Two years ago, in the month of December, my dad went to be with Jesus. It was a day he dreamed about and spoke of often. We could do nothing but celebrate his safe arrival in heaven.
It seemed so fitting that he would join Jesus in December because my dad was one of the world’s best celebrators of Christmas. I have lots of memories of Christmas…the decorating of trees, the consumption of cookies, the houses filled with laymen and their families around dinner tables, the driving through neighborhoods looking at light displays, the sacred Christmas Eve services, the family reading of the Christmas story before we opened a single gift, the music, the selection of the perfect gift…you get the picture. He loved Christmas.
I’ve been thinking this week about the greatest lessons he taught me in the 52 years I had the privilege of celebrating with him in some form or another. These are the things I will never get past at this time of year:
1) There is always fresh wonder in the story. Always. Every year. Without exception. Wonder. It was one of his favorite words. The story that a baby wrapped in flesh would come into our mess in order to save us from ourselves? How can that not be filled with wonder? My dad knew it and he communicated it with conviction.
Maybe my favorite Christmas ever was a Sunday Christmas. Dad was pastoring in Baltimore, MD at that time. I will never forget his message on that December 25; “He is here, hallelujah!” Dad would preach a point and then have the congregation sing a chorus of “He is here, hallelujah!” By the second singing of the chorus, the congregation began to come to their feet. Wonder had entered the room and remaining in our seats was not an option. To use another one of dad’s words; he was “befuddled” by the response, but finished out a masterful and meaningful sermon to a standing congregation. I have looked forward to every Sunday Christmas since that day. Wonder just may show up on the scene again and I don’t want to miss that!
2) Christmas Eve candlelight communion at eight. If my dad was ever your pastor, you know about this annual service. It was sacred.
Dad knew outstanding music when he heard it and he was a lover of outstanding music. For thirty minutes every Christmas Eve, we heard outstanding, sacred music. I remember harps, flutes, trumpets, trombones, pianos, organs, vocalists – all who played and sang until I thought heaven had come to earth.
Following the prelude, we had a sixty minute service that included more music, scripture reading, a short devotional and communion – all in a sanctuary solely lit by candles. Our instructions were to enter the sanctuary in silence and to stay that way until the end of the service when the lights were thrown on and “Joy to the World” was proclaimed. Babies and toddlers were well cared for in nurseries. It was sacred.
My favorite Christmas Eve ever was also in Baltimore, MD. Like many Christmas Eves, we were packed in like sardines. The drunken man who stumbled in off of the street chose to squeeze in beside me. Some folks have all the luck. He didn’t smell so good. He didn’t sing so good. He even asked me why we were there. He didn’t know the rules about talking. And then he settled in and I could feel the tension leave his body. I have no idea what became of him but I do know that for ninety minutes on a Christmas Eve in Baltimore, MD, he experienced sacred. He disappeared as quickly as he appeared.
3) Communion has a place in our celebration of Christmas. A Christmas never went by that I didn’t hear my dad say, “Christmas and Easter are but the morning and evening of the very same day.” Let that one sink in for a while. It’s the wonder thing making another appearance. When looked at through that lens, communion becomes as natural at Christmas as it is at Easter. Jesus really did come to die.
4) There is room for the secular at Christmas. My parents did Christmas well. Not over-the-top-spending-crazy-money well but, rather, building tradition and memories well. And Santa was a part of our Christmases.
Dad was my first and best Santa. He taught me that Christmas is about the giving of gifts and it started with God’s gift. We were never allowed to tear into the gifts. One at a time – that’s how we opened gifts even as kids. We learned to GIVE the gift and enjoy the excitement of the recipient. For one thing, we didn’t have that many gifts and this made the exchange last longer.
I know there is controversy in the whole Santa/Jesus combination and every family has to do what they feel is right for them. I’m just glad we did Santa. It has left me with lots of happy memories of my dad. And I never once felt lied to. Kris Kringle (Christkind) was a saint after all. What would have made me feel lied to would have been a dad who did not keep his vows to my mom or parents who spent money they didn’t have at Christmas ushering in an annual January filled with stress and anger or parents who claimed Christ at church and then sliced everyone up as soon as we were in the car headed home. Those would have been the lies that changed my belief in Jesus.
5) The cookies. Dad’s favorite cookies. The cookies his 4 kids eat as if there is no caloric content. The ones that melt in your mouth. The ones the grandkids are now making in their own homes. Try ‘em, you’ll like ‘em.
Filled Butter Cookies aka “Paul’s Favorite Christmas Cookies”
Cream: 1 pound butter
Add: 1 ½ cups brown sugar
Blend in: 2 unbeaten egg yolks
Add: 4 ½ cups flour
Mix until a dough forms. Chill for easier handling. Shape into balls about the size of a marble. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten to 1/8”. Bake @ 375 for 7-10 minutes, depending on size.
Browned Butter Frosting Filling
Brown slightly: 4 Tbsp. butter. Remove from heat.
Blend in: 2 ½ cups powdered sugar
Gradually add: 3-4 Tbsp. cream and 1 tsp. vanilla
Put between 2 cookies. Makes about 4 ½ dozen.
Thanks dad (and mom) for all of the memories you gave me of Christmas. Thanks for teaching me about the Christ child. Thanks for teaching me that it really is more fun to give than to receive. Thanks for teaching me that HIS life can change MY life. Thanks for recognizing great music and enjoying good cookies. Thanks for defining “wonder.”