Christmas in California in 2008, with my adult family, is not Christmas in New England in 1954, when I was a child. There are no Fahlgrens next door, no trek through the snow trying to keep my "dressy" shoes dry ("It's just next door, I don't need to wear boots, do I?"), wearing something special for Christmas - red, with some shiny bits - to the smells and tastes of herring, flatbrod, head cheese I never quite dared to try, plum pudding with hard sauce, ginger cookies in star shapes. All of us gathered around the big table set up in the living room. I can still feel a glow from the sheer familiarity of it all. Gunver always had a job for us girls to do - carry something to the table, cut slices of cheese, fill the water glasses; Sven would always play something florid and dramatic on the piano - not necessarily Christmas carols. If Gun's sister Bobro was visiting from Sweden, we danced in a line through the house, but usually it was quiet talk and good food and being teased by big brother Johnny and petting whatever old dog they had that year.
The people who were my family then are dispersed or gone - no little sister Linda to go down to Marty's with Dad to pick out the perfect tree, the smells of pine spicing the cold, and the warmth inside the house when we got home. Mom and Dad and Kris are not here any more, and they were not here in Los Angeles in any case. That was a long time ago and a different place. Those are the sweet and sad memories of family, of growing up, of being a kid. I can't have them back, but it's all right - they are safe forever in my memory. I can share the traditions with my adult family, my son and my partner - the stockings all hung by the chimney with care, with the tangerine in the toe; the funny old guy in a red suit and big beard, an Advent calendars to help little ones wait for his magical appearance - tiny pictures to find every day of December. Colored lights glowing and sparkling in the long nights.
I can also share an idea, a feeling - one of possibility, of hope - a sense that Something might be about to change completely. Christmas still feels to me like the West Side Story song: "The air is humming, and something great is coming."
That feeling resides in the Christmas story, as I heard it, as I still hear it today.
It says to me, imagine - you live in an occupied country, governed by a remote and powerful Empire. Times are cruel, perilous, dark. In the middle of winter (so goes the European version of the story) the government decrees that every single citizen must travel to their birthplace to be registered, as though to make it absolutely clear that all the power is in its hands. There have been promises of a savior to come, but they have been the kind of promises a fierce, jealous, implacable God makes, and you can only think that they mean a warrior, a king, a smaller version of that God who will be stronger than the Empire.
The story gets particular - a couple, on the road for days, tired, the wife very pregnant, the husband trying to find somewhere for the night. But everything is in turmoil with the extra travelers and there is no place for them. They end up in a barn - but it's not so bad apparently. It's warm, and the animals are around them, and during the night the woman gives birth. So far it's a kind of dismal story, weary and grim.
Then comes the light in the darkness, the dark sky split with the glory of God's own angels, singing "Glory to God, Glory to God in the highest, and Peace on earth Goodwill to Men." And who sees them? Ordinary, humble people - the shepherds out at night watching over their flocks of sheep - these are the ones that God chooses to witness the glory. When they find the barn and the baby, there are foreign kings there, giving gifts (they disappear out of the story almost immediately - just there to be mysterious perhaps; kings that worship the child although the local king tries to have it killed). The contrasts are a crucial part of the story - angels, kings, farm animals, shepherds, the straw bed in the barn. And the savior is only a little baby - not a handsome, strong young man like King Arthur, or a prophet like John or Moses. This has to be so because the new story is that the way of salvation is a humble way; a new possibility has come breathing into the world - cooperation, not war; gentleness not fierceness; a story that seeks and finds peace among peoples, not domination and endless strife.
Hearing the story, for a moment I hold the belief in something infinitely better, right, and beautiful - the coming of the rule of love on earth. I am swimming in Friend George Fox's ocean of light that overcomes the ocean of darkness; I feel hope for the power of reconciliation, of peace among men, of trust and unity.
Every year the feeling is re-kindled. There is comfort and hope there, as I wrote in this poem:
For one day
From glowing candlelit night
To home-settled rest,
It is clear, safe as houses
There is a god
Who gives gifts of love.
I live surrounded
By that safety,
That loving care,
Against the cold
Necessity of living
On other days
In the icy grip of
On one day
I can take off the gloves,
Unwind the muffler,
Let the fur rug fall
From my shoulders,
And warm myself in the
Bright firelight of love.
Having learned this story as a child - I make no claims about how other "Christians" tell the Christmas story - I carry it with me. It rests in the back of my mind as I seek to "meet that of God" in every one I am with, to live in a way that does not bring about war, to value simple, humble things. I don't care particularly about the promise of eternal life or the forgiveness of some general Sin - to me the Christmas story is about how life might be right here, on earth, now, an affirmation of that part of us that desires and is capable of living in peace.