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December 23, 2007: “Trees, Stars, Songs, and Stories Children’s Xmas Eve Service”

Second reading:  “O Simplicitas” by Madeleine L’Engle; hymn — “What Child Is This”

An angel came to me
And I was unprepared
To be what God was using.
Mother was I to be.
A moment I despaired,
Thought briefly of refusing.
The angel knew I heard.
According to God’s Word
I bowed to this strange choosing.

A palace should have been
The birthplace of a king
(I had no way of knowing).
We went to Bethlehem;
It was so strange a thing.
The wind was cold, and blowing,
My cloak was old, and thin.
They turned us from the inn;
The town was overflowing.

God’s Word, a child so small,
Who still must learn to speak,
Lay in humiliation.
Joseph stood, strong and tall.
The beasts were warm and meek
And moved with hesitation.
The Child born in a stall?
I understood it: all.
Kings came in adoration.

Perhaps it was absurd;
A stable set apart,
The sleepy cattle lowing;
And the incarnate Word
Resting against my heart.
My joy was overflowing.
The shepherds came, adored
The folly of the Lord,
Wiser than all men’s knowing. 

Reading 3. The Protestant preacher ,King Duncan, tells of the story of the small church that each year put on the traditional nativity pageant:

“In the church was a lively ten year-old-boy who had managed to create a disaster in every Christmas play he had been in. The boy’s name was Barry. One year his angel wings caught on fire which nearly burned the church down. The next year, as Herod the Great, he jumped up from his throne and–in his usual clumsy way- jerked the carpet out from under three Wise men and dumped them on their heads. The children begged the teacher not to let Barry ruin another play:  “Please teacher, can’t you leave Barry out this year?” 

But the teacher could not reject a little boy who tried his best and loved Jesus with all his heart–even if he was a little clumsy. She was able to convince the children that Barry could not do any real damage by playing the innkeeper of Bethlehem. He just opened and closed a door and spoke one short line. 

Barry made it perfectly through all rehearsals and the dress rehearsal. Then, on the night when mothers, fathers, friends, strangers, and the whole community sat in hushed silence, reliving the Christmas story, Barry had his chance to “redeem” himself with a flawless performance. He opened the door of the inn and looked straight into the face of Mary and Joseph. Mary sat very sad and pale on a little donkey, which they never used in practice. You could almost hear the cold wind whistling around the cold stone walls of the inn and blowing the thin cloak of gentle Mary. But Barry came through! He said his line with professional emphasis and timing:  “Begone, I have no room for the likes of you!” Mary and Joseph turned sadly away into the cold night, but Barry was still standing at the open door of his inn. Those who were on the front row saw tears well up in his eyes and his lips tremble: “Wait!” It came like a thunderclap. Every heart in the room stopped! What on earth? That word was not in the script of the familiar Christmas story. 

Then Barry finished it:  “Wait! You can have my room!” All bedlam broke loose. Children cried, parents were outraged and pandemonium reigned. Barry had “ruined” another Christmas play. But the teacher quieted the crowd, dried Barry’s tears as well as her own and said, “Maybe Barry was the real messenger after all. Only those who have “room” in their hearts, can the dear Christ Child enter in.'”

M. Maureen Killoran

Come Christmas!
No one is ever really ready for Christmas.
If we were really all prepared:
      If every gift we had contemplated had been obtained;
      If every present was beautifully beribboned;
      If all the goodies our friends deserve were baked and cooled, and stored just so;
      If each and every person we love was gathered for our celebration;
      If we never snapped at someone we care about, nor stopped short of being all that we
            could be;
      If our minds were 100 per cent loving and our hearts were 100 per cent generous;
They truly would be ready
      —and truly we would not need Christmas quite so much.

So come, Christmas, most needed of seasons.
Come with the reminder that love does not depend on
      Perfection but on willingness to risk connection.
Come into the unready manger of our hearts
      That we may feel the warmth of new life
      And give flesh to the promise of hope
      That cries to bring healing into our world.

            Come Christmas!
            Come, Love,
            Come, Hope.
            Be born in our unready hearts
            On this silent and holy night.

Imagine, if you can, a winter without a celebration or holiday of any kind. Try to imagine how you would feel without being able to celebrate anything, without having anything to look forward to in the coming cold, dark, days of winter. There are times, no doubt, in the midst of the Xmas rush, that many of us parents might actually wish there was no Xmas. Yet I believe that a little part of us would die in winter without a celebration of some kind.  Perhaps if Christianity had not merged a number of winter feasts/holidays/ celebrations  into Xmas, some psychotherapist might have come up with a secular alternative. The history of humanity seems to show that seasonal celebrations have been around since recorded  time.  

Why do we continually search for new meanings for the old words ? I confess that I often wish there were an alternative to Xmas that we could get as much meaning from. But Xmas was part of my childhood, and a very meaningful part. It was more than just a Christian holiday, it went beyond the myths and legends to something deep inside which seemed to light a spark within. As I became older (and I like to think, wiser) there came a time when Santa Claus became the Spirit of Xmas, no longer a concrete person, but an abstract idea or feeling. So, too, the God of my childhood  went through the transition from concrete to abstract, still evolving. I hope that the meaning of Xmas, like the meaning of life, itself, will continue to be an evolving process from which we can continue to learn and to grow. The symbols of Xmas go much deeper than a mythical  virgin birth of a man-god, and most of the symbols go back in time long before Christianity incorporated them . Now, obviously, to look at all the symbols of Xmas as well as all of their various connotations would fill a good-sized book and make for an extremely long sermon. What I would like to do is to concentrate on the  Xmas tree, symbol of life, light, and love. It is the Xmas tree, for me, which more than any other symbol, evokes the feeling of Xmas; yet it is a relatively new Xmas symbol in this country It may be that the Xmas tree comes from the ancient Norse “World Tree” called, “Yggdrsil , “the symbol for life itself. The decorations may represent the fruits of the tree and were probably intended to symbolize the endless variety of the gifts of life.

The ancient Roman festival, which most scholars feel was the real antecedent to Xmas, was the Saturnalia, which made extensive use of evergreen decorations and was dedicated to the great sun God. So the Evergreen tree could have been thousands of years old and predate the birth of Jesus.

The actual origin of the evergreen tree as a Xmas symbol was probably Germanic, and again was related to the life-giving powers of the sun. The only well-known Xmas carol dedicated solely to the Xmas tree is “O Tannenbaum”; in German the word for tree is “baum” which also means, “Father Sun”. Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, is often credited with starting the custom of decorating the evergreen, ancient pagan symbol, as part of a Xmas celebration. And it was supposed to have been a German Governess of Queen Victoria who introduced the Xmas tree to England .  It was a Unitarian minister who also was a Harvard professor who is given credit for introducing the Xmas tree to New England. He brought the custom from Germany, where he used to live. It is rumored that the Xmas tree has its roots (if you will pardon the pun) in German paganism, but that Martin Luther was the first to introduce the custom in Protestant Germany.

So it was that the German immigrant, CHarles Follen who came first to teach at Harvard and then became a Unitarian minister, serving the famous Lexington, MA, church which now bears his name though I question the wisdom of having named it the Follen Church. In 1832, Follen set up a Xmas tree to surprise his son, and a visiting Unitarian author from England, Harriet Martineau, wrote a magazine article about it, making the event known far and wide. She noted that the decorAtions included egg shells cut in half and painted, holding little candles, with toys and dolls nestled in the branches along with bundles of barley sugar and kinds of sweet candies tied on branches. Children were invited and all marveled because they had never seen a Xmas tree.

The early Puritans in this country forbade Xmas trees, because they were viewed as pagan, and very unbiblical. Indeed, in Massachusetts it was actually illegal to celebrate Xmas. The General Court of Mass. passed a law which stated: “…anybody who is found observing, by abstinence from labour, feasting or any other way, any such days as Xmas Day, shall pay for every such offence five-shillings.” 

The evergreen as a symbol for life is easy to understand since it does not lose its leaves in the winter, and this fact was certainly not lost on ancient humanity. Like the evergreen, we do not change in winter, neither do we hibernate nor grow thick or different colored fir. Perhaps the beginning of the use of evergreen for sacred symbol was that it was “like” us, while the trees which lost their leaves seem to die each winter, only to be resurrected in spring. Yet the evergreen does not produce edible fruits, so we symbolically decorate it with the  variety of the gifts of life. What we take for granted today was worshipped in the past, and we are rediscovering the sacredness of life,as if the ancient instincts were resurfacing, dormant under the trappings of traditions.

The Xmas tree is a symbol for life, especially for the possibilities life holds for us. It is a symbol too of our past, our history. The Xmas tree I erect each year seems to link me to the Xmas trees of my New Hampshire childhood, and the fragrance of the snow-covered winter woods in my cozy living room links me to life outside my thermal-paned window. Think about it. We erect a tree in the midst of our insulated home and attempt to symbolize life outside. It is as if some ancient, deep-seated, even unconscious drive will not let us get too far removed from our primordial origins. Especially during the chill of winter, we tend to shut ourselves up in artificial surroundings which sometimes removes us from life going on around us. So we bring in the evergreen, or perhaps set up the symbolic artificial one, and make it a festive occasion. The symbol of winter is death or dormancy. We strive to live, and so we decorate in bright lights and color, the winter symbol of evergreen.

The lights are our defense against the darkness, the despair of the shortened, dark days of winter; we light a tree of candles to frighten away the dark. And again we make it festive and create multi-colored magic with rainbow hues of flashing lights, crowned with a bright star, or lighted angel. As I drive around this time of year and see the Xmas trees through countless windows, I find myself wondering if it is not some kind of magic talisman we have created to frighten away the winter demons. It is the modern quest for fire, done up in bright and flashing electric colored lights, making us feel somehow safer by the very plugging in of the cord. And just to bring it all up to date, there are now computer-programmable lights!

The colors of the lighted tree are somehow, mysteriously, comforting. Perhaps, because it brings back the feeling of childhood, of being protected by the parent gods, of feeling secure that if the human ones failed, the heavenly one or ones would take over from there. A kind of security back-up system. I remember the magic that those lights produced, having played outside in the cold snow all day, sledding , skating or perhaps snow-person building, and walking home, suddenly feeling the cold. There was something instantly warming about seeing those xmas tree lights in your window, a signal that all was right in the world, no matter what was really happening. 

Putting up the tree was another of my least favorite past-times, involving as it always seems to, a plethora of unrequested advice on what I should be doing next. While I’m trying to fit the trunk into the stand, which I can’t see and is seemingly deliberately moving, the kids are already asking about the lights and ornaments. The tree has to fall over at least once while I’m trying to straighten it, usually causing me to utter a very un-Xmas-like oath. But like working on a relationship, the job seems to become easier and more pleasant as you progress. I get the Xmas star out of the box and affix it to the top, as my wife Cathie tells the girls that that star was the first Xmas thing we bought after we were married.  The history of our family, our relationship starts to be put upon the tree as we unwrap the ornaments. There are the ornaments from our childhood that link us with the past and with our own childhood, just as our children are forming theirs right before our eyes. The handmade ornaments from kindergarten to fourth grade, fashioned with proud loving hands out of macaroni or felt or crayon always elicit groans from their makers, now feeling much advanced. And then there are the ones we’ve bought for “baby’s 1st Xmas,” and pictures of the girls as babies, along with ornaments bought at various places and times that we remember fondly, ornaments received from various friends and family. All with a little history of our lives together, of our developing love. As we decorate the tree we tell the story of almost each ornament, and the tree becomes our own symbol of our family, retold each Xmas. The Xmas tree becomes for us a different kind of “family tree”. It is a reminder of the possibilities of life at the end of the year, when we can look back and see how we might have done or said something differently; it is a reminder when we handle the breakable ornament of how precious and fragile life is.

Soon, the tree is done, and the lights are turned on. In the “ooh’s and ahh’s” of all of us during this sacred moment,I like to think that there is magic in the world, that the telling and retelling of the stories of the ornaments and of Xmases past link us with life and with each other. The Xmas tree as symbol of life, light, and love, in the midst of winter darkness is a part of the essence of Xmas. In XMas we can see the possibilities of what could be- in religion, in everyday interactions, in living life. Be of good cheer, we are told at Xmas, peace on earth, good will to all. Once a year, we seem to believe that it could actually happen and we utilize the ancient symbols, so old we’ve lost their meanings. Instead, we get lost in the busywork, in the rush, in the traffic jams,in all the impossible tasks for the time allotted, in all the bills,in all the parties. There is an old saying that Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans. So it is, sometimes, with Xmas. The magic and the message of Xmas is not just for children or just for church, it is for all of us everywhere. The evergreen, the tree of life, stands inside our homes, decorated with light and love. XMas is message sent across the pages of history, showing us what could be if we would only make it so in our daily lives.  The tree contains the stars, songs and stories of Xmas, especially of family. 

Merry Xmas, Happy New Year, and Remember, Peace, Love, and hope, but the most important thing is love.