Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas, part two: What matters

December 23 today. It's a good number. In that part of my brain where numbers (pitches, too) have personalities and preferences, 2 and 3 get on well together. They're good friends, even-odd neighbors whoadd neatly up to five, a handful, half-ten.

December 23rd is the almost-deadline day, when stores are busy with people who know what they want and people who don't. I waited in line at Walgreen's, at Bed Bath and Beyond, and at the grocery store. Patiently, because really, that was all I had to do. I've got things to do tomorrow, but not too many. None of them involve going to a store. None of them will make me crazy.

I don't keep track of near as many things as I once did in preparation for Christmas. My children are grown and I no longer keep a running tally of the number of packages per child in my head. It no longer has to come out even. (Hope I'm not wrong about this.) Maybe some Christmas in the future I'll bake twelve or fourteen kinds of cookies again, have a party, or make new quilted table runners or new ornaments. This year it's enough to have a tree and a creche and to be cooking food to bring to other people's houses.

Even theologically I'm looking for a simpler Christmas. No wrapping my amazement around paradoxes of faith this year: God made man; wooden mangers and wooden crosses; angels singing for lowly shepherds; wise men bringing myrrh for graveclothes. There is exercise for the mind and soul in these things, and they're good practice for life. Things will be turned inside out and all around from time to time. It's good to have some experience with tracing those paths in the story of Jesus and  recognizing the power of God in the surprises. Because, well, life.

But just like baking and shopping and wrapping, it doesn't have to be that complicated. In the Christmas story there's a baby, born in the middle of the night in a lowly place, held in his mother's arms, nourished at her breast. Her breath caresses his brow, her touch lets him know it's good to be here, on this earth, where love matters more than sin and sorrow.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas, Part One:

Disclaimer: "Part One" in the title of this blog post in no way guarantees that there will be a part two, much less a part three or four.

December 22 and the sun is up, on the day after the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.

It did not come up in a big, glorious sunrise. There's light, but it's December grey. The white window frame, the black tangle of tree branches against the half-tone sky — these could be a nineteenth century photo. There is no color in them at all.

What to make then of the soft multicolored lights on the Christmas tree? I thought twice before turning the tree on this morning. Its lights belong to an evening celebration. It seems like a leftover party guest when it's on in the morning, dressed up in evening lights, a little awkward and out of place as I drink bitter black coffee and read the morning news on the laptop.

A friend gave me a pair of bayberry candles last night, in a box with an artful red ribbon. The candles came with a scrap of paper that says burning these down to the nub on the night of the winter solstice will bring good luck in the coming year. True? Or just a way to sell candles?

A search of "bayberry candles solstice" brought me to the  James T. Callow Folklore Archive with pages and pages of field notes about Christmas customs involving candles, bayberry and others. Some were about good luck, some about hospitality, some about lighting the way for the Christ Child. The Google search also turned up sites on pagan Yule-tide customs, which is what you'd expect when solstice is in the search box. And of course, there were many hits for sellers of bayberry candles.

I lit the candles last night, on an impulse, because there were tall candlesticks still hanging around in the living room from the Thanksgiving dinner table. Blew them out, though, after an hour or two, before they were down to the nub. Seems a waste to burn them up in one night.

There's no extravagance in keeping the Christmas tree lit all day--maybe a tiny bump in the electric bill to keep the electric candles lit in the windows at night, to power the string of energy-efficient LED's around the back door and the lights in the kitchen window. The natural light outside is harsh in the daytime, and so is the cold.

Candlelight, on the other hand, is soft and warm. Have I jinxed myself by not giving it a chance to bring in luck, to welcome peace, hope, God?

There are many colored nights ahead, and many grey mornings.