This is a story that begins, not once upon a time and far, far, away, but one that takes place in homes all over the world, and right here, right now.
And how does it begin?
With people gathered together and a spark, the striking of a match, a cloud of sulfur, a flame that erupts from nothingness into suddenly being. The candle is lit, the lights are dimmed, and a small, curious voice breaks the solemn silence on this holiest of nights and asks, as children often do, “Why? Why do we light candles tonight?”
The child’s words seemed to hang in the air forever as the adults in the room desperately search their own memories—what is that story again? What words shall we use? What are the most important parts of the story to share with the next generation? And then it occurs to the elders: they don’t remember hearing these stories for the first time, or what words were used, or even who told them.
The stories are just part of them, the stories are in their bones.
I am going to miss going to my Grandparents’ Lutheran church on Christmas Eve this year. It may be weird to hear such a thing from a Unitarian Universalist (a life-long UU, at that), but I really, truly have always enjoyed the Christmas Eve ritual of joining my grandparents in worship at their church.
As is the case with many families, Christmastime for my family was packed full of places to go, gifts to be bought and wrapped, and cookies to be baked. We called this, in our house, the “Holiday Shuffle.” Truth be told, I always did an excellent job pretending to hate it all and could “Bah Humbug” with the best of all possible Scrooges, but, between you and me, I loved every bit of it.
I loved rushing to wrap presents and the butterflies I would get in my stomach as I wondered if we would make it on time (thrill issues, perhaps?). I loved getting dressed up and smelling the Swedish Meatballs, potatoes, homemade lefse and dinner rolls that were keeping warm in the oven while we went to church. I especially loved the sharp, cold air and the countless stars that filled the dark Wisconsin sky, wondering if we would be lucky enough to see a snowflake or two that night. But most of all, as my family filed into the long, wooden pews in the dimly-lit sanctuary, I loved the sound of the choir and pipe organ that filled the cathedral ceilings as one and all waited in quiet anticipation for the stories to begin. It was magic. It was, what some people might call, “Holy.”
As is the case with many UU kids, I often wondered why most Unitarians bothered to celebrate Christmas; after all, we, by definition, do not believe in the divinity of Jesus. I totally stand by that; but what I have decided that I believe in is the Holy of the holiday.
I believe in the magic of inspiration and I believe in soaking in the wonder and awe of things greater than you; no matter where you find it. For most in my Grandparents’ Lutheran church, the “bigger” was found in prophecy and story and song about the birth of their Savior and the miracle of His life. For me, it was just being a part of this ritual, knowing that my presence was valued and treasured, and being reminded, once more, of the miracle of family.
These days, it is nearly impossible for us to make it to my Grandparents’ Christmas Eve celebration and to join the worship at that beautiful church in Wisconsin six hours away from our home. But as I create new traditions and rituals for my children, I hope that they, too, will feel the Holy of this night. Merry Christmas!