What Makes Me Happy

You know what makes me happy?

That there is candle wax on pages 59 and 60 of the hymnal.

That my ill son insisted on attending church on Christmas Eve because he wanted to hold a candle and sing Silent Night.

That, even though he slept through the entire service and had to be woken to hold his candle, and even though he never sings with us on Sunday mornings, I nevertheless heard his voice carrying loud and strong as we sang tonight.

That the women in the choir sang a beautiful descant as we held our candles in the air.

That a congregation not entirely comfortable with singing nevertheless filled the sanctuary with their voices on Christmas Eve.

That my husband was able to be with us almost as if our circumstances were not what they are.

That I never tire of the beauty of the moment.

Merry Christmas everyone.

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Silent Night

It’s been a good week. Time has moved relatively slowly, not rushed – despite the fact that we didn’t really start working toward Christmas until Sunday. We did a bunch of shopping and planned our Christmas surprises and in general enjoyed ourselves. We actually had our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, just the five of us plus Jane’s boyfriend. It was a relaxing day. To top it all off, two packages that we thought weren’t going to arrive until after Christmas arrived just in time. Life was going well. This might have contributed to what happened that night.

I have always enjoyed the Christmas Eve worship service. Most services I have attended over the years have involved Lessons and Carols. The service alternates between Scripture reading and Christmas hymns. The last song is almost always Silent Night, sung by candlelight after the light of the Christ candle in the Advent wreath is used to light everyone’s handheld candles.

In my experience, people then file silently out of the sanctuary. It is a very solemn and spiritual moment. This year, however, my church added Joy To The World to the end of the service. And I was one of four people playing bells for it.

This meant that I walked up to the front of the sanctuary, behind the altar, just in front of the chancel area, before the candles were lit for Silent Night. We needed to be ready for Joy To The World, so we would sing Silent Night up front instead of in our pews.

I was looking down at my music and in general getting ready when the pastor approached with the flame. I lit my candle from his and turned to Jane who lit hers from mine. We each turned behind us to the choir so someone could light theirs from ours. And then we turned around.

I was stunned. All but the back few rows already had their candles lit. It was glorious and beautiful. It took my breath away. And then we started singing Silent Night – that beautifully haunting song. I had the benefit of a dozen gifted singers right behind me and the lights of candles lighting up the faces of my church family in front of me.

My throat constricted. I had to force the song through. I sternly told myself not to cry. Not because there’d be anything wrong with that but because it would prevent me from joining my voice with the choir. I regained my composure.

And then I saw my middle child standing there by himself – his father was in the choir. His mother and sister preparing to play bells. His little brother asleep in the pew. I thought of the darling boy who couldn’t wait to light his candle who was now sleeping through the song. I looked at the smile on my standing son’s face – the son who had lit his candle without adult supervision and hadn’t burned anything down. His smile was beaming. I think he had forgotten to sing.

I saw the man on hospice care sitting in his wheelchair in the center aisle. It had to have taken so much energy for he and his wife to have been there. I hadn’t seen either one of them in months.

Then I saw my friend and her aging mother. Her mother but not her father, who had passed away earlier this year. Her mother was still grieving and was starting to get confused and requiring more focused care. My friend was trying to help her mother with the candle. It was not unlike helping a child. But both of their faces were lit up with the light of Christ. They were beautiful. In all their love and struggle and grief. they were beautiful. It was Christmas Eve. And everyone was beautiful.

My throat constricted again and I pushed through a little less successfully. I was sure I had never seen anything more powerful or heard anything more powerful or been part of anything more powerful. A single tear traced a path down my cheek and I let it travel without wiping it away.

My church family means so much to me. My biological family lives at least four hours away – all of them. So when I need help and support, it’s my church friends who provide it. And it’s them who receive my support. But this went beyond that. Beyond love of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I am, in my heart, a skeptic. I analyze, I doubt, I require proof. I do not accept a literal reading of all parts of the Bible. I have a modern look at it. There are many things that members of my congregation believe that I do not. I can understand where atheists are coming from. I can.

But in that moment, with the beautiful music swelling around me and the soft glow lighting people’s faces and the tear on my cheek, I saw the hope. I felt the hope. I shared the hope. I’m still the same person with all the same beliefs and doubts. That will likely never change – it’s how God made me. But that moment was sacred for me. I can only assume I felt my “heart strangely warmed” the same as John Wesley felt so many years before me.

I am at peace. Merry Christmas everyone.

Beer and Grinch Poop

On the way home from our Christmas Eve service tonight, my husband asked the kids what they were going to set out for Santa tonight. We only have one “believer”, but the other two are good at playing along.

“Cookies!” called out Jane.

“Milk!” called out Hal.

“Beer!” called out Jane, recalling a time we had set out a beer for Santa and he had consumed it.

“No!” said Hal. “Santa doesn’t drink beer!”

“Yes he does,” she responded.

“No he doesn’t!”

“Yes he does,” she said again.

Just as I was about to suggest to Jane that maybe it was the G-version Santa visiting us this year instead of the PG-13 one, Hal announced in an annoyed and exasperated tone, “Just because he has a beerd doesn’t mean he drinks beer! Geez, Sissy!”

Everyone laughed and then fell to silence. We drove a little ways farther down the road until Daddy asked, “Why don’t you each set out a different Rice Krispy treat?”

Now, I considered this sneaky indeed. Yesterday, they made regular Rice Krispy treats, plus some chocolate ones and some green ones made with Key Lime marshmallows. He told them they needed to be saved for Christmas day yet he’d been covertly eating the chocolate ones ever since. Now he was fishing for a sanctioned opportunity to consume three more.

They fell for it.

“I’ll set out the chocolate one!” called out Daryl.

“I’ll put out the plain,” said Jane.

“I’ll put out the Grinch Poop one!” finished Hal.

The Best Christmas Ever

Our Christmas tree is still up and decorated. In fact, Hal just turned the lights back on today. The first week after Christmas was spent out-of-state, visiting family. The next, out-of-town to celebrate our anniversary. The most recent was full, first with a funeral and then with resuming school and work. I am telling you this so that you understand it is still Christmas at this house, and thus not inappropriate at all for me to finally get around to blogging about the best Christmas ever. I was too busy enjoying it to write about it at the time.

Christmas 2012 did not get off to a particularly auspicious start. The 11:00pm Christmas Eve service was wonderful, don’t get me wrong. We all attended in our pajamas, including my husband in his footed smiley-face PJ’s that I had just given him. That drew a few looks.

No, the service that heralded the arrival of Christmas Day was nice and the drive home was uneventful. I was worried about what such a late bedtime would do to the day, but not too much. The problems started when we got home. Hal did not want to use the bathroom before retiring to his bed and a tantrum ensued.

Once all the children were settled, I needed to wrap just two or three presents and stuff the stockings. That took well over an hour. I finally went to bed around 1:30 or 2:00 and wondered how late the children would let me sleep.

Not long, as it turned out. A serious thunderstorm moved in by about 2:30, waking Hal. I stumbled into his room to comfort him. I struggled for a long time before I got back to sleep. The wind picked up and a loud metallic thwacking sound woke me around 5:00. I asked my husband if that was the new roof coming undone.

“Probably.”

“Do we need to do anything about it?”

“Like what? I’m not going out there in this.”

He had a point. Besides, the old shingled roof was still under the metal of the new one. No way I was getting back to sleep, however. I lay there listening until the sound changed to something bounding down from the roof. And then silence.

“There,” my pragmatic husband said, “It blew off. Happy?”

Before I responded, the next strip of the crown began to rattle. Sleep was a distant memory by this point.

Things improved once I gave up on sleep, though. My husband had once again managed to slip something under my pillow undetected. He hates wrapping, so this has become our new tradition. I already knew I was getting a Kindle Paperwhite, but I still don’t know when he managed to slide it under there.

As I passed through the living room, I saw a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in my stocking that I had not put in there the night before. So he hadn’t forgotten about my stocking either – another nice surprise. I added the toppings to the breakfast strata started the night before and put it in the oven.

Then it was stockings and presents time. Hal passed out the stockings, such a good Santa’s helper. All of them distributed gifts. Just like last year, though, there were no names. Last year were numbers and they’d have to ask me which number was whom. This year, they were letters. Perhaps this will become a new Christmas puzzle. As they heard who was each letter, I asked them what the formula was. I gave them a hint that I couldn’t put the appropriate leter on Daddy’s gifts because it was a duplicate of someone else’s. Daddy figured it out (2nd letter of their middle names). No one else did.

Jane unwrapped four nested boxes, each wrapped individually, before uncovering her mp3 player. Daryl received a used Nintendo DS, given to us by a friend to give to the kids. He immediately declared this the best Christmas ever.

And so it was, but not because of the gifts. When we were done unwrapping, we ate the strata. And then… then we just were. Most Christmases would have seen the hustle and bustle of preparing for a long trip. We would have been packing suitcases and piling into the car to travel the four hours or so to relatives in Oklahoma.

But Oklahoma was forecast to get hit by a blizzard. We had decided the day before that we would delay our trip by 24 hours. We had no idea how life-changing that decision would be.

After breakfast, we just enjoyed ourselves. We set Pandora to play Christmas music. People tried out their new electronics. We played some games and worked some puzzles and read and ate and relaxed. And shouted in excitement when we looked out the window and saw snow! Snow, on Christmas Day, in Texas. No one even changed out of their pajamas, except to go play in the snow.

I looked up at my family at one point and wondered, Is this what Christmas is like for other people? Christmas has never been a relaxing time for me, not even in childhood.

As a child, I remember opening presents at home and then almost immediately leaving the house to go… somewhere. Christmas Day usually included 2 or 3 extended family gatherings. The usual routine was to head over to my maternal grandparents’ house for lunch and Christmas with my mom’s family. At some point, sometimes before lunch and sometimes after, mom would drive us to my paternal grandmother’s house and we’d have Christmas with my dad’s family. Mom would then pick us up and we’d have dinner and Christmas at my step-dad’s parents’ house with his family.

It got even more complicated when I married. My husband brought with him Christmas obligations to his dad’s family, his mom’s family, and his step-dad’s family. Some families adjusted to celebrating Christmas on a day other than the 25th, but we usually still had at least two places to be that day, often more.

Shortly before we had our first child, we decided that we wanted to be able to attend our own church’s Christmas Eve service. That meant attending worship and then hitting the road, arriving at my mom’s house around 2:00 Christmas morning.

When the kids arrived, my husband began to agitate for change. He wanted to celebrate Christmas at our house. I wanted to avoid hurting people’s feelings. The compromise that stood for years was the Christmas Day travel. This allowed us to worship at our home church, open presents at our house, and still make it to Christmas obligations back home. I had been trained to believe that the right thing to do was to cram everyone in, jumping from one place to another, making sure we made an appearance everywhere.

This time, though, we actually found ourselves with no family meeting on Christmas Day. We still planned to travel that day, so suggested to my dad that we celebrate that night. And then we got word of the weather. There was no problem changing plans with dad. No reason we had to travel that day. No place to be until 6pm the day after. Why not stay home? It was such a novel idea for us.

The experience was ground breaking for me. Earth shattering. Tears-down-the-face significant. I sat at the table, watching my family just exist, with no place to go, no obligations to meet, no phone calls or appointments or errands, and I cried. My husband looked at me and smiled.

“Do you need a hug?” he asked. I nodded and he rose from the table.

“I’ve never had this before,” I said into his chest as he hugged me tight. “Not ever, not once in thirty-eight years. I’ve never just stayed home and relaxed on Christmas Day. This is amazing.”

We didn’t have to speak the words then or now, but we know what we are doing next year. The 26th is soon enough to travel for family. The peace of Christmas will descend on our household again. It is the only day that we can truly just be still and be together. I never understood how special that kind of time is. But now that I’ve experienced it, I am not giving it up.