Last Sunday night, our family pulled out the boxes from the attic and put up our Christmas tree. I cherish this ritual more each year that passes.
Perhaps like ours, your Christmas tree tells a kind of family history. On our tree, there are small, red apple ornaments I bought the first year I was out of grad school, when Dennise and I had just started dating. That year, we put them on a 4-foot tree that stood in a small corner of a small apartment off of Northwest Highway and Skillman. There is an ornament with Maria’s name and the date of her birth that we got that same year. There’s an ornament shaped like a minister, and another one shaped like a lawyer.
There’s one is fashioned to look like a guitar; another like a violin. There are ornaments I made with crayons and construction paper when I was in kindergarten, decades ago; and some Maria made the same fashion during her kindergarten Christmas, just three years ago.
There’s a whole series of decorated goose and ostrich eggs in the “Faberge” style. For each of my eleven years at HPUMC, my assistant was a woman named Demeris Wheeler. Years ago, Demeris started making these decorative eggs. She got so good at it that, for a time, Neiman Marcus contracted with her to make crates-full of them to sell in their stores. Some of her creations are covered with red silk, and open up to reveal a manger scene, an angel, or children singing.
Others have a small music box attached to the base. They are stunningly beautiful. We bought one or two from her each of those eleven years. And she’d always throw in one or two more as a gift.
There are all sorts of ornaments from trips around the world: Wooden ornaments from Russia…musicians playing balalikas, babuskas carrying trays of food, and even an Orthodox Bishop. There are small Bolivian peasants that my sister sent back from her time there. There angels painted in Guatemalan folk style that I bought in market at Chichicastenango a few year’s back.
There are half a dozen ornaments from my mother’s Christmas trees when she was a girl. It amazes Maria to know that that we have something on our tree “that old.”
Well, whatever your holiday tradition, I hope you’re getting ready as well.
As we put up the tree Sunday, I was reminded of something that happened to us almost ten-years-ago now. I think it was the last year we actually had a live tree, and we’d brought it home from the store. We lived in a small rent house in East Dallas that had a large, front window that looked out over the street. So, we decided to put the tree there, so that it could be seen by everyone who passed by.
The thing was, the tree was pretty far away from the street, and there were shrubs in between too. So, we recognized early on that –except for the lights and a few really shiny ornaments– individual tree trinkets were not going to be visible from the street at all. Nobody from the street would be able to make out any of the specific ornaments I’ve just told you about. And what a waste that would be!
So, we made a decision to put all of our favorite ornaments on the room-side of the tree. We were planning to have several holiday parties and, we reasoned, that it made sense to concentrate on the inside of the tree so that people in the house would be able to see and enjoy our ornaments too.
So that’s what we did. We loaded up the “living room side” of that tree with just about every possible ornament.
We went off to run some errands for a while, and returned to the house late in the day. But when we opened the door, we discovered something shocking: the tree had tumped over on itself. It had fallen inward, into that front room. Under the weight of all those pretty, shiny Christmas ornaments, it had simply “tumped over.”
“Tumped over,” by the way, is a Texas theological term. Someone told me recently that it may even be a North Texas theological term. Who knows? But I’m sure there are snooty English-language-types who are scratching their heads, and holding their noses, that I have used this word, or that I have called it theological. And all I can say in response is, see this.
At any rate, we had quite a job before us. We had to decorate the tree, set it back up, and then decorate it again…this time with the ornaments more evenly distributed, so as to prevent further “tumping.”
That little story has stayed with me in all the years since, as a powerful metaphor for the holiday season. Because many of us spend our holiday season trying to put our best face forward.
We put on glamorous holiday parties, or attend them…
We break our backs putting out lights and decorating our homes…
We spend hours, fretting over just the right gift for friends and family…
And, in what I can only describe as a massive collective delusion, we somehow buy into the crazy idea that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s –a lengthy five week span –we should be unbearably happy every single day.
Faced with all this, our holidays can get out of balance.
In our efforts to look good, act good, and to pretend to be cheery, sometimes we can get “tumped over.”
(There’s the theological part…)
But the real paradox? Most of this stuff I’ve just mentioned has absolutely nothing to do with the real Christmas story at all:
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
That’s what Christmas is about.
And in the first week of Advent, the scripture we are giving is from John the Baptist:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
In our day, this seems like a strange prophecy that simply foreordains environmental degradation. Why would we WANT a life that is all straight, boring road? I mean, have you BEEN to West Texas?
In the time of Jesus, this would have been an amazing outcome. Today, our cars push us up over big hills, and glide us through valleys. We may have a fear of winding, narrow mountain roads. But traveling them is much easier than in the time of Jesus.
In Jesus day, when most everyone traveled by foot, an smooth, flat road meant an easy life with no worries.
We want that kind of “smooth” life, don’t we?
We fantasize about the perfection of “mountain top” experiences, and dream of fertile valleys.
Maybe however, there is still a deeper truth: That if we to really connect with Jesus during Christmas, if we are to really live, incarnationally, then we must *clear out* our side of the path to God. God lowers the hills, and raises the valleys, to make it easier travel for US…easier for us to get back to God.
I believe what God most wants from us is honesty and transparency. Living incarnationally means we accept our lives, warts and all. We accept our many flaws and imperfections. They don’t ruin our lives, anymore than they ruin Christmas.
The “tumped over tree” is a metaphor for how we try to HIDE those imperfections from God and from the world.
Christmas is MESSY. Christmas is incarnational. Christmas IS God’s perfection…but’s it’s the perfection of the “divine” and the “human” together. And the human is always messy.
But, beautiful too.
There is a wonderful book, and one that’s been around for many years, called Unplug the Christmas Machine” by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli. It features all sorts of ideas for turning off the commercialism of the holiday season, and reorienting our lives back toward what truly matters. Basically, it’s an instruction manual for how not to get “tumped over” during the holidays.
In part of the book, the authors have fashioned a Christmas pledge, which goes like this:
“Believing in the beauty and simplicity of Christmas, I commit myself to the following:
1. To remember those people who truly need my gifts.
2. To express my love for family and friends in more direct ways than presents.
3. To rededicate myself to the spiritual growth of my family.
4. To examine my holiday activities in light of the true spirit of Christmas.
5. To initiate one act of peacemaking within my circle of family and friends.”
Those are great suggestions, aren’t they?
What if we made them our “Christmas list” this year?