January 6, 2010
Today is the celebration of the Coming of the Magi. It is the last day of the Christmas season and the beginning of the season of Epiphany. We have taken down our Christmas trees and put away our ornaments. The Christmas pudding has been eaten and the smells of Christmas are fading from our houses. I know it is time to look forward yet I can’t help but to look back at the preceding weeks with longing and nostalgia.
This year we spent a Christmas season surrounded by the sounds and sights of a traditional American Christmas. It was quite different from the season of Christmas as celebrated in the Philippines where heavy red hibiscus blooms bob from their stems and chickens run clucking happily around our yard. In the Philippines Christmas usually marks the end of the rainy season so there is an end to the need for hoisting up your pants and skirts as you cope with the surprise downpours. In the Philippines, Christmas is celebrated in our little Church as soon as it gets dark. The Church joins together in silliness as adults and children run back and forth, participating in “Youth Group Games” until everyone has assured themselves that they could not possibly be more than 18 years old! Sometimes the married couples are paired up for a game of, “Do you know your spouse as well as you think you do?,” which always provokes peals of laughter from the younger generation. A potluck dinner follows for which the wonderful cooks in the congregation have brought their favorite dishes. I am not one of the wonderful cooks so I always bring spaghetti topped with hot dogs since it is easy to prepare and beloved of all the children. Everyone gathers on the pews, with their plates in their laps to share the Christmas feast. At the end of the Christmas story is retold with much hilarity and grace. The joy of the Christmas season is highlighted and the radiance of the angels is reflected on every face. Gifts are exchanged and received in such a way that everyone receives at least a small token of affection. This is always the saddest part of the celebration for me since invariably some small child will not receive something they have been hoping for and will dissolve in tears. Open arms are always present to comfort and to guide these children back into the games so that they can experience the happiness of the Christmas anew. The celebration continues until Midnight when the Gospel story is read with much solemnity. By this time the littlest of the children have fallen asleep in their parent’s arms, are carried on shoulders of their older brothers or snuggled into the laps of aunts and uncles. The older children and the adults allow themselves to be gathered together by God’s word and, for a moment, for just a moment the earth stands still and breathes purity.
This year however was different. We drove the 16 hour trip from New Haven CT to Louisville KY where both our mothers live in one fell swoop. Over the rivers and through the woods we dashed. Christmas hectic was upon us. My brother Louis, Carola and their son Gideon came from Munich Germany to spend Christmas with my mother and with us. Paul’s sister Sarah and her husband Dennis came from Arizona to spend Christmas with Paul’s mother and with us. Our Christmas celebration was a contrast between the peacefulness of the celebrations at Paul’s mother’s house and the electricity and life that my brother’s family brings to any occasion.
My mother made sure to have a real Christmas tree for Rachie and Gideon to decorate. I made some applesauce – cinnamon ornaments to put on the tree and to accompany all the beautiful ornaments that we had collected over the years. The scent of the tree wafted throughout the whole house and conjured up images of coziness and Christmases long ago. Louis and Carola brought their Christmas incense burner with them and it filled the house with wafts of frankincense and myrrh. The scents of the tree, incense, cinnamon and the burning of the logs in the fireplace combined to form that indescribable scent of Christmas.
There seems to be something magical and mysterious about the Christmas tree. Originally a sign of eternal life, and of light amidst darkness it brings the spiciness of hope to the room. At Christmas, more than at any other time of the year, it seems that our five senses are involved in our celebrations. Here in the U.S. the scent of Christmas is the scent of the fir tree and the spiciness of cloves and cinnamon. The sounds of Christmas are the music of the carols, the cadences of the biblical Christmas story and the voices of those we love. The touch of Christmas is the feel of the beloved ornaments, the roughness of logs for the fire and the embraces of those who we haven’t seen in years. The views of Christmas are the sight of our families’ and friends faces, the dark form of the Christmas tree bejeweled by lights, the Church decorated for Christmas, and the bare tree limbs that raise their branches up to the sky in hope of spring. The tastes of Christmas are a medley of apples and cloves, cinnamon and peppermint, chocolate and cream, pumpkin and nutmeg, roasted fowl and buttered potatoes. All of these combined form Christmas. There is also the yearning for home and the nostalgia for those who cannot be there. There is a melancholy that touches the present with awe. In his play “Our Town” Thornton Wilder proposes that only poets and perhaps visionaries understand how precious life is. I think the whole of Christmas and the way Christmas can be celebrated affirms the preciousness of life. It is a time when past and present merge in a celebration of what is eternal and what is ephemeral. It is, in its essence, the very celebration of life.
May this understanding of Christmas and life surround you as you enter the season of Epiphany, the season of the coming of the Gospel into the world.
Mary and Paul