Memories are funny things, wide with gaps and dashes of childhood creativity thrown in. I question many of them but I have a distinct vision of a pre-Christmas sneak into mom’s room, when I must have been seven or eight years old. I remember skirting around her gigantic waterbed and hearing the lyrics to Joy to the World playing on the radio—specifically the line, “Let every heart prepare Him room”. I never understood those words, but I was in mom’s room and I shouldn’t have been. My brother and I were latchkey kids, ruining our surprises while mom was at work.
I remember the accordion door on her closet, the way it quietly folded up if you moved it slowly, and the Barbie doll staring back at me through the cellophane window of a pink box. I remember feigning surprise on Christmas morning and feeling so guilty about the foreknowledge I’d stolen. Part of the glory of Christmas is taking joy in the unknown, and I had ruined it.
The first “camcorder” my family ever owned—large as a small microwave and much less convenient—recorded more public memories. Videos are ubiquitous these days and we delete more than we probably save, but when I was a child it was something special to get the camcorder out, a very significant Marker of Special Occasions. We recorded holidays and birthdays so we could view them later, with our clunky VHS tapes and VCR and a giant, boxy television.
One Christmas I was the narrator of the show, telling viewers of “our tree and our dog and our Wendy”—my baby sister. I was around eleven, with a terrible haircut and a lack of fashion that has followed me to adulthood, and I obviously watched a lot of game shows at the time. I was Vanna White, waving my arms like a revelation of mysteries was happening, as if the viewer would not know a Christmas tree when they saw one. Had this been recorded on an iPhone, I would have deleted it.
I had learned to stop peeking but I don’t remember the gifts of that specific Christmas. Maybe it was the year I received my first stereo, which was also the size of a microwave. Maybe I unwrapped a pink, fleece pullover or a new saddle pad for my horse. Or did I still have Barbie dolls and stuffed animals?
What I definitely don’t remember was any “reason for the season”. December 25th was a holiday and we celebrated with no school, a few days off work for the parents, lots of presents under a tree we cut down ourselves, and special food we savored for days after. I can still sing you the jingles from the holiday commercials and tell you about the slick, dog-eared pages of the giant Sears catalog (also the size of a small microwave, for reference), but I have no memory of Jesus or the miracle birth. Lots of tinsel, twinkle lights until January, maybe some snow; no Jesus.
Would it be a sacrilege to say I have fond memories of childhood Christmases, even without Jesus?
We weren’t well-off, but Christmas felt special and exciting. I’m sure there was plenty of parental-angst and some debt involved, inevitable arguments and disappointments, but Christmas as a holiday is a good and pure memory for me. Someone somewhere surely told me the truth about Christmas, but I knew it mostly as a break from routine and a wonder of stockings and unwrapped (mostly) surprises in the dark of morning. There was no deeper message available to me, no point other than celebration and feasting.
Even in the ignorance of childhood and the darkness of that pre-Christ time for me, Christmas was a blessing.
Our own children have never known a Christmas without the good news of Christ’s coming, and I am ever thankful to have a deeper tradition and truth to share with them. The goodness of God to be Emmanuel, to walk among us, to choose the lowly way of a manger and common people, is a thing to be wildly celebrated. And at the same time, my kids have never experienced a full and complete Advent celebration.
I had years of good intentions and unfinished Advent calendars. I planned for nightly candles and Scripture reading and small but meaningful gifts to point us all to the Christ—and I failed every single year. It was all I could do to make sure every child had the same number of gifts, and to keep the tree watered enough to still have its needles on January 1st. I was always wrapping the last presents on Christmas Eve, always wishing I’d done more, and always worried I’d chosen the wrong gifts for my loved ones. The thought that my children would be disappointed on Christmas morning, after weeks of excitement and anticipation, was crushing. Having covered the most important part of Christmas, I worried about everything else.
But no one ever cried on Christmas morning. No one ever complained or even probably noticed the equal distribution of presents. No one seemed disappointed, or jealous of another’s gift, or unthankful for what they’d unwrapped.
I grew up with wonderful traditions but no sense of Christ, and our celebrations all centered around a list and a shopping spree. There was always the chance next Christmas would be bigger and better, or smaller and better, or less bad, or less frenzied. But our Christmas hope was limited to our bank account and a few days a year.
As an adult, my celebrations of Christ’s coming have sometimes been haphazard, where nothing comes out quite perfect and many things are still unfinished. The Christmas boxes in the attic hold half-completed Advent calendars and devotionals we made it a third of the way through. We only sometimes go to church Christmas Eve, only occasionally light candles, but we always remember the Child of Christmas morning. We have the hope of a grand celebration each year and eventually, finally and forever, an unwrapping that meets our needs and exceeds our expectations—a surprise we can’t ruin by looking ahead.
I had a childhood without knowledge, but maybe it taught me to peek and look for the good things to come.
All the things I hope to accomplish by Christmas Day, and all the joy I hope to share with others, will fall short of the unimaginable feasting and celebration that will happen in the presence of the Lamb. It will always pale. That’s the good thing about this expectation, the always-better Christ gives.
A crumb in the house of God will outshine and outlast the best Christmas morning quiche with sparkling cider, the mid-day ham and sweet potatoes, and my father-in-law’s famous peanut butter fudge.
All my earthly celebrations are simply priming the pump for the party that awaits, preparing my heart and making room for the full revelation of my Christ. Everything I fail or forget to do will be found, tenfold and more, in the great feasting to come.
The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
Tresta Payne learned to appreciate the beauty of God from the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her husband and four children. She builds her own MFA in creative writing through homeschooling her children and tutoring others, finding every excuse to learn and read and grow. After twenty years of homeschooling she is ready for someone to hand her that degree. She enjoys a good, deep discussion with a balance of differing opinions, and works out her own thoughts in writing. Tresta walks a lot on the wild country roads around her home, with her dog and her thoughts and the nearness of God to keep her company.
A Field Guide to Cultivating ~ Essentials to Cultivating a Whole Life, Rooted in Christ, and Flourishing in Fellowship
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