At the age of four, I doubted Santa for the first time. Not his girth or beard or constant jolliness, but rather my own worthiness to receive his gifts, and the weight of guilt rang in my ears with every chorus of, “He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” It was my first sin, at least it felt like sin, like I was separated from the good graces of my parents and I felt a tingling of conscious and the burden of my parents disappointment with my behavior.
I was standing on our front driveway watching cars pass by our home and grew frustrated with passing drivers failure to acknowledge my presence. So, I took matters into my own hands along with some gravel. I hurled a rock to the driver-side door of the next car and ran into the back yard trembling with the fear of what my impetuous act had wrought on my soul and backside.
Me before I threw the rock
It was my first memory of serious consequence, perhaps the driver would throw a stone at me, or I would be sent to a tiny jail for thoughtless, stone-throwing boys. Or Santa would indeed make good on his promise of withholding gifts for the naughty. As the blood of shame coursed through my veins my head throbbed with remorse. How could I have been so stupid?
The gentleman in the sedan stopped, walked up to our front door, rang the door bell and told my Mom what had happened. I’m still trying to understand why, but sometimes, my angels of unabated pleasure took my angels of good into the tall grass of choice and beat them senseless.
My hometown at night
I’m convinced most good kids make poor choices because they are bored out of their minds. My high school conversations with friends about life revealed that we were bored and never wanted to live in Bartlesville again, once we graduated and became self-enlightened adults. Matter of fact, the language was strong and certain, “I’ll migrate to somewhere, anywhere, just not here.”
We were like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, “I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…”
Taylor Kids at Christmas: Brandon, Jenna, David, Ashley, Lauren, Drew, Anna
Well, I do live in this town and have lived here most of my adult life, and I’m never bored. Actually, the closest I ever get to boredom is during the days surrounding Christmas because my purpose, my busyness…goes away, and I get restless. After all, this will be my fifty-fifth Christmas. It’s bound to get a little monotonous. During those early years, the days leading to Christmas were filled with tense anticipation…the time following Christmas was the revealing, the Epiphany of toys. Now constant repetition has replaced anticipation…and the joyous afterglow of Christmas replaced by a feeling of sated lethargy and all I want to do is loosen my belt, start a diet and write another set of resolutions.
Sometimes I wish I could return to the magic of Christmas…not being able to sleep on Christmas Eve night, the wonder, the mystery, the warmth of a family receiving and giving presents wrapped in fancy paper and ribbon. Joseph Bottum wrote in an article titled, The End of Advent, “When I was little, I always felt that the days right before Christmas were a time somehow out of time. Christmas Eve, especially, and the arrival of Christmas itself at midnight: the hours moved in ways different from their passage in ordinary time, and the sense of impending completion was somehow like a flavor even to the air we breathed.”
Most of my thoughts of Christmas are now viewed in the nostalgic rear view mirror of a 1952 Chevy in the mold of Bing Crosby, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.” I’ve lost the spirit of Christmas, which was always forward-looking, like a four-year old boy with eyes wide open in a dark Christmas Eve bedroom, staring at the ceiling, covers pulled up to his chin…too excited to sleep…wishing only one thing, that he could fall asleep right that instant so the wait would be over and Christmas morning would reveal itself in a full and glorious wonder of imagination and breathless realization.
I want it all…tradition and magic…boredom and excitement…constant meaning and seasonal delight. I want toys and peace on earth. Stockings hung with anticipation and care along with the simple ancient warmth of sitting around the hearth watching flames licking up through the chimney toward someone or something…Santa?
…defying logistical comprehension, gathering and delivering gifts down chimneys filled with fire. Excitement within the womb of mundane tradition.
Somehow, I think the anticipation of Christmas must have a backbone, a reason to be, otherwise Christmas melts into a muddy fondue of shopping and gathering stuff…a chasing after the nostalgia of our past, our own Christmas Stories resurrected each December 25 written in our own fondly dipped ink of remembrance.
The idea of peace on earth, goodwill to men is not empty tradition. The Christ-child in a manger isn’t passé, the anticipation of something imminent and wonderful and marvelous isn’t some fabrication of ancient myth. It’s the thing that holds everything in place and gives it shape and keeps it from flying apart. In the words of Mr. Joseph Bottum once again, “They give a shape to the anticipation of the season. They discipline the ideas and emotions that otherwise would shake themselves to pieces, like a flywheel wobbling wilder and wilder till it finally snaps off its axle.”
Which is exactly what happens to me when I lose my way, shopping my way back to some backward looking ideal of Christmas past…eating my way to fulfillment…giving to others without any idea why I’m giving…opening gifts without the wonder of why.
An old-fashioned Christmas with Ross & Grace Taylor with their children Rudy, Terrel, Shirley, Karen & Donna somewhere back in the early Sixties?
I’m returning to the roots of Christmas as a four-year old, of longing for something or someone to come, a looking forward. Looking forward to the and it shall come to pass and there shall come forth. The litany of hope represented by the prophets of the Old Testament of the Bible. “I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not nigh; There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”
Maybe I can have it all in this dusty little town. Gold, frankincense and myrrh along with a scattering of manure and hay…God bundled in cloth lying in a feed trough…glittering lights on the gables of my house marking the way for wise men. On Christmas Eve we’ll feast together as family and before the traditional coconut cream pie, we’ll read Luke chapter 2 which says that Joseph and Mary were told to go to Bethlehem by an oppressive government so they could be counted in a census and that Mary was great with child and she bore this baby and lay him in a manger because there were no hotel rooms.
I’m thankful God endured the boredom of a dusty little town and became flesh and lived among us 2,000 years ago…or I would still be standing next to my driveway chucking rocks at cars with no place to run except into the backyard of my guilt and shame. What a magical monotonous Christmas gift…a gift that is fresh and new not just December 25, but everyday forever.
So this year on Christmas Eve this child will look forward once again and lie in bed with covers pulled up to his chin and stare into the heavens and repeat this in anticipation of the morning to come:
I rejoice in God’s steadfast presence in my life, and in God’s unique presence in the life of Jesus of Nazareth—
born of Mary, growing through childhood into an adult ministry, in all his life manifesting the peace, love, and justice of God;
his voice undimmed by the centuries, his call and his promise as clear to me as it was to his disciples so long ago.
Come to us, Lord Jesus,
Be born in us this night, in our hearts, our minds, our lives.
May the light of your life be kindled in us,
And lead us to the shining truth,
of God with us, God for us, God in us. Amen.