When it comes to idealizing the holiday season, we all have different standards by which we judge perfection. Some people look to Norman Rockwell or Hallmark. I look to 1981 – the year I got a pony for Christmas.
My memory of that Christmas is perhaps one of my most precious, and it revolves mostly around what we did on Christmas Eve. That was the year my mother had gotten involved in Children’s Liturgy, and she helped to start a new tradition at the 5 pm “children’s Mass;” she somehow convinced the choir to sing Evie Tornquist Karlsson’s Come On Ring Those Bells and invited every child to bring a bell with them to Mass to ring along. My three-year-old brother Chuck rang our small, silver dinner bell, but I got to ring the beautiful big (and fragile) crystal bell. I felt so grown up to ring that bell, to feel the sense of connection and community with all the other bell-ringing children, and to play such an important part in the Christmas liturgy. Looking back, perhaps that was the night I began to fall in love with going to church.
After Mass, we came home to our traditional Christmas Eve meal. Since both my mother and father were of eastern European descent, our tradition reflected that. My mother told the story of her own family’s traditions, describing in detail the 12 different non-meat dishes they ate for Christmas Eve, and setting an extra place in honor of family members who could not be present. That night we probably ate only haddock, scalloped potatoes and green beans, but hearing the origins of our odd holiday meal connected me to the generations that had gone before and awakened a deep sense of nostalgia that continues to swell in me this time of year.
We didn’t set an extra place at the table, but we felt the presence of my absent paternal grandmother. She couldn’t travel to our house for Christmas, but every year she sent oplatki wafers that had been blessed by the Lithuanian priest. In keeping with the Slavic and Lithuanian traditions from which my father had come, we each broke and shared the bread in a family reflection of the Eucharist. I felt so grown up to be eating a communion-like wafer, and to have a very tiny glass of port wine with my oplatki.
The crowning event of the evening was the inauguration of a new family tradition which continues to this day – the birthday cake for Jesus. It was one of those white poke cakes with red and green jello poured over the top of the layers, iced with whipped cream and garnished with candles and plastic Christmas trees that had belonged to my grandmother. Despite feeling so grown up that night, singing happy birthday kept me seeing with the eyes of a child. From that day forward we sang Happy Birthday to Jesus, even when we were aloof teenagers, independent college students, and young adults. I’m so grateful to be close enough to my parents that we can continue this tradition with my own three children every Christmas Eve. The plastic trees are worse for wear, but we still use them. Through my childlike eyes, I see them as they were in 1981.
But what about the pony? I know you are wondering.
Well, I’d been asking Santa for a pony probably since I was able to talk. By the time I was six I had accepted that even Santa had his limits, and I had pretty much written off that request ages ago – you know, when I was five.
Like most kids, I snuck down the stairs Christmas morning to get a first peek at the spoils under the tree before pestering mom and dad to get up. And that morning under the tree was an unimagined and unexpected gift – a big, brown reclining stuffed horse, and a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit. I named her Christina, and she lived on my bed until I was in high school. I rode on her, fed her grain, and told her my secrets. Even when she suffered wear and tear, I fixed her as best I could and continued to play with her. She now lives on a bookshelf in the room where the kids take their naps at Nana’s. I like to think she has looked over each of them like a guardian angel.
What do you mean, “So, it wasn’t a real pony?” Of course she was real! My love for her made her real, just like the Velveteen Rabbit from the childhood story. Just like the spirit of love keeps St. Nicholas alive and real for generations after generations of children. Just like the love of God made the Savior real. That the “grownups” of the world don’t recognize stuffed ponies, Santa Claus and infant Saviors doesn’t make them any less real. True, they are not in the expected “packaging,” but they are much more accessible to those of us most in need of best friends, gift-givers, and Saviors.
This year my five-year-old daughter wants a violin for Christmas. She’s been talking about it for months, and it is the only item on her list that she’s told to Santa. I’ve been a bit anxious about this, because Santa knows that instruments and lessons aren’t practical or possible right now. But Santa also found a small, plastic replica of a violin, complete with strings and bow, that plays an electronic version of something Mozart-ish, and Tori will find it under the tree Christmas morning. It is the most accessible version of a violin she can handle right now, and hopefully her love will make it real.
Generations had been imagining the Messiah to be a great military leader who would deliver them to freedom, but God is thankfully not limited by our imaginations. For the shepherds and magi, a tiny baby in a stall was an accessible Savior and King. Those who were open to the imagination and love of God saw that the Savior was real. It is no different today. God comes to grown-ups and children alike in a most accessible way – the Eucharist. Like children who sit on Santa’s lap, we grown-ups often go to God with our “lists,” and God does deliver, perhaps at the most unexpected times, and in unexpected ways that are more accessible than our imaginations could contrive. But we miss it, unless we look with the eyes of a child, a shepherd, or a magi.