One of the Christmas traditions my family had when I was growing up was an annual drive around Southern California in search of Christmas lights. With the exception of a year or two - when people didn’t put up their lights in order to save electricity - we made the same trek year after year. My dad knew exactly which houses in which neighborhoods would have the most amazing displays and we would drive for two hours so we could see them all. One of our favorites was a home where they placed in their front yard: a teddy bear, a present, and a doll. All three stood taller than the house itself, and the sight filled us with wonder. At another one, we would get out of the car and walk along a path through the yard to see a variety of decorations set up along the sides of the path while Christmas music blared from the house and lights twinkled. As a child, it was a thrilling time and it seemed like truly anything could happen.
My dad worked the night shift and his job dictated when we made our light pilgrimage. One year, he didn’t have a night off until Christmas Eve, so that's when we went. As we made the rounds, my sister and I could not stop arguing. She was being such a pain. I have no idea now what we were fighting about, but I distinctly remember my mom threatening us repeatedly in an effort to get us to stop. I really wanted to make my point, though, which I knew was right, and so I kept the argument going full force. Finally, my dad got fed up and demanded complete silence. He usually stayed out of those things. I tried to say one more word and both parents let loose on me. I finally got the message and closed my mouth.
I was so mad I opened my window, hoping the cold air would annoy my sister, and stuck my head out. We were driving through a neighborhood of some unremarkable houses and anger burned in my heart as I idly watched the Christmas lights go by. Then something weird happened.
I heard bells.
Now remember, this was the 70s and Christmas technology was nothing like it is today. I still have no idea how it happened, but I literally heard bells jingling from somewhere outside the car and I was amazed and awed and my anger quickly dissipated as I strained to see the sky in search of the source of the bells. The sound made me so happy! I never did figure out where they came from - and the memory made Christmas feel so much more wonderful and miraculous.
It wasn’t until I was in my later teens that I realized Christmas is not always wonderful, amazing and beautiful for everyone. Magical things don’t necessarily happen just because it is Christmas. I volunteered for a few years as a candy striper at the local hospital. I remember the first time I volunteered on Christmas day - I was shocked when I arrived! I worked in the pediatric ward and there were several children and teens in the hospital, some of them quite ill, on Christmas day of all things! For them, it was just another day of trying to get better. Like most disagreeable revelations, I didn’t enjoy learning that and so I pushed it out of my head for a long time.
As I have gotten older, I have observed a couple of things about Christmas. For one, people are more generous than at other times of the year. I wonder about that. What it is about Christmas that makes people more willing to give to others? Is it because Christians feel safe saying the name of Jesus - since His birthday is celebrated now? I know, I know, I have heard all the annual hoopla about which businesses will and won’t allow their employees to say Merry Christmas.
I’m tired of that. The other day I read a post on Facebook and the person said if they had a life-size nativity scene they would put it up all year. Exclamation point! But they don’t have one so, oh well. Seems like if you really felt that way you would get one. Anyway, I don’t believe for one second God is more present in December than at any other time of the year. For one thing, NOWHERE in the Bible are we instructed to celebrate His birth. I’m not saying we shouldn't, I’m just saying I don’t think He shows up more now because we are holding a world-wide birthday bash in His honor. I suspect maybe people become bolder with their faith at this time of year and there is tremendous power put into action when we speak the name of Jesus.
The second thing I have observed is for many people Christmas is a very difficult time. I have prayed God will give me sensitivity to that and compassion for people who hurt at this time of year. The illusion that everything is going to be so wonderful over the holidays compared with the very real pains of life can feel incredibly overwhelming. I have spent more than one Christmas participating as an outsider and just moving forward one step at a time, willing the holidays away.
That has taught me the truth about hope - and hope is where real magic resides. It’s not wrapped up in a particular day or time of year. It’s not found under a Christmas tree in a gift or on a vacation or in the purchase of a new anything. I don’t find hope from exercising or eating or hanging out with friends. Hope does not come from having children. It is not the product of a pleasant, fun, happy, life. Hope is tightly woven into faith and deeply buried inside my soul. Hope is peace and joy and a lightness of spirit which resurfaces every time I get knocked down. Hope is what is driving me to move forward with The Torch - to push through the obstacles and past the naysayers and discouragers. Hope is as real as the sound of those bells I heard on that Christmas Eve so long ago.
I pray earnestly for true hope to be instilled in every single person whose life is touched by The Torch. Blessings and love to you all.