Christmas is an old hardback book with a blue cover that opens up to become a star. It is a cheap plastic tablecloth under the real tree, and lights that sing and blink. It’s staying up late on Christmas eve so I don’t wake at 5am, too buzzed to sleep. It’s frosty the snowman every year of my childhood, making me cry.
It has become other things, as I have too. It is panettone, a little because this is when they are out in stores, mostly because of countless McFadyen New Years Eve’s, with some of the absolute best. It is gingerbread Frappuccino’s with my baby sister, sore feet and an annual shopping date in the city bustle.
It is the smell of pine needles, and the need to get another bauble covered with glitter and glue, spelling out the name of a new addition to our table and tree. How God has blessed our family.
It is cardboard nativity scenes and Sunday school lessons with real hay. It is, after only one year, 10pm Christmas eve services with mulled wine and mince pies. It is a tiny tree in a housesat apartment, with spotlight lights. A reindeer and a bird I bought the last time I ever visited my Grandma.
Christmas is watching ‘the family stone’, as I did this afternoon, while making hot chocolate reindeers. You can have the edgy subtle and the shiny fight scenes – give me this messy, beautiful movie with the complicated, utterly imperfect family any day. Give me dreams about shovelling snow, and lines about freak flags and endings that dawn on you instead of scream at you. I can mark the passage of years in viewings of this movie, like the change of seasons. Hearkening back to the first one with my sister and mother, movie theatre quiet.
Where it used to be folding towels and dancing to carols, now it is wrapping toys and prepping puppets. It is different, life moving ever on. I was happy then, and I still am, though almost everything has changed.
These traditions, old and new, draw a line for me. They stack up, upon each other, until the critical mass has been reached and I can say that now, now after THIS one thing, it feels like Christmas. The traditions spin around each other like the snowflakes only one of my Christmases has contained, and some of them fade and some are new and I only know I don’t pick what they are. But together, somehow, chocolate gingerbread from Aldi and boxing day Lord of the Rings are little presents wrapped up, announcing the season, just for me.
This is what Christmas has been and is, a heady, magical time. The ham glaze lovingly brushed, and the pudding carefully wrapped and aromatic, herald. And they do not herald their own existence, as though special songs and food and family are somehow the point, instead of what points to the point.
Ever since I can remember, I have been told that all of the special is because of one enormous gift. One tiny bundle, not wrapped in ribbon. One baby whose life and death and life would change everything. And so while the danger is that these trimmings will overshadow, the reality is they could not satisfy any more than an envelope without a letter. For actually they announce so much more than the sum of their parts. And this is why Advent is so precious.
Each year, as the season ticks on and the signs pile up, and we wait, with such anticipation we wait, I think of another waiting. Of a world holding its breath. Of divinity slipping into time and humanity. And when my heart is almost bursting with joy at the sight of a star on a tree, it is thinking too of another star, and, 33 years later, another tree. And it is feeling thankful for the baby who didn’t stay a baby in a pretty tableau with smiling sheep. For Jesus who grew up to die, to take my place, to bring me back to God. Jesus, friend of sinners. Joy to the world. Repeat the sounding joy….