Don't judge. I know it seems a contradiction to post a collection of Christmas-themed television ads amidst a series of blog posts about the true and deeper and more significant meaning of Christmas. But hear me out.
But when I was a child, or more like a pre-teen, when what you wore back to school the day back from Christmas break was critical to your social standing, those Christmas ads actually gave this awkward youngster hope that, to some people, the season meant more than acceptance via labels, brands, and quantity.
Those were lean years for our family, having been abandoned by our father and living in reduced economic circumstances. No longer did we celebrate Christmases with brightly-lit, 15-foot trees and piles and piles of presents around the base. My dad decided a traditional marriage was too boring for him and moved out to live with the mother of a girl a year behind me in school -- just two blocks away, as many of the neighborhood kids pointed out to my brothers and me. We also moved out because he was unwilling to provide for that household any longer. My mother went to work, we became latch-key kids, and our new home required me to share a bedroom with my little brother. Christmastime, in particular, called for severe belt-tightening measures, although mom did her best to make the season special in some way or another for us, like coming up with free tickets to symphony concerts, or taking us on a trip around town to look at the lights.
Not one to miss an opportunity to exploit the benefits of positive appearances, my dad always took us to the country club for dinner, or rented a motel room for gift exchanges. I had no idea what to buy for him and scouring the shelves for possibilities alerted me to the abundance of dross that was out there to be had for whatever price a person might wish to pay. The gifts he gave were just as impersonal -- clothing that was not my style, things I would never use. When it became more and more important for him in his business to be able to point to a respectable family life, the gatherings included trips to the Kennedy Center or gallery openings. The first time dad drove us to "her" home, my brothers rebelled and refused to get out of the car, and although they could have walked home, they stayed outside while Ben and I went in. We were too young to know, and they were not going to try to explain it to us there, but they knew they couldn't betray our mom by going into that house, and they also knew they had a responsibility to keep an eye on us.
This was early in the 1970s in a small-to-mid-sized town a couple hours outside of DC, which has since become a bedroom community to the metropolitan area. A fitting term as the town slowly changed from being a bastion of Christendom's finest virtues to a mere city-planning project with no personality or depth. The divorce caused a considerable shake up in my mother's placid, generationally-secure, 1950s-style faith. No longer did Christianity come as a side-dish, but Christ became her entree, the trimmings, the dessert, and thanks to that adversity and the lean years it brought, she relishes Jesus as if every meal on his word is a Christmas feast and not just another meal. (Read more about this White-Haired Saint here.)
I observed, but didn't partake myself. My stony heart had not yet been pierced by the Savior, and so I adapted other means of coping. Learning to be cynical and skeptical was at the top of the list and I was quickly becoming the queen of snark (long before that word had even hit common parlance). I could banter and parlay with the best of them, getting my cues from Shakespeare and Jane and Dickens. Being a literature buff paid off; the walls were building and solidifying around my heart.
For a few years, when my dad was challenging the obligation to continue to provide for his family of college students and teenagers, we had a family agreement that we would not exchange gifts. Believe it or not, this was not as difficult for us kids as you might expect -- at least on the receiving end. But how could we go through Christmas and not give a gift to our mom? We agreed we would cheat on the deal for the sake of a gift for her, and when she cried and fussed, it made us feel all the more magnanimous.
Very little else changed significantly. We pulled out all the boxes and decorated a tree bought a day or two before Christmas Eve when the lots were dropping prices in order to sell. Heirloom ornaments were hung alongside construction paper stars, and one year my mom made ornaments out of old Christmas cards. These hours were the best that our family spent together that I remember in all my childhood. Something about the leanness in material gifts called forth a fatness in other gifts -- laughter, goodwill, peace, contentment -- that won over and silenced even sibling rivalry and teen-aged bickering. What sticks with me are images of my brothers' faces lit up by the lights of the tree as we read stories aloud on Christmas Eve, happy sounds during card games around the dining room table after dinner, and always music.
I suppose you're catching on to what I eventually discovered. My Christmas memories are not that lean at all! It was all in the perspective, and it was that early exercise in seeing past the material that granted me a preview of God's economy of abundance and blessing.
It's likely that in some way, everyone has some leanness to their Christmas. There's something about the picture not being quite right. A piece of the puzzle is missing. It may be limited opportunities this year to entertain or give. Perhaps a loved one has become estranged, or there is bickering or unkindness in the words spoken in your home. Maybe the demands and expectations are overwhelming. It's possible there's a looming health issue.
What makes for leanness could be different for us all. What we make of the leanness makes all the difference in the world. Paul says, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content" (Philippians 4:11) in a follow-up to his exhortation to joy:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (4:4-9)
I know Christmas can bring turmoil and tension, sorrow and pain. I know a pair of sisters who have spent years bickering over inheritances and handling of estates -- the battling has gone on so long that the property has disintegrated. I know a grandmother welcoming a second new grandbaby in the new year, and wishing she could also celebrate a daughter's wedding. I know of a mother whose heart aches because the faith professions her children have made are not evident in the unkindness and arrogance and selfishness of their lives.
This is why Jesus came. Because even if all the puzzle pieces fit together, the picture it creates still isn't perfect for all the creases of lines that run through it. Those Christmas ads kept me going with hope and dreams for a while, but in time, the dross and tinniness was obvious. My heart only got harder. Even today's well-crafted ads (usually the ones from Europe) that stir emotions with longings for family and community and goodwill and peace make promises that can't be fulfilled. We can attempt to fix things ourselves -- replacing Christ with other idols, closing off our hearts to hurts and stings -- but the attempts will fail. Our hearts must be set on Christ and the things above. Everything else of this life will disintegrate under the corrupting air of the world, like the disputed property of those sisters. (Matthew 6:19-20)
There are just a couple of days left before Christmas, still time to find the Savior, the Messiah, the Dayspring, to hear his promise to make room for you in his Father's mansion. Repent, believe, and follow Jesus --
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (John 6:35)
-- and you will never know leanness again. Hallelujah!
From Thanks2Giving '15
Return to Thinking again
From Thanks2Giving '16
December 1: Being a Pilgrim for Christmas
December 2: Craving Christmas, Desiring Christ
December 3: Strangers on Christmas Day
December 4: Hail Redemption's Happy Dawn!
December 5: Eureka!
December 6: O Henry, the Magi, and the Gift
December 7: Christmas Impersonators
December 8: This Year's Best Christmas Ad?
December 9: Why So Much Joy?
December 10: Where is the Method in the Madness?
December 11: Waiting for Redemption
December 12: Winter for a Reason
December 13: A Special Little Christmas
December 14: Mary and Holy Merriment
December 15: The Christmas Eve Truce
December 16: His Name Shall Be Jesus
December 17: C.B. and the Meaning of Christmas
December 18: Peace, Not Peace
December 19: Moonless Darkness Stands Between
December 20: He Makes Room for Us
December 21: Speaking of Glory . . .
December 22: A Christmas Carol That's Not About Christmas
December 23: Lessons Learned from Lean Christmases
December 24: All My Heart This Night Rejoices
December 25: The Neverending Gift Exchange
A Concluding Note: Do Not Open Until Christmas 2016
Laura Miller, home for the holidays