When I was five, Christmas was the most magical time of the year. There was the thrill and anticipation of Santa and his reindeer, the Christmas concert at school, the Christmas pageant at church, and the Christmas tree which never went up until the night before Christmas. Then, there were plenty of visitors, the turkey dinner with all the trimmings, and Japanese mandarin oranges which came wrapped in tissue and packed in crates. I guarantee we were always giddy with excitement and anticipation.
Christmas morning we couldn’t wait to get dressed in the chill bedrooms, giggling and hurrying in our haste to see the gifts under the tree downstairs. Presents never appeared until Christmas morning. There were six of us kids then, ranging in age from three to twelve. My mom always got up and made coffee and my dad always reached under the tree and brought out the gifts, handing them out so that each child had a gift to open. Then, while we played with the toys, Mom would be out in the kitchen basting the turkey, which usually weighed 20-25 pounds, filling the house with a wonderful smell. We’d eat breakfast, our eyes still fastened on our gifts, then we’d go to church and there would be a Christmas Day service with Baby Jesus in His manger. We’d sing Christmas carols and exchange greetings with people after the service, and there were always plenty of other children to talk to and to play with.
Sometime in the mid-afternoon, we’d have Christmas dinner. There would be heaps of mashed potatoes, homemade dressing, cranberry sauce, plates of turkey, mashed turnip or carrots, and lashings of gravy. We might have friends or relatives to dinner, which always was a challenge because the table was never quite big enough, but everybody managed to squeeze in.
Recently, my husband and I visited St. John’s. I think, in future, I will always think of St. John’s as the city where A River Runs Through It, because there were literally rivers of water flowing across roadways and waterfalls cascading down the Southside Hills. But, the amazing thing is, it didn’t dampen the ardor of the Christmas shoppers at the Avalon Mall. The parking lot was full, even though shoppers were forced to leap across streams of water to get into the mall. As I sat at the food court with Len, we watched the shoppers go by in droves–and a stream of water falling from the ceiling to a bucket on the floor–and I pondered the meaning of Christmas just as I do every year.
What is the meaning of Christmas? Is it the presents, the school concerts, the story of the birth of Jesus, the snow, or the tree all aglitter with ornaments and lights? Or does the spirit of Christmas reside only in the hearts of children?
If we were to take away the gifts and the tree, would Christmas still be Christmas?
While we were in St. John’s we phoned our son James in Winnipeg and while he and I were talking he had to put down the phone to answer the door. When he returned to the phone he told me a cadet had come to the door selling chocolate bars. “I bought the whole box,” he laughed. James was remembering a time almost fifteen years before when he was a child selling chocolate bars, and it had not been an easy task trudging through the snow selling chocolate bars in a city where doors were often closed in his face. But that day, at the end of the block he knocked on a door and a man answered. When James asked him if he’d like to buy a bar to support the school, the man bought the whole box, and I’ll never forget the joy on James’s face when he came home with an empty box and a handful of money. He never forgot that man’s kindness.
I imagine if I asked James what gift he was given for Christmas fifteen years ago, he’d be hard-pressed to remember, but James had no trouble remembering a random act of kindness, and fifteen years later, he was able to return that kindness to a child in the same situation.
So, perhaps Christmas is more about small acts of kindness and mercy, rather than the glittering gifts under the tree. Perhaps the meaning of Christmas is wrapped up in relationships, and fastened with memories of a simpler, kinder time.