It’s that time of year where the world collectively releases a sigh and marvels at the miracle of surviving another year. Various faith communities gather for holiday festivities, families traverse the globe to reach one another, and we all relish in the opportunity to welcome the imminent new year. In this season of reflection, thoughtfulness, and gratitude, one pressing question emerged from a dear Facebook friend that I found to be particularly pertinent:
“Christmas lights—multicolored or white?”
Indeed, this is a question that every Christmas-celebrating family must answer at one point or another, and from what I could see in the responses to my friend’s query, people have pretty strong opinions about this. Now, don’t worry; I haven’t forgotten that Jesus is the reason for the season. I realize that talking about Christmas lights may seem like a deviation from what really matters, but follow me here for a minute. I think it’s worth our consideration.
Did you grow up with a Christmas tree in your home? If you did, I’m sure you could easily describe to me what it looked like, and how it made you feel. When I was a little girl, my mother was the queen of seasonal décor. I eagerly anticipated the day, usually at the beginning of December, when my mom would pull out the Christmas boxes from storage, and would begin to dress our home in sparkling lights, gorgeous velvet bows, sprigs of holly and pine, and long draping garland. But of course, my favorite part was our tree. Our tree was always color coordinated with the rest of our Christmas décor, and every ornament was tastefully placed, so that the tree looked like something marvelous out of a Christmas catalogue or like the trees you find in department stores. And of course, our lights were usually a light golden hue or a warm white, because blue, green, red, and yellow would have clashed with the other decorations! Our tree was a serious matter, and it successfully elicited my reverence. I remember mom turning out the lights and urging us to go to bed, and I would hesitate, hoping to sit next to the tree just a little while longer, so I could continue to soak in the magical otherness of the Christmas season.
I also remember going to my best friend’s house, who had a different kind of Christmas tree. This tree was draped in every color of Christmas light imaginable, with homemade decorations, strung popcorn, mismatched and sometimes broken ornaments that the children had made over the years, and an outlandish tree skirt covered in cartoon reindeer. The first time I saw it, I judgmentally scoffed, “Apparently they don’t know how to decorate for Christmas…”
But over the years I began to see an emerging trend. Families either had a tree dressed to classy perfection, or families had the tree dressed in family memories, covered in Christmases of the past, with a hopeful and playful eye to the year ahead as new ornaments made their way home from elementary school onto the tree. Some families actually have both kinds of tree because they don’t want to have to make such a choice!
As teasing as my assessment of Christmas trees may be, I do think that it represents one of the most important qualities of the Christmas season. Christmas is all at once the most solemn holiday, with well-rehearsed choirs singing songs that bring us to our knees in awe of the majesty of the newborn king, and it is the holiday of the people, celebrating community in its raw, unrehearsed, and sometimes childlike forms. Christmas brings us together, where we meditate on the miracle of our God who would dare to cross that seemingly impassable divide between our humanness and God’s divinity. We recall that the King was born, and reigns forever more, and that the arrival of Christ signaled the expiration date on all other kingdoms. We remember the sacred story of the incarnation, and we strive for new language to impart that most central theological tenant upon our children. We feel the purging of sin and selfishness from our hearts as we are reoriented to gratitude, and once again find ourselves singing, “Christ is the Lord, oh praise his name forever! His power and glory ever more shall be!” We enter the Christmas season like magi or shepherds, bowed prostrate before the long-awaited King of kings.
And yet, Christmas is also that time when we welcome the new baby Jesus, Christ in rosy cheeks and spit-up, swaddled and nuzzled by Mary and Joseph, crying and laughing as infants do, learning to walk and talk as we all did. We imagine so vividly the Christ child, that we can nearly hear his innocent crying and his gentle cooing; we can nearly feel his soft baby skin pressed against ours. It’s that time of year where we celebrate the goodness of humanity in its colorful and unrefined glory, and rejoice that God would be expressed in and through it. The pain and delight of memories of the past intertwine and culminate in a joyful childlike celebration. Our mementos and folk crafts are resurrected from storage boxes every year to center us back to what makes our families and our communities so uniquely worthwhile.
Christmastime reorients us to this hope-filled dichotomy: the incarnation both brings us to our knees in reverence, and activates our bodies to rise and embrace one another in joy and laughter. Christ is the King, and Christ is our brother. In Christ, we are humbly welcomed into the throne room of God with fear and trembling, where we find ourselves unexpectedly wrapped up in an embrace at a family reunion.
So, what kind of tree does your family have? I don’t think it really matters. But I do hope that when you gather around it this year, you will encounter both the awe-invoking majesty and the nostalgic welcome home that God so lovingly offers us this season, and always.