by Donna Merow, Ambler
Christmas. I have long been ambivalent about this holy season. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE Christmas—the anticipation of Advent, the children’s pageant, singing “Silent Night” by candlelight with guitar accompaniment, the live nativity, the retelling of the familiar story, the making and wrapping of gifts.
But I also dread its coming—the gaudy lawn decorations, inane songs like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” blaring from the radio, the excesses of the celebration. I lament with Linus its commercialization and long to discover if the Grinch’s Whoville observation is farther reaching and that it can, indeed, come “without packages, boxes, or bags.”
I trace my ambivalence to singing “Will Santy Came to Shanty Town?” for a school program when I was about nine. The song is a child’s first person wondering if Santa will visit his side of the tracks this time around or if his mother will have to repaint his toys the way she did the year before. At the time I needed to believe in the magic of Christmas more than anything. My parents had recently divorced, which necessitated a move, and my world was turned upside down by the addition of a stepfather who drank too much. But Eddy Arnold’s musical autobiography captured my youthful imagination. The revelation that Santa apparently didn’t come to all deserving children was an epiphany for me and one that has shaped my Christmas-keeping in the decades since.
The Irish have a beautiful custom of having the youngest child light a candle in the window on Christmas Eve, lest Christ should come in the guise of a stranger. I count the strangers I have met during this time of year to be among my most treasured gifts.
One year we were able to connect with a woman we read about in The Inquirer. She lead a group of fearless females who stood on the corner in their neighborhood with their mops and brooms to reclaim it from the drug dealers, and she often provided sanctuary to a dozen or more children in her home.
Then there was the mother of the family we had adopted through the Visiting Nurses Association who selflessly offered a sleeping bag that she had requested to another mother who showed up at the center because she had nothing to give to her little ones.
I generally avoid the mall as much as possible, but one year I was approached there by a stranger as I was enjoying a snack after a fruitful search for flannel sheets for my newly-separated father. Within a half hour I had learned about her painful spiritual journey through divorce and the sexual abuse of her children.
That same year, my family traveled into Philadelphia for a performance of The Nutcracker. A young woman struck up a conversation with me (I am an avowed introvert and rarely initiate such encounters) as we waited on the platform at Market East for the R5 to take us home. Our conversation continued until she got off at the stop before us. She was a recovering drug addict trying to put her life back together. Her grandfather was dying in a nursing home in the area, and friends were taking her to visit him. He had believed in her even when she didn’t believe in herself, she explained.
This year the world was too much with me, and I feared that Christmas might not come, “but it came just the same.” It came through offering a ride to an elderly woman in front of me in the check-out line at the Dollar Tree store who would surely have struggled walking home with her cane and packages. It came in attending a nursing home concert in which several members of my congregation performed. It came shopping with a neighbor for an immigrant family facing its first Christmas without a mother/wife/daughter/sister. It came helping to prepare nearly 2,000 brown paper packages for the inmates at Montgomery County Correctional Facility and having the privilege of joining others from Liberty Ministries in their distribution to the women who eagerly awaited them and gratefully received them. It came with a real “baby Jesus” in the pageant this Sunday and our own costumed angels poignantly drawing us in as we mourned the slaughter of the Holy Innocents in a sleepy New England town.
Christmas. The celebration of God with us invites us all to be open to possibility and opportunities—to “deliver” Christ to a waiting world, to serve Christ among the least of these, and to be surprised anew by the ways Christ comes to us in the midst of our isolation and loneliness, our longing for things to be different, our busyness and self-absorption, and our grief and pain, our hopes and fears.