Christmas reflections

I’m typing this at 10:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve.  The girls are in bed, I’m home alone, and JJ is over at church preparing for tomorrow’s service.  At our former church, he was the only pastor, so all churchly responsibilities fell to him, which meant that he was always working at church on Christmas Eve, preparing for all the services.  At our current church, he is one of three pastors, but as the choir director, he was still involved in the Christmas Eve services, and he will be up in front for the Christmas Day service (albeit by his own choice).

I guess it still feels odd to be so much on my own on Christmas Eve, even though it’s no different than it’s been every Christmas of my husband’s ministry.  It just … is what it is.  I don’t know that it will ever be different as long as we live in California.  It’s our new norm; I don’t know why it still feels so odd to me.  Perhaps it’s the move that has intensified the feeling that something is missing, because I don’t think I felt this so strongly last year.

Actually, I think my experience is pretty typical for pastors’ families.  My father wasn’t a pastor, but he was the choir director and organist, and he was always very busy on Christmas Eve, too.  But I really don’t remember any specific Christmases before about 7th grade.  I only remember Christmas Eve of 7th grade because I had stomach flu that year and had to miss the children’s Christmas Eve services.  My father obviously couldn’t miss, and my two brothers weren’t sick, so they went, so my mom went, too.  I remember being at home alone in our big old house, feeling just miserable, and having the TV on just so that there was some sound in the house, except that the movie was “Tootsie,” which I’ve never watched since but I could hardly follow on that night.  Why the local TV channel wasn’t playing “It’s a Wonderful Life” I have no idea.  Perhaps it was on a different channel, but I was too sick to get off the couch to change the channel.  Frankly, I was too out of it to care much what was on, but I remember being confused by the movie.

Anyway, that Christmas is the earliest one I remember.  My memories of other Christmas Eves aren’t specific.  I just generally remember that often we would have grandparents around, but sometimes not.  I remember Mom usually made cherry soup on Christmas Eve (a tradition I tried to keep going in California, except that I can’t get good sour cherries here and no one likes cherry soup but me.)  Besides the cherry soup, we also had cheese and crackers and summer sausage and oranges and hot cider and lots of cookies lying around.  There were plenty of services, and Mom and Dad were always busy.  I must have led a pretty carefree life, because I don’t remember being particularly busy.  I remember looking forward to opening presents.  Now, it’s my girls who look forward to opening presents, and I don’t care so much about getting presents anymore.  Does that mean I’m finally a grown-up?  😉

Since I’ve been married and in California, we’ve rarely had family visiting for Christmas, so usually Christmas Eve is a nice, relaxing day with the girls and me.  I remember an early Christmas Eve before we had kids where I spent Christmas Eve at the local big box bookstore, drinking a hot beverage and perusing through books as I sat in a comfortable chair overlooking the mall parking lot and the commuter train tracks.  At our former church, we would try to invite family-less people over on Christmas Day, but this year we’re not doing that.

But, despite eleven years of quiet Christmases, it still feels odd to me.  I guess the holidays bring on strong feelings of one’s childhood home like that.  The thing is, I really don’t want to be anywhere but here – JJ and the girls ARE my home.  And I know my girls don’t feel like they’re lacking anything or missing anything at Christmas.  They’re certainly not lacking presents!

So, maybe it’s okay that our norm for Christmas is more a laid back, more quiet, more relaxed holiday.  Maybe I shouldn’t feel like something is missing.  Maybe it’s good that we can just be together as a family at Christmastime.  We all love each other and we enjoy being together.

But, after eleven years, I starting to doubt that this feeling of “missing” something at Christmas will ever quite go away for me.  Hopefully my girls will never feel that way.  Perhaps if they grow up with quiet Christmases, then they’ll be content with whatever kind of Christmas celebrations life throws at them when they’re an adult.

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Christmas is for kids

Last week, I took Jujubee to the mall to run some errands with me.  The staff in the mall were putting the final touches on their Christmas decorations, and Jujubee was very impressed.  We had to ride the glass elevator a few times (because I couldn’t find the store I was looking for!), and the elevator is located next to the big Christmas tree where Santa will be posing for pictures with children.  Jujubee LOVED the view from that elevator!  She couldn’t get over the big tree and all the lights.

As we went to different stores, Jujubee noticed smaller decorations, too, like pointsettias in pots and little garlands and lights in various store windows.  When we were done with our errands, I took her into the Macy’s Christmas store for a treat.  We looked at all the different trees, and I showed her how to gently touch the various ornaments.  We talked about “rough” and “smooth” and “soft,” and I was impressed with how gently she handled the ornaments.  We admired various trees, and we talked about which trees we liked best and why.  She’s getting so grown up; our conversations are getting more “real” all the time.

When we left, she asked to see the big tree one more time.  Since that was on our way out of the mall, I quickly agreed.  She continued to be impressed by the tall tree full of lights and colors, and later at home, she told her Daddy about what she’d seen at the mall.

I’ve been thinking about getting the house all decorated for Christmas.  I love the results, but I’ve been rather dreading all the work of putting everything up.  However, seeing the delight in Jujubee’s eyes as she saw all the Christmas decorations at the mall reminded me that Christmas is for kids.  I know, I know, I’m a pastor’s wife, and I definitely know that Christmas is about Jesus.  BUT, Christmas could just as easily be celebrated with simpler decorations, like at Eastertime.  Yet, it’s the tree and the lights and the candles and the wrapped gifts and the special treats that add a special, unique dimension to Christmas that makes such an impression on kids.

So, seeing my daughter’s unhindered delight in Christmas decorations has given me the boost I needed to be willing to get our house decorated for Christmas.  The tree is scheduled to arrive, friends are coming over to help with the tree decorating, Christmas music will be playing, and I have plans to make Christmas treats.  We’re going to have a lot of fun with Christmas in our house, and I know my girls are going to love it!  And I’m so happy have re-discovered my excitement for Christmas!

born to die

This has been a most busy Christmas, and it’s been difficult for me to keep my focus on the real meaning of Christmas.  But, when I’ve had a chance to rest and ponder the reason for Christ’s birth as a baby in Bethlehem, it’s hit me stronger than ever before in my life.  Perhaps it’s that I’ve never been as aware of my sinfulness and need for a Savior as I have been this past year.  And when you know just how much you need a Savior, how wretched of a person you truly are, and how – no matter how hard you try – you so often fail at living a life that reflects Christ’s love for you, you realize that that baby lying in the manger came — to die.

I guess that’s why I’m not a big fan of Santa Claus.  The topic of Santa Claus came up on Facebook a few weeks ago, and friends of mine who consider themselves Christian parents wrote about why they do or do not do Santa Claus with their children.  For me, knowing why Jesus came to earth, to make Christmas just about Santa Claus, or in the larger context, to make Christmas just about generosity and good-heartedness seems so … trite.  I know my children don’t truly understand now why the fact that Jesus was born makes a big difference.  That’s okay; I don’t expect them to really “get” it.  But it’s enough that they know that Jesus is the reason for the season.  As they grow in their Christian faith, they will better understand why Jesus is what Christmas is all about.

Last night in our church’s Christmas Eve service, I sang the John Jacob Niles carol “I Wonder as I Wander.”  So, on this Christmas Day evening, here is my Christmas thought to my few, faithful readers:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor or’nery people like you and like I.
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

Christ’s arrival on earth was such an act of love for humankind, for poor ornery people like you and certainly like me!  May we all grow in greater depth and appreciation of his amazing love not just this Christmas, but all our lives long.

Wishing you all a merry Christ-mas,

Emily

the downside to good Christmas memories

Ever since I’ve become an adult, and even more so once I had children, Christmas has become a not-totally-joyful time of year for me.  Recently, a friend of mine from church was discussing this phenomenon with me.  We are similar in that we both grew up in the Midwest in close-knit families surrounded by close-knit extended families of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  After we married and moved to California, Christmases have never been the same for us.  Both of us shared the thought that we always feel like something is missing from our Christmases here.  We were blessed with such family-filled celebrations when we were growing up, and those kinds of celebrations just aren’t possible living 2000 miles away from that family.  So, we end up feeling like something is lacking around the holidays.

I don’t know that there will ever be a real cure for this feeling as long as we live here in California.  My friend is almost a generation older than myself, and since she still struggles with this feeling, I suppose that as long as we live here, that feeling will always be present at the holidays.  My husband and children and I will never be “home” (meaning in WI) for Christmas, due to the nature of my husband’s calling as pastor.  I’d love to have my parents come out here for Christmas, but for many good reasons, it makes more sense for us to go back the Midwest, and to go back after Christmas.

I know that for my children, this is home, and they are content to be at home for Christmas.  But that’s because they don’t know any other way.  I can’t help be a little sad for my girls, because their idea of a normal Christmas is so very different than what I had as a child (and what my husband had, although his family wasn’t as close as mine).  It’s still fun, but there’s often not many people with whom to share it.  So far, it looks like we’ll be alone for Christmas Day again, just like we were for Thanksgiving.  I would dearly love to have people over, but everyone else has family or has their celebration plans already in place or is traveling.  Plus, my husband won’t be able to rest and relax much on Christmas, because this year Christmas falls on a Friday, which means that a mere two days later is another church service, and that service needs to be prepared for.  And, the day after that, we leave for our trip to Wisconsin.  It doesn’t leave a lot of downtime in there.

(And here’s where I make my plea that I devoutly wish that Christmas would always be on a Sunday, just like Easter is always on a Sunday.  Why, oh why, can’t Christmas always be on the fourth Sunday of December???  It would make pastor’s lives, and the lives of their families, SO much easier!  I’m excited for two years from now, when Christmas WILL be on a Sunday!  That will be a good year.)

I don’t mean to be all blue and sad.  Lyd is very excited for Christmas, and I’m sure Curious J will get into the spirit of things real quickly by following Lyd’s example.  I’m trying to keep up my cheerful game face for their sakes.  And I’m grateful to have a loving husband, to have darling children, to be comfortable and well-provided for, and to have the money and time for us to all travel to Wisconsin.  So, I guess I have to focus more on the blessings I have surrounding me here, and focus less on the blessings I don’t have.

Because, the truth of the matter is this: The kind of family Christmas celebrations I enjoyed growing up aren’t happening any more these days in my family.  My aunts and uncles get together with their children and grandchildren, and so far, I’m the only one who has provided my parents with grandchildren.  Frankly, it would be next to impossible to get all the cousins get together, which isn’t surprising considering how many there are.  Everyone (except me) showed up for Grandma’s funeral and my aunt’s funeral, but other than that we don’t all get together anymore.  So, even if I did live in Wisconsin again, Christmases still wouldn’t be the same as they were growing up.

I guess that’s the beauty – and the downside – of memories.  I have such wonderful memories of those Christmases, and no matter if I am surrounded by lots of family now or if it’s just my husband and our two daughters, I want to make it as memorable as I can for my girls.  I want them to have happy memories of their childhood Christmases, and I need to focus on their happiness more than on my own.  Seeing them happy will likely boost my happiness level, too. 🙂

All told, however, I’ll be glad when the holidays are over and I can go back to easily noticing and appreciating all the things I love about living in California, without noticing what California lacks.  The holidays really can be a difficult time of year.

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I read this blog post over and thought, “Good grief, Emily, what a maudlin post!”  I don’t mean to be a downer, truly, but I do mean to be honest about how I feel, because I’m sure there’s someone else out there who has similar feelings, and I know that part of my reason for reading blogs and writing my own blog is to know that I’m not alone – and to let others know that they’re not alone either.  So, I will post this.  But, to my children who might be reading this someday in the future, don’t you ever think that Momma wasn’t happy to be in California with you at Christmastime.  I would MUCH rather be in California with you than somewhere else without you.  And I can’t wait to open presents with you and see the expressions on your faces!  I love you children so much, and wherever we are together is home.

And to my husband, don’t think I ever regret marrying you and moving far away to California.  I don’t, and I never have.  I’d rather be with you here than be without you anywhere else.  I love you so much, too, and wherever we are together is home.

fall colors at Christmas

One of the differences between Northern CA and Wisconsin is how the trees change their colors and shed their leaves in autumn.  In Wisconsin, leaves start changing color in September and October, and most leaves are off the trees by November.  In Northern CA, most of the trees do not change color, but some do, mostly trees that are not native to the area.  Those trees don’t start changing color until at least October, and the leaves tend to linger on the trees in a colorful state for quite a while.

This makes for some situations that to a native Wisconsinite are rather odd, such as this: it’s odd to see Christmas lights decorating trees that have fall colored leaves on them.  And it’s odd to drive around during the day and notice the colorful leaves still on the trees — and realize that it’s the middle of December.  Last year, I remember noticing fall colors in January!

Just one of the weird quirks about living here.

But lately the weather’s been lovely, so I don’t complain. 🙂

Christmas lights at night

I happen to think that there are few things as beautiful as a lit Christmas tree in a dark house with carols being sung softly while gazing at the tree.

Last night, I had an unexpected opportunity to experience that scenario.

Curious J recently caught some germ, and it has given her a mildly runny nose, a few sneezes, and a persistent dry cough.  Coughs often get worse in the wee small hours of the morning, and last night was no exception.  Around 4am, J woke up coughing.  After a few minutes, I went in, gave her a drink of water, stroked her forehead, kissed her, and gently laid her back down.  After another 5-10 minutes (nighttime times are very nebulous), I went to fetch some homeopathic cough medicine.  I gave her a dose of that which she took willingly, again put her gently back to bed, and again listened to her cough and cough.  Not all the time, but consistently enough to keep both her and myself awake.

Finally around 5am, J had apparently had enough of this foolishness, and started crying for me.  So, I got her out of her crib, took her downstairs to the living room.  I plugged in the Christmas tree, maneuvered our recliner chair so it faced the tree, grabbed a few blankets off the furniture, and snuggled in the recliner with my baby.

J was in awe of the Christmas tree.  Ever since we put the tree up, she is insistent that the Lights Must Always Be On, and she will get very upset if we fail to turn them on.  She kept repeating things like, “Wow! Pretty Christmas tree!’ and similar statements.  She also sang “Jingle Bells,” exclaimed “Go Pack Go” (for which I entirely blame my husband), and also talked about Thomas the Tank Engine and Percy, giving her imitations of their whistles and horns.  (She’s all about Thomas these days.  Elmo is past history now.)

I had to quiet her down a bit now and then, reminding her to “Whisper,” and I also had to inform her that “Packers are sleeping.  Thomas and Percy are sleeping, too.”  But other than that, it was a lovely time snuggling together in front of the tree, even though I was quite tired.  I sang her a few carols, including “Away in a Manger,” which Lyd is learning for the school Christmas program, meaning J is second-handedly learning it, too.  After a while (probably about an hour or so), we headed back upstairs, to discover that Lyd had crawled into my bed.  So, she finished off the night in my bed, and I finished off the night in her bed, sharing the room with J.  J managed to fall asleep and not cough until she and I woke up around 9am in the morning.

If a parent must be up in the middle of the night with a sick child, there are certainly worse ways that it could happen.  I’m not hoping to be up like that again tonight, but if it does, looking at a Christmas tree aglow in the dark certainly makes it a lot easier to endure.

stream-of-consciousness post on Christmas

Wow!  I haven’t blogged in almost a week!  I must be busy.

Last night (Sunday) we hosted a Christmas party for church members who A) give of their time and talents to our church or B) are new members of our church.  Only about one-third of the invitees came (it’s a busy time of year), but everyone who came seemed to have a good time.  Our dining room table was undeniably loaded with the “festive treats and appetizers” that people had brought, as well as some I had made, so no one had any excuse to go hungry.  My vodka slush*, which is a standard at this annual party, was just about gone by the end of the evening, as was my hot apple cider.  So, it was a good party.  We had a Christmas song sing-along, with me on the piano and everyone choosing songs from the Christmas songs lyric books I distributed. (Thank you, Reader’s Digest Christmas Songbook!)  Best of all, there was plenty of leftovers!  I’m munching on homemade Chex mix as I type. 🙂

The house is beautifully clean right now with the Christmas decorations all in place (except for the breakable ones, which I’ve left packed for the past few years).  I love having my house look like this.  Too bad that most of the crap stuff that usually sits around the house is now sitting upstairs in my bedroom.  Sigh…  I think I’ll just stay downstairs.

Getting ready for the party reminded me, once again, how efficiently I can work when I have a deadline.  Of course, that realization always leaves me feeling guilty that I don’t work like that all the time.  I know that in this issue, I’m probably the same as 95% of women out there (as evidenced by my Facebook status, where I said, “If I didn’t have parties, my house would never get clean!” and a number of women agreed with me), but it IS frustrating.  I had really hoped to stay on top of the clutter this year.

In fact, as 2009 draws to a close and I think back on what I hoped to accomplish this year and realize how little of it actually happened, it’s a bit depressing.  But, I try to look on the positive side of things, and that’s what a new year is for!  Wipe the slate clean from the mistakes of the old year!  Try again!  I’m not the same person I was a year ago; I hope that, if nothing else, I at least get closer to achieving my goals this year.  There are some big unfinished projects that got ZERO done on them in 2009, and I hope to change that in 2010.

One thing I learned in 2009, or at least learned more and stronger than I have in the past, is that happiness is a choice, a state of mind on which we can have a direct impact.  So much of life is chosen for us, but we can choose to look at the glass as half-empty or half-full.  When I’m feeling anxious, that’s obviously harder to do, but I truly feel that this year I’ve learned to become better at looking life optimistically even when I’ve been anxious.  I’m proud of myself for that.  And, strangely enough, my inspiration in that area has come from the deaths of my grandma and my aunt.  As mother and daughter they had similar personalities, and now that they’re gone, I’ve thought about them so much more than I did when they were alive.  At first that seems strange to me, but as I’ve talked about it to a few people, I’ve learned that apparently it’s not that strange at all.

I often think about my grandma and aunt, and I still choke up when I sing hymns that talk about the “saints triumphant” or similar themes.  We sang “Rejoice, Rejoice Believers” in church on Sunday, and I started crying during verse 3:

You saints, who here in patience your cross and suffrings bore,
Shall live and reign forever when sorrow is no more.
Around the throne of glory the Lamb you shall behold;
In triumph lay before him your shining crowns of gold.

So, I think about them a lot, and I long to be in heaven myself.  Because even when it is approached with a spirit of optimism, life is hard.  But that’s why Jesus came to earth, right?  He came to earth to be our substitute, so that we could someday look forward to heaven.  Not surprisingly, that truth, one that I’ve always known, has struck me deeply this Christmas season.  I feel the true meaning of Christmas deeply.  I know that it’s a jolly and wonderful time of year, and it is, but truly, it’s a serious time of year.  I remember a Christmas song that my college choir sang once, entitled “Born to Die.”  That’s what Christmas truly is about.

It seems that when you’re a child, Christmas is about the lights and presents and decorations and sweets and songs — and Jesus.  When you’re an adult, Christmas is still those things, but the Jesus part takes on a lot more meaning.  Plus, as an adult, you have to make the magic happen for your children, but I already wrote about that.

I’m happy.  I’m glad it’s December.  I’m glad, once again, to have my house decorated, to be nibbling on yummy treats all day long, to be planning presents and writing out cards and doing the extra stuff that the season requires.  But there’s a seriousness to it all, too.  There are many people whom I care about who have real problems that they’re dealing with.  Family members, for whom my grandma and my aunt were integral parts of their holiday celebrations, are going to have their first Christmas without them.  Problems of all sorts continue to happen in the world.  Life is not easy.

But, then comes the news that Jesus has come.  He has come not only to live the perfect life we couldn’t live, but also to take on the punishment that we deserved.  That’s an awful lot of love.  And Christmas was the start of it all.

It’s a lovely time of year.

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* Vodka Slush recipe

2 quarts cranapple juice
2 C. water
2-3 C. vodka
12 oz. can frozen concentrate lemonade (I thaw it first)
12 oz. can frozen concentrate orange juice (I thaw it first)

Combine all ingredients in freezer proof container.  (I use an old 1.25 gallon ice cream bucket that I keep in a high-up cupboard just for this annual use.)  Put in the freezer.  Stir 3 times during the first 24 hours.  Scoop into glass and fill to taste with white soda or ginger ale.