a blog about words and faith and life by Cindy Maddox

Posts tagged ‘Christmas’

A love song. Still.

nativityI’m not usually a stickler for tradition. In our family there are very few things we “have” to do for Christmas. We can decorate the tree three days before Christmas, and I won’t complain. We can eat tacos on Christmas Day, and it won’t bother me a bit. We can skip the driving tour of Christmas lights, and you’ll hear nary a word. But don’t mess with my nativity scene.

It started when I was a child. Each year we put up the nativity scene together as a family. My sister and I would take turns reading the story out of the Bible, while the other one moved all the figurines into place. I have continued the tradition, so as far as I know, every year of my life I have set up the nativity scene in this manner, often inviting a close friend or two to participate. I now have memories of family and friends from years past—some who are no longer part of my life, others who always will be. In my memory, these scenes have always been joyful, peaceful, even sacred events.

And then there was last night. It was December 20 and our nativity scene had not yet been put up, so we tried to squeeze it between family dinner and the Longest Night Service at church. Things did not go as planned. I read the scripture but the kids kept arguing, and my wife was trying to protect the moment for me. While I tried to read of peace on earth, I heard:

–Give me the cow.
–You already have a cow.
–But I made a space for it.
–It’s my cow. And my donkey. And my camel.
–Stop bumping them into each other. You’re going to break another horn.
–I smell pee.
–Why do our donkeys only have one ear?
–It’s a cult.
–Mom, she took my cow!
–I still smell pee. Why am I smelling pee?

By the time I got to the magi “going home by another way,” I was ready to find an alternate route, myself. I said nothing when my teenager stood up and declared, “I’m glad I only have to do that one more time before I go to college.” I swallowed my disappointment that she doesn’t treasure my tradition, knowing full well that it has always been more about my needs than about my children’s.

I went to church to lead our Longest Night Service, a service we offer each year for those who are struggling. It’s not a well-attended service, but I offer it every year because it’s so important for those who do attend. I led us through words and silence as I lit candles of grief, pain, fear, and struggle. We sang O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. We lit votive candles, some of us naming our burdens, others not.

I looked out at the people gathered. I know what brought many of them to that service—the pains they carry, the losses that are fresh, the losses that are old but will never heal. And I suddenly realized the connection between this service and the rushed and unsatisfying ritual I left at home. Pain comes when things are not what we want them to be. We aren’t standing next to our beloved. Our relationships are not what we hoped for. We argue over who has what and our noses are filled with the scent of failure. It’s no wonder so few people want to come and name that, because once we do, there’s no going back to pretending.

After we lit our candles, I read the words of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, with its haunting third verse:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long,
beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and we, through bitter wars, hear not the love-song which they bring:
O hush the noise and end the strife, to hear the angels sing!
The angels sing a love song . . . a song about God’s love for humanity, in all our brokenness, in all our not-enough-ness, in all our too-much-ness. In spite of everything, still, the angels sing. Still, love is born. Still, we walk toward the dawn.

Always. Nevertheless. Still.

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Inside the Stable

IMG_0577One of my favorite family traditions from my childhood occurred each year early in the Christmas season. (Now I would call it Advent, but in the evangelical church we didn’t call it Advent. I guess we weren’t much on waiting.) Setting up the nativity scene was always the most important part of our decorating. But it was more than decorating; it was faith formation. My family would gather together, and as the adults read the Christmas story from the Bible, the kids would put all the nativity figurines into place. Each year we had to ask which way was East, so that we could be authentic. And, after breaking a wing from falling off the top, the angel then got placed on a nail driven into the top of the stable.

But as a child, one thing always bothered me. I placed everybody in the stable very carefully; but the next day, everybody had been moved. The cow and donkey were now beside the stable, and the wise men were kneeling before the manger but on the top of the Ethan Allen table, not in the stable. It didn’t take me long to figure out that my mom moved everything after we went to bed. She wanted it to look nice. I wanted there to be room for everybody. I didn’t want anyone left out in the cold. Not even the cow.

When I left home, I continued the family tradition with my hand-me-down nativity set. I often invited close friends to join me, so now I have memories of a wide variety of people helping me tell the story and move all the figurines into place . . . people who have come and gone, as friends tend to do, but people who were important to me at the time. They are beautiful memories, even if some of them are painful. There is always room for both.

Then there was the first year that Jackie and I were married. When we continued the tradition as our new family, Jackie asked, “Where’s the little drummer boy?” I laughed. “The little drummer boy is not in the Christmas story,” I said, probably condescendingly. She insisted that the little drummer boy was a very important part of the story, and he should be included in every nativity scene. I teased her about it until she finally explained to me that the little drummer boy was important to her because she had grown up poor, and she knew what it was like to not have anything to give. The next year she got a drummer boy for Christmas, and he is part of our nativity set even though he doesn’t match. And he is always inside the stable.

This year we set up our nativity scene the day after Thanksgiving. That’s earlier than usual, but we had a very special little boy with us, and we wanted him to be part of the tradition. As I read the story, he happily named all the animals as we put them in place, and he carefully repeated “Baby Jesus” on cue. Then Jackie added the story of the little drummer boy, and our little Dude put him in the stable, too. When we were all finished, he studied the characters for a while. Then he drummed on the table. We laughed and said, “We have our own little drummer boy.”

And then I cried . . . because I don’t know if he will be with us for another Christmas, or if he will become one more person who has come and gone. Either way, he will always have a place in our memories, and in the stable. Nobody gets left out in the cold.

An Upside Down Christmas

I was in sixth grade and my sister was in ninth when my family moved from northeastern Ohio to Miami, Florida. We moved in December, just in time for Christmas. And everything in Miami was just wrong.

They put Christmas lights on palm trees. The advertising flyers showed Santa in shorts. The youth Christmas party was a pool party. It was just wrong.

That was the year my sister and I did something highly unusual: we united for a common cause. We were not going to tolerate that mangy old artificial tree my grandmother had given to us when she was tired of it. After all, our parents had moved us to the very end of the earth, and we would never again have a white Christmas—unless you counted the sand. And that was just wrong.

We put our collective feet down, and with reluctance our parents agreed to purchase a live tree. The only problem with live Christmas trees in Miami is that they aren’t exactly local, which makes them very expensive. I can still remember the look on my parents’ faces when they saw the price. $49.99 for a Christmas tree? This was 1975. According to the inflation calculator I found, that’s $210.21 today. We were a one-income family. Besides, when my dad was growing up on a farm in West Virginia, he used to just go into the woods and shoot one. $49.99 for a Christmas tree? That was just wrong.

Although money was tight, my parents knew what their daughters needed. Our worlds had been turned upside down. Christmas felt upside down. If having a live tree would make it better, they would find a way to buy us a live tree.

Subsequent years in Miami were easier than that first year, but Christmas always felt weird. To me, it always felt like an upside down Christmas.

In recent years, upside down Christmases became something of a fashion trend … or at least upside down Christmas trees did. Have you seen them? The upside down Christmas trees? They are designed to be stood or hung upside down. The advantages are that ornaments show better, the tree fits better in small spaces, and there’s more room under the tree for presents. An article I read online said they’re all the rage this year—although the article was undated so I have no idea what year “this year” might have been.

Upside down Christmas trees. My apologies to anybody who has one, but that’s just wrong.

But, in a strange way, they are kind of appropriate, I guess . . . because the Christmas story is all about turning things upside down.

A young teenage girl is entrusted with heaven’s greatest gift.

A young man marries her even though his religion tells him to stone her.

The King of Kings is born in a barn.

The heavenly birth announcement goes not to the noble and elite but to shepherds, the lowliest of the low (not to mention the stinkiest of the stinky).

By entering human history in this way, God identified with the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed. And to many people, that was just wrong.

To many people today, that’s still wrong, but God is still doing it. God still welcomes the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed. And we darn well better, too, if we intend to do that whole “following in the ways of Jesus” thing.

Yes, it’s a world turned upside down. But if we do it we just might hear an angel choir sing of peace on earth, good will to all.

A joyful season?