some random questions for Christmas

In which I interview myself.

If you could design a Christmas t-shirt, what would it say?  Bob Cratchit: Straight Outta Camden.

If you could spend Christmas with any fictional family, what family would you choose?  I borrowed this question from another blog I looked at over the weekend, but it’s something I’ve thought about before–not that I had to think very hard.  The only correct answer to this question (and a total no-brainer if you’ve been reading my blog over the years) is “the Weasleys.”  However, I did see Fantastic Beasts again today, and I have to say that if for some reason I couldn’t Apparate across the Atlantic for Christmas, it would also be fun to spend Christmas with Tina and Queenie Goldstein–if Newt and Jacob could also be there, and if we could have pie and strudel.

What holiday season song bothers you the most?  Please indulge me in a rant on this one.  I am deeply troubled by the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”  It used to bother me because although it gets classified as a Christmas song, it’s merely a cold weather song.  People in Australia could sing it in August.  But then someone pointed out to me that this song appears to describe a man keeping a woman in his home against her will.  You can call it an attempt at date rape or a hostage situation–either way, there’s nothing cute or clever about it, and it really annoys me that singers who think they are cute and clever are still covering it.  You can try to explain the lyrics away as the product of a simpler time, but what are you going to do with the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?”?  Slipping drugs into a person’s beverage was never okay.

Let me contrast this song with another one that presents a similar scenario: “Let It Snow.”  In this song, the two characters appear to be mutually consenting adults who actually like each other, unlike in “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and they face a far more challenging weather prognosis (cold is only dangerous if you have to spend the whole night outside, whereas snow can cause decreased visibility and hazardous road conditions).  Yet, after a nice evening enjoying popcorn in front of the fire, one of them is mature enough to say, “I’ve had a lovely time, but I am now going to get in my four-wheel drive vehicle and safely drive home before this snow gets worse.  How about you give me a big kiss and a hug to keep me warm on my way?”  Yes, the line “The fire is slowly dying, and my dear, we’re still goodbye-ing” may indicate a reluctance to part, but again, this reluctance seems to be mutual.  There is no coercion here, nor any guilt-tripping.  (Contrast this with the part in “Cold” when the man says, “Think of my lifelong sorrow.”  Gag me.)

(takes a deep breath) Okay, we can move on to the next question.

What charming Christmas comedy have you discovered in recent years?

How did you know I’d recently discovered a charming Christmas comedy?  Well, last year I came across Nativity! in which Martin Freeman plays a put-upon grade-school teacher directing a nativity play that gets way out of hand.  Martin Freeman is delightful as always (I think I’ve used that exact same adjective to describe him at least once before on this blog), and the kids, who seem to be “real” people rather than actors, are hilarious.  So is Mr. Poppy, the teacher’s aide who is basically a child himself.  Check this one out.

 

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Advent week 4: What Christmas hymns teach us about Jesus

Something that always kind of shocks me is the number of straight-up hymns (multiple verses!) that get played on the radio during the Christmas season–and I’m talking on your average pop/soft rock “mix” station.  I’m happy that Jesus’ name is getting so broadly proclaimed during this time, even if it’s confusingly thrown in with a lot of really stupid songs (which I plan to post about next week), but I wonder how many people understand the sometimes complex theology they’re hearing.  Today I want to write about just a few of the things we learn about Jesus from some of the great Christmas hymns.

  1. Jesus is God, and he didn’t stop being God when he was born as a human.  Appropriately, Christmas hymns are packed with statements of the divinity of Christ.  Some go a little too far in asserting this, like “Away in a Manger” (“no crying he makes”?  He was a baby; pretty sure he was crying), but others hit the mark in beautiful statements like “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity” (from my favorite Christmas hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”) or simply “the Word made flesh” (a direct quote from the gospel of John, found in a later verse of “What Child Is This”).
  2. Jesus knows what it’s like to be us.  Also appropriately, many Christmas hymns are about God the Son’s humbling himself to dwell with us (any song with “Emmanuel” in it counts here) and his sympathy with our pain and frailty.  “O Holy Night” says that Jesus was “born to be our friend” and then goes on to say that “he knows our need / to our weakness is no stranger.”  “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is, again, a little more complex: “Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”  All the songs that talk about Jesus’ humble surroundings at his birth also fit in here; one of my favorite descriptions is from the beautiful Appalachian song “I Wonder As I Wander”: “When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow stall / With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.”  Farmers–that word choice brings the story close to home for a lot of people.  Jesus could have been born down the road from here.
  3. Jesus is coming back to rule the world.  As my pastor pointed out a couple of weeks ago, one of the best-loved hymns of Christmas, “Joy to the World,” is actually, for the most part, about Jesus’ future second coming.  We see this especially in the last verse, which begins, “He rules the world, with truth and grace.”  Of course, this is also what Handel’s famous “Hallelujah” chorus is about.  The other day, it occurred to me that when Handel’s Messiah was first performed, there probably were some lords and at least one king in the audience, which makes the repeated line “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” all the more impressive.  In fact, according to legend, it was a king who started the tradition of standing up during the chorus.  Wikipedia says this story probably isn’t true, but what’s not in doubt is that Jesus is superior to all “principalities and powers” as the New Testament says.

I hope that over the next few days, you hear some of these songs (maybe on one of those normally lightweight radio stations) and maybe even get to join a congregation in singing them.  As you sing, think about the words and what they tell us about Jesus, our God, friend, and king.

Advent week 3: Christmas rituals

Last week, actual tears came to my eyes while I was writing my blog post, and I don’t feel like going through that emotional wringer again (plus I can’t think of anything profound to say this week), so I’m going to write about something more fun.  But first, I have to tell you about a book I checked out of my church library.  It’s called Simply SenseSational Christmas.  The title, interestingly enough, isn’t the cheesiest thing about the book.  Let’s just say that it savors strongly of the 1990s, when it was published.  But although the hip DIY bloggers of 2016 might sneer at much of this book’s aesthetic, its central points are perhaps more relevant than ever: 1. Christmas is about the time when God was born in a stable, so stop stressing yourself out trying to have the perfect showplace home, and 2. Appealing to all five physical senses is possibly the best way to create a memorable, delightful, and even worshipful experience for yourself and your loved ones at Christmas.  The book goes on to offer simple strategies like scattering a handful of cloves around candles so that they give off a spicy, festive scent when they get warm.  This might not be life-changing stuff–then again, it might.

This book has got me thinking about some of the rituals, most if not all of them involving the physical senses, that I enjoy in my own home each Christmas.  This is the second Christmas I’ve spent in my house.  Before that, I was renting an apartment, and while I enjoyed some Christmas rituals there too, there’s something special about celebrating in one’s very own home.  (I also enjoy a number of Christmas rituals in my parents’ house, where I always spend the actual day of Christmas and usually the week or so before and after it, but those aren’t the subject of this post.)  Here are some of them.

  1. I have a number of Christmas albums in my iTunes library, including some that I’ve been listening to with my family since childhood (The New Young Messiah) and some that I’ve acquired in recent years (Christmas at the Renaissance Fair by Moat Jumper–exactly what it sounds like).  I start listening to these while I’m decorating on December 1, and I usually get through the whole collection about three times during the Christmas season.  I also have some individual Christmasy tracks from other albums that I include in the rotation, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves” and John Williams’s “Christmas at Hogwarts” from the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone soundtrack.  I also like to listen to the Nutcracker suite on record #12 of the Festival of Light Classical Music record collection I bought at Goodwill last year for $2.50.
  2. I light candles like a pyromaniac all year, but at Christmas, it really gets out of hand.  I go through tealights like my family goes through toilet paper at a large gathering.  The last year I lived in the apartment, my neighbor made me a lovely set of candleholders created from upside-down stemware decorated to look like Santa Claus, a snowman, and other festive characters.  I also have a balsam-and-cedar scented large Yankee jar candle that almost compensates for the fact that my 1.5 trees (I have a big one in the living room and a little one in my home office) are artificial.  My Pier One Holiday Forest room spray, a gift from a friend last year, also helps.
  3. I love mail.  I check my mailbox obsessively on Saturdays when I’m home to check it, and I actually have a real honest-to-goodness pen pal.  So it’s no surprise that I enjoy sending Christmas cards.  I love writing in them (even if it’s just a simple “Love, Tess”), sticking Christmas seals on the envelopes, and putting a big fat stack of them out in the mailbox.  In turn, when I receive Christmas cards, I hang them with tiny clothespins on twine in the corner of my entryway.  It’s an easy and beautiful decoration, especially when I get cards with gold on the front, which catch the light from my many candles and my tree lights.

I could go on–I haven’t said a word about food–but I think you get the idea.  These rituals are so common as to sound almost banal, but they’re meaningful to me.  I’m sure you have some that are meaningful to you.  Feel free to share in the comments!

Advent week 2: Scrooge’s worst sin

I wrote down the following thoughts almost a year ago during my devotional reading of Ecclesiastes 4:4-8, focusing specifically on verse 8: “There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother.  There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked, ‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’  This too is meaningless–a miserable business!” (New International Version).

Since it’s nearly Christmas, and I love Charles Dickens, verse 8 made me think of Ebenezer Scrooge, toiling alone for no purpose other than acquisition itself, with nobody to inherit his accumulation because he has no significant relationships, having driven everybody away in his single-minded pursuit.  We make Scrooge seem preposterous when we exaggerate his hatred of Christmas and quote his most hyperbolic lines, but there are actually many people in our society who are just like him, and I have to admit that I tend in that direction.  Our motives may be mixed: we are striving for money, yes, but maybe also for promotion and to gain respect, and maybe just because we’re addicted to work.  The lonely toiler in verse 8 actually stops to ask why he’s doing all this, but so many of us don’t.  Solomon diagnoses this behavior perfectly: “This also is vanity and a grave misfortune” (New King James Version).  Scrooge’s main lesson was not about loving Christmas but about loving people and putting them above money and work.  This Christmas season, I could stand to learn this lesson too.

As I revisit these thoughts this year, I would like to remind myself and all of us that there are people who are lonely at Christmas not because they’ve run all their relationships into the ground in an obsession with work, but maybe because they don’t have close family members and friends with whom they feel comfortable celebrating.  Maybe they’ve been rejected by the people who should be most accepting of them, or maybe it just seems like everyone they’ve loved over the long years of their lives has died.  Or maybe it’s just that one significant other who passed away earlier this year and left an unfillable hole in the Christmas celebration, regardless of however many other loved ones are still around.  There are people who are lonely at Christmas because they’ve chosen to devote their lives to overseas missions work or to study in another country.

I know it’s a common trope of Christmas songs and movies to gesture toward the existence of loneliness at Christmas, but these stories too often have neat, easy endings–Santa Claus or Little Cindy Lou Who arrives and solves the problem, cathartically absolving us (the audience) of any need to make a real-life response to what we’ve seen.  This year, I’m taking the simple step of praying for people who I know or suspect are feeling lonely during this season.  I’m also trying to do little things like connecting two people in my department at work who are going to be in the office during the week leading up to Christmas, when most of us won’t be around–maybe they can have lunch together one day.  Perhaps one day I’ll have the opportunity to include someone in my family’s Christmas festivities who has nobody else to celebrate with.  We’re talking about hospitality here, really, and hospitality isn’t just one type of action–it’s a posture of openness toward other people and a sensitivity to God’s leading.

Of course, at the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s own isolation is driven away by his choice to show hospitality to others.  In the end, it doesn’t matter why someone is lonely–whether it be poverty, death of a loved one, or an unhealthy focus on money and work.  The important thing is that one person chooses to reach out of his or her loneliness into someone else’s.  Will you try doing that this Christmas?