Saturday, January 1, 2011
Merry, Messy Christmas
"We have a shepherd down," my husband said from our daughter's bedroom on December 21st. After four days of rain, our neighborhood had flooded, our home phone's static crackle was so extreme I gave up answering it, and our exterior lights shorted out every night (thanks to Jeff's use of some interior extension cords most likely). On the morning of the fifth day, we looked out Sophia's window to our patio cover, where our plastic light-up nativity had been ravaged by weather. The angel teetered on her golden pole, Joseph was flat on his back, and shepherd was face down on the slats, his head hanging over the edge.
Christmas is a messy business. Every year, Jeff and I do our best to make everything beautiful. We're manic decorators and I truly love our home in December, with every surface adorned with some nostalgic object that we've either made with our own hands or found and restored. I make fudge and bake cookies. We have lots of friends and their kids over. I try very hard to be organized and grease all the domestic wheels with prayer and solid planning because I like everything to be as "perfect" as possible. But no matter what, it's chaos: malfunctioning lights, too much sugar, too much stuff, not enough sleep.
I always ponder the ironies of the way we celebrate and the reason we celebrate. Any snag we hit in this season that interferes with our plans for frivolity always seem more upsetting than any snags we hit at other times of the year. We're trying to have half our year's fun crammed into one twelfth of the year, while all around us family members and friends are getting taken down by cold and flu viruses, as we wait our turn to catch something and abort our plans. This year, my niece actually threw up onto our kitchen table just as we were sitting down to dinner the week before Christmas.
But really, if ever there were a messy, outside-the-plan kind of event, it was the first Christmas. A teenage bride and her husband travel to the home of their ancestors and they have been so ostracized that there is nowhere to stay. It's not just crowds from all the people responding to Caesar's census that makes them end up in a stable; not even their third cousins here in their ancestral town will find a cot for Mary, who's nine months pregnant. She gives birth in a cave/stable surrounded by livestock. My hospital births were the messiest thing I've ever encountered, so I can't even imagine giving birth under these conditions. Soon after this ordeal, a group of excited and uncouth shepherds show up to see the baby. Mary is my hero. Talk about being able to roll with the punches; I was overwhelmed by visits by my first cousins after my child was born. She's got strange men in her cave. But what the Bible says is that Mary pondered (the implication in the original text is closer to "treasured") all these things up in her heart.
We clean up the Christmas story, at least as far as we represent it in our decorations. In our light-up nativity (which my three-year-old, endearingly calls our "activity"), Mary and Joseph are in clean matching outfits, looking worshipful, and all the shepherds and wise men are there at the same time, though in the real story, the wise men didn't show up for at least two years. We represent it as though it were a nice, cute, children's story, when it really is a crazy, harrowing tale.
I thought about all these things early in December this year, so the messiness didn't get to me as it has in the past. I did less damage control and more pondering. Our gatherings were less formal and -- at least for me -- more joyful. On Christmas day, when that same niece showed up with a double ear infection, her tired but wonderfully patient parents, and her 7-week old sister, I thought even more about keeping our expectations real at Christmas, as I sympathized with my beautiful sister-in-law and watched her keep up the magic for her family despite adverse circumstances. And I related to Mary a little more than usual in a wonderful, comforting way.
Now, on January first (this blog is late, I know), I'm imagining what Mary thought about after the first Christmas. After all the hype, the bright star, the angel, the birth, the strange visitors, the cave, was she, like I am, eager to get back to normal life? Was she just aching to get home to Nazareth with her husband and get the nursery set up, as I am taking down my Christmas decorations and feeling eager to get my nest back in order? But did she also fear things being just a little flat after all the excitement? She seems like a wise woman, so I think the pondering changed her permanently, and she moved into the messiness of real life holding on to her sense of wonder. I'm working on being a wise woman, so I'm trying to do the same. As Scrooge's nephew says in A Christmas Carol, "I believe Christmas has done me good," fallen shepherds, malfunctioning lights, ear infections and all.
Hope you had a merry, messy Christmas, and have a happy, wonder-filled new year.