Try and imagine you are a four year old child. On Christmas Eve there are still no packages, there is no Christmas tree and there are very few decorations. In those early days shortly after WWII this was not all that unusual. I have no memory of thinking it was strange. Those were tough economic times for just about everyone. We were going to my grandparent’s house to celebrate Christmas with them and I was told that Santa might leave my present there.
But when this four year old woke up, there was a beautiful tree decorated with sparkling white lights, and tinsel, so carefully strung over the branches that they could be removed just as carefully and saved for the next year. The little living room had lights and white cotton decoration that seemed to glisten. Waking up to this beautiful scene was a wonder. It was magical, and I dare say, even mystical.
We were told by our parents, with shared surprise, that Santa must have done it. Years later I realized what an amazing feat my parents had pulled off since we could not have arrived at our home until late in the evening before. I did not know until just a few years before my father’s death, that the primary reason for the late tree trimming was that dad could get the tree for free after a certain hour on Christmas Eve.
But that did not take away from the magic that filled our little house and our Christmas celebrations those early years. I should be clear that this magic had little to do with presents and gifts under the tree. For one thing, as children we expected only one gift from Santa, and that was if we were lucky. We always knew the one that came from Santa because it was never wrapped. Whatever it was, it was inexpensive and simple compared to most children’s expectations in our western world today. And any gifts from our family were almost always utilitarian. They might include a new shirt, socks or pair of jeans that were at least one size too large so we could grow into them.
I am a lucky man for many reasons but one of those was my parent’s and my extended family’s desire to make our Christmases magical and spiritual. Our family gatherings during my childhood were a real celebration with aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents and least a few family friends who joined us every year. I called that aunts and uncles.
More recently I have come to understand that whatever was going at these family events, it had something to do with that moment in history. We were still trying to get over a war that killed sixty million people and my two uncles returned from the war without serious physical injuries. Few people had a lot of money so gifting took some creativity. Yes, there was a lot of celebration but there was also a great deal of reflection. Yes, there was a lot of laughter but there were also tears. And there was a great sense of gratitude felt by everyone.
During the evening dinner, all of the children were encouraged to put on a play, sing a song or do a reading. Can you imagine a kid growing up with twelve to fifteen adults watching you with adoring eyes as you sing Silent Night? Or what it felt like when you stumbled through a poem and everyone cheered when you were done. That did not mean anyone was above a little teasing but even the loving teasing could make you feel important and acknowledged.
And I do think the fact that everyone in my family had some church connection gave us a spiritual influence that brought us closer to power of the Jesus story. It meant something to even the youngest child that a poor peasant girl could give birth to such a special man. I am certain that at least for Uncle Sam, that special man was God. No matter, everyone in the room had some kind of love for this baby Jesus.
Of course there was the added bonus. I think that every one of my relatives sang in the some church choir, so when the two to three dozen of us gathered for our Christmas celebrations, it sounded more like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir than a family gathering. Well at least that is the way I remember it. I have never been able to explain the feelings of joy and love I would feel as we stood around the huge table all facing each other and singing O Holy Night while we looked each other in the eyes with love.
I particularly remember one Christmas evening when I was in my teens. My Granddad was across the table from me and was staring into my eyes, while smiling as we sang O Holy Night. I had a sense that he was looking past the teen age boy and seeing the heir to his story. It felt like he was seeing my soul or possibly seeing the infinite. I have never forgotten that moment or him.
Over the years I have thought a lot about those wonderful Christmas memories. My parents and almost all of my aunts and uncles are now deceased but the memories still live on in our family gatherings that include siblings and cousins. I have tried to recall and explain why I felt those events were so special and have concluded that it must been my experience of unconditional love. I often wonder what the world would be like if every child had the opportunity to grow up with that kind of loving influence in their lives.
I still find Christmas magical and even mystical at times. When I used the word mystical here I am talking about having an experience of the Infinite. For purposes of this article let me just say it is an experience of the divine spirit or divine presence. It is an experience when everything seems perfect, at least for the moment. It usually means experiencing a sense of absolute connectedness and well-being. For many this kind of experience can be transforming.
After all the entire Jesus story and all of its symbols metaphorically point to an in-breaking of the divine presence into our world and consciousness. Another way to say it might be, having an experience of the divine presence that is always there-that one spirit that connects all being-ness. It is my belief that if we took the teachings of Jesus seriously, and actually practiced them we could learn how to experience that Oneness, that Connection of the Infinite Mystery on a regular basis.
In less than a week I will be together with at least part of my extended family celebrating what has become my favorite Holy Day, again. Yes we will eat, drink, laugh and open a few more presents than I might have had sixty seven years ago. But we will also sing, read poems or tell stories. And, on occasion, we will cheer for a performance by a young child. Somewhere along the way we will probably sing O Holy Night. I think that somewhere in that evening, or on a Christmas to come, I will have a grandchild who will smile and look me in the eyes and realize that she is the heir to my story. She will always remember that Christmas. She will have experienced the Infinite Mystery.
I wish for you all have to have a merry and magical Christmas and the experience of the Infinite Mystery.