Friday, December 24, 2010

On the outside, looking in

One of the most intensely dark Christmas stories that I have ever read is Hans Christian Anderson's story of The Little Match Girl. Touted as a children's story, it features a destitute little girl, bare-footed and shivering in the cold, afraid to return to her meager home because she has not sold any matches that day. All day long she has been on the outside, looking in at lives filled with warmth and laughter, Christmas trees, holiday feasts, loving families. With no place to go she curls up in a corner between some houses and lights a match to try to keep herself warm. Each match she lights pulls her into a vision of all that she dreams of, delights of warmth and comfort that vanish as the match burns out. Finally she sees a vision of her grandmother, and, desperate to keep that vision from vanishing she lights all of the matches at once. Her grandmother carries her off to heaven and in the morning people find the little girl's cold, dead body. Funny how that's not a story widely told to children anymore.

In a way, I have always identified a bit with that little match girl. Always on the outside, looking in at the warmth and laughter, never feeling that I belonged to that world. In vain I would light my feeble matches, trying to hold on to visions of belonging. Education. Career. Appearance. Family. If only it wouldn't burn out; if only I could REALLY enter in, I would finally belong somewhere. But they all burned out, each in their own way, never bringing me the warmth that I longed for.

I remember in particular one year during college. Home on Christmas break, the feeling of emptiness was overwhelming. On Christmas Eve I went for a walk under a star-lit sky, thinking that if I just tried hard enough I could capture some of the warmth of Christmas, some of the peace, some sense that I belonged in the universe. I knew the Christmas story, had been raised with it drilled into my head, but I didn't FEEL the Christmas story. The stars didn't hold any answers. No angels sang for me, no sudden a-ha! moment came to me. All I felt was alone, wandering under the sky. Forever on the outside, looking in at something I couldn't quite grasp. Inside, I was as cold and dead as that little match girl.

Flash forward many years. Many midnight wanderings on darkened streets that never led me anywhere. Many matches lit and burned out. And now I know...I wasn't the only one on the outside. I'm not alone. We are ALL the little match girl, all longing for something that we could never reach on our own.

Photo by Steve Evans
And so, God came. Because we could not open the door to go in, God opened the door and stepped out in the darkness and the cold. God came to us. As we huddled in our corners he came, and he laid the gift of a baby at our cold and bloodied feet. A baby who would suffer through the same cold and despair that we live in. A child who would know the things that pain our hearts. A man who would take all of those hurts and all of those longings and in one final moment would experience the ultimate knowledge of being on the outside, being forsaken. And in that moment the door would be flung open for all eternity, welcoming us into HIS warmth.

Immanuel. God with us. God with us in the darkness, God with us in the light. God entering our world. God breaking through. Immanuel. God with us. And I am no longer on the outside, looking in.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Oh, Christmas ladder...

I grew up in a house without a Christmas tree, in fact, in most of the years that I remember my mother did very little decorating at all. I didn't understand it at the time, and I longed for a Christmas tree with all of the passion of a child to whom the Christmas trees of friends and classmates seemed embodied with the magical abilities to bring that mysterious "Christmas Spirit" into a home.

We had a tree one year, when I was about five or six, and we may have had them before that, but never afterwards and I didn't really understand why. One year we had a refrigerator box that my mom fashioned into a pyramid shape and covered with green wrapping paper; we stuck paper ornaments on it with all of the names of Christ written on them. I suppose it was a meaningful experience since I still remember it, but at the time all I can remember thinking is "Well THIS is all well and good, but I want decorations!"

Yes, I wanted sparkling lights, candles, tinsel. I wanted something to warm both house and heart. One year I discovered a box of old Christmas decorations in the closet and those paltry, crumbling items held an aura of mystery to me. From them on I took it upon myself to be the decorator for the season. Tinsel on the house plants, old candles arranged with fake greenery and a few flaking decorations, pictures stenciled on the windows with fake snow. I spent years trying to create the feeling of something that I knew was out there, something that I never managed to quite grasp.

Fast forward to my first year out of college and an attic apartment shared with my best friend. She was determined to have a tree, and I happily joined in, going to pick out the tree, hauling it up two flights of stairs and around several tight corners. We decorated with ornaments she got from home, as well as a few purchased on our meager budgets. I still have them in a box; each of my trees since then has been the cumulative story of my adult life.

I had a tree most years after that, skipping a few years with crazy roommates, picking back up when I married and then stopping again when Mike and I lived in apartments with no space for a tree. But still I loved the idea of putting up a tree.

That all changed a few years ago, at a time when we were finally settled into our own home, a time when I should have gladly decked the halls for all they were worth. And I found that I just couldn't make the effort, it exhausted me to even think about it. Going to pick the tree wasn't the happy family outing I had dreamed of, it involved freezing fingers and two small children fussing about how COLD they were. And then there were the needles everywhere, and the hours spent decorating and the watering and the needles and the allergies to the chemicals used on the trees and the needles and the hours spent packing everything back up and it just didn't make it FEEL like Christmas for more than about the first hour.

I wonder now if my mother suffered from seasonal depression too, if the effort of trying to maintain peace on earth and joy to the world all through the holidays was as exhausting to her as it has become to me. I wonder if, like me, she just wanted something simpler but didn't know how to achieve that balance and so she just didn't even try.

This year I decided to put my foot down. I just couldn't do it anymore. Fortunately, I was helped along in my decision by a certain eight year old who suddenly decided that we are better off keeping the trees where they are so that they can provide us with oxygen. The minute he declared we shouldn't have a tree I said "OK! We won't!"

The lessons learned in my childhood weren't lost though. I decided that I would decorate within MY abilities. And so we have the poinsettia corner (using the tree skirt that I debated on for almost two years before purchasing):

The garlanded stocking railing (complete with decorations that recall the chipped and flaking decorations of my childhood):

The Advent wreath (in which I make use of all the round glass ornaments):

The Nativity set, watching for something (for those who have known me awhile, yes, this is the nativity set of "Help, help, Baby Jesus is lost in the beans! Quick, get the sheep!" fame):

And finally, the Christmas ladder:


I can't begin to tell you how much fun I had decorating this year. Each piece was small and quickly finished. I missed putting up ALL of my treasured old ornaments just for the chance to remember their stories, but I am content with what I've done.

When I pulled out the box of decorations Indy dove in with great delight and as I started fussing at him to not make a mess and leave the decorations alone I remembered the mystery that I found years ago in a box of old decorations and I decided to let him play. Maybe one day when he's interested I'll tell him the stories held in some of the decorations.

Most importantly, now that I have the pressure to create removed from my back I have more to give. More time to spend on Advent devotions. More time to spend soaking in the peace. More time to sit with my children, listening to them express their wonder with the season. More time for Christ. And really, that is what it's all about.