This originally was posted in 2013, yet the words hold true today….
This year a little elf doll has made an appearance at our house. This is the first time we have taken part in the whole Elf on the Shelf phenomena, and we only did because two boys asked. They asked with this sense of wonder in their eyes and this delight. And now, each morning they immediately make a search for where this little stuffed toy has settled.
This will be part of their memory of Christmas. This will be part of their tradition. Along with bundling up and loading in the truck with hot chocolates and popcorn to drive through the city and look at Christmas lights. Listening to Christmas music. Practicing for the Christmas program at church. Decorating the Christmas tree and the house. All of these combine to create an atmosphere that stands out as special; as infused with wonder and something different.
I remember the Christmases of my childhood. I remember lighting the luminarias and setting the table for Christmas Eve. I remember the anticipation, looking over the presents under the tree a hundred times. I remember the delight in looking at all the ornaments and sitting and staring at the tree with all the other lights in the house off. I remember the special food, the aromas and the scurrying around the kitchen. I remember the little cinnamon rolls that came out only at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The special Christmas china and the red and green goblets. Velvet dresses and Christmas sweaters and shoes that pinched. Acting out the story of the coming of the Babe in the Manger. Loading up in the car and heading to the Episcopal church downtown for midnight mass and remembering the hush that fell upon that place and the sense of awe. Christmas morning was fun, but all that led up to it is more imprinted on my memory than the gifts and opening presents.
Everything was set to perfection, and I know there was stress involved, but it was set to perfection with a sense of delight, to lavish and to create a sense of the special.
Now…the one who was at the helm of setting the tone and the table is lost in a place where she does not even understand the meaning of the word Christmas. We have not had a meal like that in years, and Dad has not celebrated Christmas in quite the same way in some time. Of course, Grandparents pare things back, but we have set aside the wonder because she does not understand. Until this past Thanksgiving…my brother and his wife brought Thanksgiving to my folks’ place.
Dad set the table and each piece was still able to carry memories. It is amazing how these inanimate objects bear our thoughts and hold our emotions, releasing a flood of memories just by being brought out into view. Now Dad walks through setting the pieces out, and Mom shadows him. She takes some pleasure in seeing the pieces, but she no longer is the one setting the tone. She no longer is the one welcoming the guests with beaming smile. She is no longer orchestrating.
I realized something. I have many friends for whom the holidays are truly difficult, and I imagine that infusing wonder into those moments can be daunting. Seasons which invoke feelings of dread and fear and depression, or where loneliness is the dominant emotion rather than wonder or joy…these are not seasons marked by memories of anticipation and hope. Rather, they might be seasons where we want to simply close the door and ignore.
I would offer that all the more, though, we need in those moments to affirm the irrationality of Christmas, as Madeleine L’Engle says.
In the midst of the terrors and the depressions and the fears and the angers and the hopelessness….in the midst of those is where we need to hear the wonder.
We can manufacture some sense of wonder with Elves on Shelves and twinkling lights. Enough to capture the attention of the five year old, or even the ten year old. Enough to enliven their imagination so they have memories to look back upon as they age. Enough to spark their wonder. But, they are mere glimpses of wonder, and they do not sustain. Let the children play and enjoy…and spark their wonder.
Then, remind them of the One who tells of the truest wonder of all.
When the true terrors of reality come, we need the irrationality of Christmas. We need the imagination of the God who has the power to overcome, and to birth true wonder.