And in this spirit, our family acquired, through the generous graces of my grandmother and the ample stock of Magic Mart, a lighted ceramic Christmas tree. My mother, though staunch in her resolve not to desecrate the spirit of thankfulness and Pilgrims, somehow allowed us to take it out of the box and set it up in all its illuminated glory on a small dresser in the camper. This then became the centerpiece of our imaginations and joys. My brother and I were effervescent in our satisfaction; it was the most beautiful piece of décor in our world. And it represented all the hope and love and peace that we associated with Christmas. We were a family who claimed Christ as Savior, who recognized the greatest Gift, who had been blessed by grace. And so, hung with every wreath and wrapped with every bow, was the knowledge of the Baby, the Source of every good thing. But we did not think such thoughts at the time. All we knew, in our childish understanding, was that we were loved and cared for by our parents, that we had a very exciting life of travel (though home-school was a bit tedious) and that Christmas was on the way and we had a ceramic tree with which to celebrate. Providing the sounds for this euphoric time was an 8-track tape that we were permitted to sneak in before the “after Thanksgiving” rule. The “Songs of Christmas” played over and over on the player my father had installed in our camper. It was a compilation of various artists and groups singing gospel Christmas songs and for that reason, a bit more permissible this early in the season than traditional carols. Even today, I am instantly back in that moment of my childhood when I hear one of those songs (and yes, I have a copy now on CD). I don’t remember much else about that saga in Arkansas in that small town; the store and the tree encapsulate almost the totality of my remembrance. But it is a good thing, and a favorite image on the screen of my mind.
It is wired into us perhaps to believe that we are made from fine stuff. Though we are dust we imagine that it was stardust and not sawdust or dirt-dust. And we who can trace our lineage back to the God of the universe have cause to believe that we originated from nobility. Yet, on earth we know this is not true. Few of us can point back in our ancestry to the landed gentry or a royal family or a blueblood birth. We are lamentably common and therefore our joys in life are simple, lacking the fuss and frill perhaps of those who are born to the silver spoon. And it bears out then that our festive celebrations are characterized by homey pleasures. There is little in our homes or on our tables that would compare with the lavish festooned halls and elaborately prepared meals of the rich and beautiful people. Yet, to us, our platters and puddings are delicious and our strings of lights and bounteous trees are a delight. We care not that the recipes lack gourmet spices or that the ornaments are irregularly placed and somewhat garish in their reference to tourism and hobbies and children’s amateur artistry. We refuse to see the ordinary and instead see the wonder and richness of a holiday spent with the familiar and the beloved. And we insist in our heart of hearts, if ever we stop to think of it, that there must be in this scene a bit of glamour after all. For anything close to the heart bears great value.
And so I can conjure up even now the scenes from Christmases long ago which, in my memory, are bright with the meaning of the season. Much of my childhood was spent in ministry as my family was an itinerant evangelistic team and lived many weeks out of the year “on the road.” It must have been challenging and at times even difficult for my parents and grandparents, but to me, in a child’s way of seeing things, it was a delightful mix of adventure and normality. Many of the warm memories of my past are bound up in these travels. And of course Christmas was part of that past.
There was the year when our travels took my family in early fall to a small hamlet in Tennessee where we pulled up our campers into the church yard alongside a fence. The pastor’s name was Hood and his daughter, happily named Robin (as in Robin Hood ), was older than me and could have been annoyed at the hero-worship of a middle-schooler. But she wasn’t and invited me into her world, introducing me to the “new” author, Janette Oke, and fixing me hot chocolate with marshmallows while we clandestinely listened to Christmas music way ahead of the season, and even invited my perusal of her shopping purchases (I remember a purse and maybe some shoes.) It was still the autumn season and I can recall country roads with leaves, but the hot chocolate and the music had awakened the seed of Christmas already in the fertile soil of my young imagination.
As the days grew chilly and misty and the calendar pages keep turning, the evangelistic slate took my family in November to a wee metropolis in Arkansas by the name of DeWitt. There we held revival services by night and by day made pilgrimages to the local discount market, thanks to the shopping affinity held by my grandmother. This store, appropriately named Magic Mart for it held all sorts of astounding treasures, was a labyrinth of adventure for children and a lot of fun for my grandmother as well. And as it was the beginning of the retail holiday push, there was added to the trips the thrill of Christmas that once beat in the pulse of every kid my age. For us, in those days, Christmas was not a day of opening gift cards for shopping on Amazon or of pilfering through piles of technological gadgets; rather, Christmas was a journey through toy catalogs and real Christmas trees and wrapping gifts and making sugar cookies. It was the time of year when mother made us wait until the day after Thanksgiving to play our treasured Christmas albums and tapes. It was something in the air that you wanted to reach out and grab and hug to yourself.
I remember the next town where we traveled, Nadi, Arkansas, where my family was given chickens to butcher (which didn’t go so well, either in the butchering or the eating), and I spent Sunday afternoon with a new friend, and we jumped on her trampoline and then left early for service where I listened to the rehearsal for the upcoming Christmas program. This was the time my little brother got the chicken pox, and I, who had already had this childhood disease, instead contracted the shingles. My mother nursed me through it. When homemade remedies didn’t work and I couldn’t sleep, my parents prayed and the Father, who loves children and understands everything about them including their Christmas joy, eased the itching and burning and put me to sleep.
We did make it back home before Christmas, of course. Home was a few wooded lots in the countryside middle Tennessee. And there more excitement awaited us as we watched Mama bring down the hallowed boxes from the attic and adorn our little place with favorite decorations – the cardboard Christmas village we had helped to assemble, the “bubble lights” on the tree and the familiar greenery and bows. Outside, Daddy would put up the Christmas carolers and nativity scene that he had made from a kit and that was part of the visual celebration of our holiday. There would be my parents’ annual shopping trip to Nashville to the mall (when they told us they were going to visit Santa Claus and we didn’t tell them we knew that was their euphemism for buying us gifts) and there would be the Christmas program at the country church and all the hurry and scurry of the season. And then would come the night when we would gather at my grandparents’ house across the road to eat some holiday sweets and open gifts (though usually we would have to wait as my grandma finished her gift wrapping). Together with our cousins, we would spread across the floor in our routine places and wait while my uncle and my father passed out the gifts. Then when there was only empty space under the tree, the “go” would be given and we would tear into the presents, oohing and ahhing and comparing and rejoicing. It was a grand time. And then there was stockings on Christmas morning (in the familiar crocheted stockings) and Christmas dinner again at the grandparents and hovering over it all the security of knowing that Jesus’ birth was the focal point of all this joy and that He was the bond that held our family tight (and still does).
These are a few of the scenes that color the kaleidoscope of my Christmas past. None of them is significant on a grand scale and none of them is really important to anybody else, but they are part of my Christmas past and I would not trade them for memories of lavish banquets in the courts of royalty. Dickens knew, as did his character Bob Cratchit, that it is not the wealth of the celebrants, but what they are celebrating and with whom they are celebrating that makes all the difference. And so, as I keep Christmas this year, I build upon the things of old, keeping room in my heart for memories yet to come and for the Christ who is the Reason for them all.Pas