off-the-wall humor, gardening, cooking, and curling up with anything penned by Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, or Jane Austen.