Monday, December 29, 2014

A Barnesville Christmas, Circa 1967

My family had Christmas Eve and Christmas Day rituals during my childhood in Barnesville, Georgia.

Interestingly, though, even though my parents were the kind of Christians who were at the church every time the doors were opened, none of our rituals involved the worship of God for the sending of Jesus into the world. That was because our Baptist church provided no opportunities for such worship unless Christmas Eve or Day happened to fall on a Sunday. Our church rituals were two: (1) a Christmas play held on a Sunday night a week or two before Christmas Day; while it was not exactly a pageant they did manage to work a nativity scene into it somehow, usually in a dream sequence, and (2) the coming of Santa Claus to the sanctuary on the Wednesday night immediately preceding the big day; we had the most awful-looking Christmas tree you have ever seen (actually, the tree was fine—the decorations were awful; we even had those lights with bubbling water in them) right there in front of the altar (the closest thing Baptists had to a Holy of Holies) and everybody got a bag filled with fruit and nuts.

We live in better days when even we Baptists have discovered the value of such high church practices as Advent and Christmas Eve worship; some of us are even paying some attention to the Twelve Days of Christmas, attention which is really helpful since during the days between Christmas Day and Epiphany we’re finished with Santa Claus and presents and can give our full attention to Jesus.

Well, to Jesus and to college football bowl games.

Still, like I said, my family, which consisted of Mama and Daddy and me, did have our traditions. Christmas morning in particular followed a set pattern. I would arise at the break of dawn and slip into my parents’ bedroom to wake them up. I was not allowed to enter the living room where the Christmas tree was located until preparations had been made: Mama would go in to “see if Santa Claus has come” and to turn on the Christmas tree lights while Daddy fired up his Brownie 8mm movie camera with its attached bank of spotlights. Then and only then was I allowed to make my entrance, bathed in the glow of the spotlights and of the generosity of Santa.

After I had seen, identified, analyzed, critiqued, and played with my many new toys, Mama and Daddy would open their gifts from each other. Daddy would thank Mama for his pajamas or shirt or tie or whatever. Mama would then open her beautifully wrapped gift, open the box, unfold the tissue paper, look at the gorgeous dress, and say, “That is so pretty. I’ll take it back.”

Then they would kiss and all would be right with the world.

Mama’s beautiful dress that she never kept always came from Deraney’s Department Store. Every year a few days before Christmas Daddy would go visit Mrs. Mable Deraney and they would spend an hour or so looking at dresses. He would finally go with one of Mrs. Deraney’s recommendations and she would wrap it up and send him and his gift on their way. Daddy would proudly give it to Mama on Christmas morning and she would be so pleased to get it and even more pleased to return it.

I sort of wondered about it all but was too busy playing with my new G. I. Joes to give it too much thought. The truth was that Mrs. Deraney and my mother just had different tastes; one was not better than the other, rather, one was just different than the other.

I thought about those long ago Christmas mornings when I learned of Mable Deraney’s recent passing. I thought about some other ways in which Mrs. Deraney was different than my mother and in which the Deraney family was different than my family. One major difference was that the Deraneys were Catholic while my family was Baptist. As a matter of fact, so far as I can remember, during my growing up years the Deraneys were the only Catholic family I knew and the Wisebrams were the only Jewish family I knew. Back in the day, downtown Barnesville was the center of Lamar County’s ecumenical relationships! I wish that I had spent some time and effort really getting to know those families; it would have done me good to have my very limited childhood worldview expanded.

Mrs. Mable and Mr. Joe always struck me as being a bit exotic—and, believe it or not, we didn’t have a lot of exotic in Lamar County back then! Now, five decades later, I look back with gratitude for the flavor that Mable Deraney and others added to the mix that was my hometown.

Oh, remind me to tell you sometime about that time that I tried on a pair of bell-bottom jeans that dragged the floor and Mr. Elijah Wisebram offered to cut them off to “make them fit …”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

As Slow as Christmas

It was late on Christmas Day; the sun had set and my parents and I were somewhere between Yatesville and Barnesville on our way back home after the day-long celebration of Christ’s birth through the eating of food and the exchanging of gifts. Into the quietness of the moment broke my father’s voice; he said, “Well, that’s that for another 365 days!” And my ten-year-old heart sank. How on earth and under heaven could I wait 365 days for next Christmas to arrive?

At that age the phrase “as slow as Christmas” was still packed with meaning for me. The period from one Christmas to the next seemed to stretch on for a decade. The closer Christmas got, the slower time seemed to move; during the last few days before the big day the second hand on my Timex watch appeared to tick once every ten seconds. “Hurry Christmas, hurry fast,” the Chipmunks sang, but it never did; “Christmas, don’t be late,” they also sang, but it always was.

I confess that to my child’s mind it was the Santa Claus aspect of Christmas—an aspect that is filled with its own special brand of wonder mixed with anxiety—that made time move so slowly for me. Looking back, though, I realize that there was a great benefit to the mysterious, if imaginary, slowing down of time in the days leading up to Christmas: it created space in which I could experience the real mystery and wonder of the season. In that space I could and did marvel over what God had done in Christ.

Another reason that time seemed to slow to a crawl for me back then was that once school let out for the holidays I had nothing to do until Christmas Day arrived. That has changed, too; I have not had “nothing to do” since 1975.

That’s not all that has changed. Now the phrase “as slow as Christmas” mocks me and my lifestyle; now 365 days go by as if they are 36.5 days. It seems as if we celebrated Christmas just a few months ago. Whereas pre-Christmas time slowed down of its own accord during my childhood, now I have to take intentional steps to create space in which I can experience the mystery and wonder of the great act of love and grace that was carried out by Almighty God in the birth of Jesus Christ.

That’s why I am so grateful that somewhere along the way I became aware of the Christian practice of observing the Season of Advent; it gives some structure and meaning to this time of waiting for the coming of Christ at Christmas. It also provides some incentive and some reminders for me to take some time out during these days to think about and to pray over the great love of God—a love that we can never fathom but can grow to appreciate more and more and to live in light of more and more.

Time did not really slow down when I was a child; it just seemed like it.

We cannot really slow time down now; we can, however, set some time aside to read about, to reflect upon, and to marvel at the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

It would be a good thing, too, if the practice of slowing down and being present with the God who loves us enough to come to us would carry over into the rest of our year and into the rest of our life …