“A Light to Lighten the Gentiles”: Christmas Reflections

The simple — and I think understandable — fact of the matter is, a lot of my thoughts about Christmas come with music attached. Last week, one of the season’s first chances to sit quietly and think Christmas thoughts came at Carnegie Hall, up in the cheap seats on the highest balcony. A fine New York City ensemble, The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and a choir of professionals from Montreal, La Chapelle de Québec, performed Bach’s entire Christmas Oratorio. It was glorious. The hall was nearly full, including, just in front of me, five rows of priests, seminarians, and a bishop or two.

As I write this, Christmas music plays from my iPhone’s very long Christmas playlist. “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” is playing now. It has become a favorite. (I wrote about this before.) The playlist is mostly alphabetical; if I didn’t tell my phone to shuffle it, I’d get five different recordings of that carol in a row. It wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Using the shuffle button has its risks. That sublime carol just gave way to the Chipmunks singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” It’s been on my phone for a few years, since I used it to summon the family to wakefulness, breakfast, and gifts one Christmas morning. Perky and annoying, it was just the thing to make it difficult for them to fall back into sleep.

It’s still perky and annoying. But it’s short and I let it play. I’m too lazy to reach out my finger and skip it, let alone remove it from the playlist. “The Huron Carol” by the Canadian Brass is next.

All that music is the setting for writing my Christmas reflections. The reflections themselves come mostly from the Bible today, though music makes another appearance at the end.

Christmasing with Preet (a Christmas short story)

There were 104 rooms – the sign called them “smart apartments” – in Verdant Meadows, the largest assisted living facility in town. So Alli made 104 identical holiday decorations to pin to the small, eye-level bulletin boards on the residents’ doors.

She worked for hours with her colored pencils, until she had drawn a poinsettia she could bear to have people see. She scanned it, arranged four identical images on a page, and added two words beneath each image in a legible but noticeably festive typeface: “Happy Holidays!”

She’d planned for the message to be “Merry Christmas,” but the manager of Verdant Meadows mentioned that about one in four residents didn’t celebrate Christmas. So she changed it. She didn’t want to offend a single person, let alone 26 strangers, with her signature good deed at Christmas. That would ruin the feeling.

She used her mother’s photo printer with a glossy photo paper, inspected each page for printing glitches, then meticulously cut the pages into quarter-sheets with a paper cutter. That way the cuts would be neat and the size uniform, and the decorations would stack beautifully until she and the other girls passed them out. She printed and cut one extra sheet, so she’d have two spares, plus one to keep for herself and one to enclose in her thank-you letter to the manager for giving his permission.

She’d been smiling ever since she finished her drawing. As her preparations neared completion, her smile grew. So did the warm Christmas feeling inside her. She wasn’t just using her artistic gift at Christmas, which was already a happy thing. She was also using her gift for organization to give her artistic creation to a hundred people or more – and to help the other girls get a warm Christmas feeling too, by making it possible for them to help her.

It was also nice that she could probably use this in the Volunteer Service section of her scholarship and college applications, and maybe some other things. But it was the feeling that mattered.

Christmas Reminds Me

During this Christmas season, I’ve been noting the many reminders the season brings for me. By nature they are not new thoughts, but Christmas reminds me of important things, I think.

Some reminders are connected to my personal circumstances, from which yours may differ in essential ways. Some are matters of my particular faith. Some are controversial, but I’ll list them here anyway — and try to resist the temptation to explain at length how each applies to the world as I see it. Feel free to make your own connections, if you will.

Keep My Secrets? (a short story at Christmas)

I froze when Mom knocked. “Feel like driving to the airport?” she asked through my bedroom door.

“Why would I want to?” It seemed like a reasonable question.

She turned the knob but only cracked the door. “Because no matter how old you are, Mike, or how far away you go to school, I’m still your mother. May I open the door?”

I was home for the holidays, currently wrapping Dad’s Christmas gifts for Mom – which I was bad at, but he was worse. The real secret, if she could have seen it, was in my head. I was thinking about expanding the little business my parents didn’t know I ran at school, if I could do it without my grades slipping or someone ratting me out to the university. Demand exceeded my supply, even at the high end.

I buried the last unwrapped gift. “It’s safe.”

The door swung open. “Dad’s at work, Mallory’s helping me, I’m up to my armpits in cookie dough, and Jill’s flight lands in 30 minutes. Meanwhile, Kathy’s by the side of the road, waiting for a tow truck.” Her voice turned tired. “That’s why you want to, smart aleck. But mostly the mother thing.”

I smiled. “Okay already. You had me at tow truck.”

Her eyebrows arched. “Not at Jill?”

I shrugged. Jill was Kathy’s daughter, Kathy was Mom’s best friend, we were neighbors, and Jill and I had been friends since we were toddlers. We had one of those comfortable friendships you could pick up where you left off, after a month or a year. The thought of seeing her for the first time since last Christmas made me a little nervous, and our first minute might be awkward, but then it would be like old times.

“Thanks,” Mom said, and closed the door.

I was downstairs in ten minutes. It would have been three, but … Jill. A guy has to have some pride.

Invisible (a short story)

I can be invisible.

No, really. I have proof. We’ll get to that.

I can see myself in the mirror, and other people can see me if they want. You probably could if you wanted to. So I don’t think my invisibility is supernatural. It’s more like out of mind, out of sight.

It hasn’t always been this way, and I don’t just mean that people ignore me at school, though they mostly do. In the halls that’s a good thing. Even as a seventh grader, I’m too tall for ninth graders to stuff me into a locker, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t try.

Mostly it’s my sister, Joanie, and her best friend, Charlotte. They’re both three years older than me, so they’re sophomores. They go to high school.

Joanie’s friends get to call her Jo. As for Charlotte, everyone calls her Shar – except me, because I like her real name.

I’m Stefan, but Stef is fine too. I’m an artist.

Two Kinds of Christmas, Both Good (an essay)

Here we are, in the shortest days and longest nights of the year. It’s cold and getting colder — a dark season with less life about it, in some ways, than the warmer, greener months. But we don’t hibernate, and most of us don’t fly south for the winter, though by February we may wonder why not. What we have — Christians and non-Christians alike — is the Christmas season.

There are two basic versions of Christmas, sacred and secular. A few people openly oppose both and do their best to erase them from our public life. Some folks embrace one version but not the other, and are either uninterested in or disdainful of the opposite choice.

I’m here to suggest that both versions are good.

The Old Man and the Chicken (a short story)

The tiny old barn had a sloping metal roof and walls made of scrap two-by-fours, laid flat, staggered like long bricks, nailed together, and painted barn-red on the outside against the weather. It had stood for 63 years and might stand as many more.

The only window was covered with chicken wire, because half the barn had long been used as a chicken coop. In winter, to conserve heat, the opening was covered inside and out with clear, thick plastic. It always came off in the spring, until one year the old man hadn’t bothered to remove it. He was too tired, and he knew he’d still be too tired in the fall, when it was time to put it back on.

The chickens would be fine in the summer heat anyway, he reasoned. He could leave both doors open during the day. The side door led to an outdoor run that was twenty feet square and fenced tightly enough to keep the skunks out. In front the inner door was a screen of sorts, a hinged wooden frame with more chicken wire. The solid plywood outer door was weathered but intact.

A metal handle turned, hinges creaked, and the old man appeared in the doorway. He carried a tall, four-legged stool and a bulging plastic grocery bag that was starting to tear near the bottom.

“Just me, chicken. Where are you?”

“Fit Us for Heaven” (Thoughts on a Christmas Afternoon)

I’ve been thinking a lot about music during this Christmas season. It’s not just because Offspring #3 is playing at Carnegie Hall (a concert last night and another on Friday; I wish we were there). And it’s not just because my wife’s organ playing in our Christmas service on Sunday afternoon was as glorious as ever, if not more so. At least since my teen years, when I made my share of it, the music of Christmas has been my favorite part of the season.

Christmas music

My favorite hymns, carols, and performances thereof have varied somewhat over the years – though mostly in the sense that my list of favorites has multiplied. Even now, after more than half a hundred Christmases, I am still adding favorites. For example, last year an old hymn, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” made the list. I now have four different recordings of it on my iPhone, and I like them all. (See below for a performance on YouTube.)

Beyond Bethlehem

This season, bits of text more than whole songs have had me pondering. I’ve long appreciated Christmas hymns which celebrate but also look beyond the (mostly) sweet story of the Savior’s birth. For example, “Once in Royal David’s City” looks to a glorious future (again, see below for a video):