“Silent night, holy night, all is calm all is bright.”
If you’re like me, you can sing this with your eyes closed. You probably started singing it in a gymnasium, to an audience packed as tight as sardines. I grew up Catholic; I knew the story of the baby Jesus, and the exact time to put on my holiday best and pile into the car if we wanted seats at Christmas mass. But one Christmas, my first as a Baptist, it became something more.
I was living in Florida (NOT somewhere you expect to find Christmas), and dating an American boy with Southern Baptist roots. I envisioned the usual stockings, holiday gatherings and “under the mistletoe” moments. Hallmark has done a good job of inferring that chopping down your own tree is a “Christmas Must Do”, so we found a farm and made a date of it. We drove for a bit singing along when a song I didn’t know, Mary Did You Know, came on. My boyfriend teared up and I chuckled.
“Have you ever thought about it? About her?” he said his voice a bit angry.
“She is younger than you, engaged and pregnant. But it’s so much more than that.”
We walked to the tree and we didn’t talk about it, but I thought about it. I thought about Mary, wandering in the night, dreary and cold, with the physical and emotional pressure weighing on her. What had it been like? When we found the tree I imagined the wise men and following a star, not knowing the destination, but trusting. That night changed forever how I listen to and sing Christmas songs focusing on the deeper story.
Another tradition I have always enjoyed is the holiday feast. I have fond memories all the way back to my childhood, including one of my father throwing a flaming fondue pot out in the snow as the table suddenly caught fire. The same year I learned to actually listen to Christmas songs, I attended my first Southern Baptist Christmas feast. If there is one thing southerners do it is eat. Good lord! Every meat you’ve ever imagined and sides you’ve never heard of all sit before you. But the first Christmas in the south I added a new tradition to my Christmas celebration. Sitting beside my boyfriend with a plate piled with food his father stood at the head of the table.
“Who would like to do the honours”
I was nervous his father would pick me. I didn’t really know how a Baptist prayed.
His grandfather stood and cleared his throat.
“I bring you GOOD NEWS of great joy that will be for ALL people.”
I may not have known the prayer, but I knew the bible verse.
He continued, “Think” he said. “Think of every word.” Afterwards the family went around and discussed how Christmas was both the most sacred, and the first Christmas gift. How with all the variation in the world it was something we all shared, or could share if we were open to it. In all the years as a Christian, I hadn’t focused on that particular line. It’s now underlined in my bible. Most of my family and friends aren’t religious so it’s not as public, but now before I celebrate and join in on Christmas meals I reflect on more than the food.
I think my favourite part of the holiday season and a tradition I always look forward to is giving. Not just giving gifts but giving my time. Living in the busy city I am often rushing here, there and everywhere and I can get a bit jaded. But for a few years now I have treasured one Christmas night that reminded me how simple a gift of time can be. I made volunteering a part of that Christmas. Attending a holiday dinner where a choir sang, children danced and plates were full. But, this holiday dinner was different. The food was the same but those around the table were people I didn’t normally gather with — they were people I often rushed past. At the end I stepped into the chill that is a Canadian Christmas. In my hand were the last of the candy canes. “Want em?” I asked, holding them out to a nervous man who looked everywhere but back at me. “Sure. Might distract me from the cold under the bridge.” I must have chuckled as he looked back. “You stop feeling your toes in weather like this. Need somethin’ to distract ya.” That night I was made aware that this was the man’s only holiday meal. Christmas I realized can incredibly lonely for those without a home and loved ones. So now every year in December I seek out ways to get involved. A dinner to serve at, singing carols along the streets of Parkdale or maybe even picking up an extra holiday cup of coffee and passing it to someone who might not have a reason to feel so holly and jolly at Christmas. Giving back has become just as special as the gifts under the tree.
I’m not perfect. I still get wrapped up in the holiday hustle. But as I grow so do my traditions. I think about the songs, I think about the words of the Christmas story and I try to see a little bit more of the sparkle and magic of Christmas in even the most unexpected places and faces.