When my brother, sister and I were young, we would celebrate Christmas every year in Syracuse, N.Y. with my dad’s older brother and his family. It was a six-hour drive, often in the snow. In the days before booster seats, car seats and seat belts, my brother and I would stretch out across the back seat, reading and wrestling our way through the long trip while our sister tried to ignore us. For a while, when it got too loud, Dad would threaten to turn the car around. But we never believed him. Then he happened upon the greatest kid-mollifier of all times. He would just pull over to the side of the road if we got too loud or obnoxious. He and Mom would pull out books and start to read. A freakish quiet would descend on the car, interrupted only by the vibrations of the passing semis. Minutes would go by before we worked up the courage to break the silence with promises of never misbehaving again — if they would just please, please turn the car back on and start driving again.
Our aunt and uncle did it up at Christmas — a beautiful tree, stockings for everyone over the fireplace, decorations all over the house, a big delicious meal. There were always presents for us. My brother and I struggled with what to get our cousins, who were all at least 10 years older than us. One year, my brother and I wrapped a container of Whoppers for one cousin. I still remember how she exclaimed that they were her favorite.
It was great to be in Syracuse for the holidays. It always snowed and their backyard was great for sledding. We would wake up early and watch TV. Sometimes, we’d get up so early that there was nothing on TV but the color blocks (back when TV had business hours).
While this yearly ritual was wonderful in many ways, it meant that our family never fully developed our own holiday traditions. There was no tree, no stockings, no decorations, no ritual of gift giving at home when we were young. There was one Christmas tradition that was not so great. We lived in a tough neighborhood of Baltimore in a row house that was called Jonah House — a radical, pacifist, Christian resistance community. December was often the only time this crowded communal house was empty. No matter how well the doors were locked and the windows barred, every year someone managed to break into our house and make off with some of our “valuables” — a 20-year-old boombox, a jar full of change, a case of well-used and temperamental power tools, the check book, an alarm clock, a third-hand bicycle.
It wasn’t so much the stuff that bothered me — although that was my boombox they took and it had my favorite cassette tape in the deck — it was the fact that strangers had been in our house. We never had that much to begin with. In some ways, we were just as poor as our neighbors. But in many ways — including the fact that we could drive to Syracuse for the holiday — we were so much richer.
Mom and Dad would inventory the losses, investigate the security breach (a window left open on the third floor, a busted pane in the basement, the backdoor off its hinges) and shrug their shoulders, reminding us that “they must have needed it more than we did. These are desperate times.” And they were, but in many ways the times are even more desperate today. Fifteen percent of Americans live below the poverty line — with 1.65 million U.S. households below the line for “extreme poverty” and3.55 million children living in those households. This seems especially egregious at a time of year when most of us devolve into at least some sort of greedy fugue. For example, I am presently preoccupied with this burning question: Should I cook goose or pork for the Christmas meal?
There were a few holiday traditions growing up, but they revolved more around Advent than Christmas. We lit Advent candles every night and read scriptures. We also put up a crèche and would move the wooden Magi closer to the stable every night, but we always missed putting the baby in the manger.
One new ritual was established in 1986. We would read and hang on a strand of garland the Advent cards my mom had made when she was in prison in West Virginia for the better part of two years. Mom and six others symbolically disarmed a B-52 bomber (capable of “delivering” half a dozen nuclear warheads to targets just about anywhere in the world) outside of Syracuse on Thanksgiving Day, 1983. I was nine. The government said the protesters did $65,000 in damage and Mom was sentenced to three years in prison. She served 25 months at Alderson women’s prison in West Virginia. We visited every month and continued to go to Syracuse for Christmas in her absence.
The cards are two pieces of paper connected by a piece of yarn. One card is a picture — flowers, a star, a manager, a road, an infant’s hand holding a parent’s — that my mom drew. On the other she wrote a Bible passage and then a short reflection on that passage. I keep that holiday tradition going. This week, I read one on the theme of justice. It said, “Justice shall be the band on his waist, then the lion will lie down with the lamb, the calf and the leopard shall browse together with a child to lead them … there shall be no harm or hurt on all my holy mountain, for earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11). On the other side, my mom wrote: “The justice Christ comes to bring is a whole new order of life and relationships, a whole new order of being. In many ways it is easier to live within laws that foresee and determine everything. It is difficult to create a norm of behavior inspired by love because love knows no limit. It calls for creative imagination or putting ourselves at the service of others. The birth and life of Christ is for us a permanent and disturbing memory of what we ought to be and are not. It tells us that which is until the promise is fulfilled.”
I don’t get it all. She wrote them for us as kids, but I am not sure my 11-year-old self would understand it any better than my 39-year-old self does. But I read the cards every day of Advent nonetheless, hoping for enlightenment and insight.
Of course, as we grew up, we did add traditions for Christmas — making as many as a dozen yule log cakes and delivering them to family friends on Christmas Eve, very simple gift exchanges called Advent Angels (like secret Santa in every way but the name), wearing silly sweaters, stealing small things from one another and wrapping them up as gifts for Christmas morning (okay, that was just my sister and I), going for a brisk walk in a beautiful place at some point on Christmas day.
Now that I’m an adult with my own kids — and expecting another one early in the new year — I find a whole new plateau of pleasure in the Christmas season: the magic, the mystery, the generosity of spirit and of time, the holiness (as antiquated and quaint as that word sounds). This is a time of waiting, preparation and expectation — not for what Santa brings, but for what faith and family create, what a new child promises and what we make happen as we spend time together. Happy Advent, everyone.