Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas Sneakers

Family traditions come in different forms; here is one of my favorites.

If you read last week’s post you know that as a kid I got excited about Christmas. Really, really, super, duper, turbo, crazy excited about Christmas. So much so that I would make myself almost sick with the anticipation of the big day. 

My two younger brothers and sister were generally on the same page that I was at that time of the year. We would spend the months leading up to Christmas pouring over the glossy pictures in the Sears catalog Wish Book dreaming about Barbie townhouses and remote control cars. 

Christmas Eve was the highlight of the season. There was always dinner and a “program” at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Once our bellies were full of brown sugared ham, potatoes, and buttery rolls smothered in homemade jam we would move to the living room and gather around the fireplace. 

The program then began. 

This consisted of all of the grandchildren performing in some way at the piano, singing, and squeaking out elementary versions of O Christmas Tree and Jolly Old Saint Nick on miscellaneous band instruments. All was greeted by uproarious applause from the audience. Then would come the singing of carols and re-enactment of the Christmas story while Grandpa read out of Luke, complete with towels on our heads and whichever littlest grandkid was present laying in the manger. 

Then we would open the gag gifts Grandpa had collected throughout the year and wrapped in plain brown shipping paper. Little toy dogs that could back-flip, a singing trout, Santa as Elvis were among the usual suspects. 

After the party my parents would bring us home glowing with anticipation and get us into bed by telling us that “Santa can’t come until you are asleep.” It worked… for about 30 minutes. I’m not sure how Santa managed in such a short window of opportunity, but he always did. 

At exactly 1:16am my eyes would pop open and I would stare at the digital alarm clock on the bedside table. The rule in our house was that you could not get up until 6:00. No exceptions. I’m a firm believer that time is relative. It speeds at a much increased rate for parents and slows to a virtual standstill for kids on Christmas Eve. It was an eternity from 1:16 to 6:00.

By 2:00 my siblings were awake as well and we would carefully sneak to a central location (my room) for a planning session. The bedrooms of our house were connected to the living room by a long hallway. The tree and Santa’s delivery were located there, as well as a sleeping father on the couch. Dad knew we couldn’t stand the anticipation and so he spent every Christmas Eve sleeping there like an MP guarding the entrance to Fort Knox to keep us out of the area until the designated time. 

We would spend the next 4 hours slithering on our tummies down the hallway an inch at a time in hopes of getting past our Christmas sentinel. As soon as one of us would make it past the foot of the couch a gruff “GO TO BED!” would ring out over the silent night air and we would scurry back to central command.

As the years went by we made some innovations to our raid plans and equipment. This was mostly the invention of my brother Scott. By the time I was twelve we had moved up to painting our faces, dressing in all black, and taping plastic cups with a pin hole punched in the bottom over small flashlights so we could see better. We looked like a band of vagabond jewel thieves. We also had an elaborate hand signal language worked out to pass messages back and forth. 

All this was to no avail as the grumpy man on the couch was very good at his job. Looking back on it I think dad probably enjoyed those sleepless nights as much as we did. How much easier it would have been to stay in bed and just let us walk out there and peek. 

Time passed and as brothers and sisters we grew up and moved away from each other. Life has separated our family to different geography and political views. Over the years there has been joy but also disagreements between us as we have had to make the adult choices of our lives. Things have not always been rosy as we’ve walked the pathways we have chosen but down deep I know that the four of us are still that little band of Christmas Sneakers. 

I believe deeply that families are put together for a reason. There are things to be learned from each other. There are mistakes to be made, there is forgiveness and love to be educated in. Heaven knows my family has not had an easy progression in this area but this Christmas I have hope that it can improve and maybe it just starts with simple memories of tradition.

So here's a shout out to the Christmas Eve Sneakers. Happy sneaking this year! 



Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Real Christmas

One week before Christmas in 1984 I broke out in full body hives. That is how excited I was for Christmas to come. I love Christmas. Unequivocally it is my favorite time of the year. At thirty-six I get as almost as excited about it as I did when I was eight and had to scratch my way to the big day. 

Now, as then, I adored everything about the season. The decorations, the music, the cheesy pictures with Santa at the mall, the red and green construction paper chains made with Elmer’s glue, drug store advent calendars, singing along with Bing Crosby as he croons in White Christmas, the hot cocoa and carols.

Back then, nights would find me lying on the floor next to our lighted Christmas tree when everyone else had gone to bed, un-focusing my eyes until the multi-colored twinkling lights would turn into a galaxy fuzzy orbs hanging in space. It was my own peaceful Christmas meditation.

And then there was my grandma, she loved Christmas too. It was an event to go to her house and put up the decorations. Grandpa would bring in a fragrant pine tree and we would put Andy Williams on their 1950’s record player. As the vinyl records would hiss and pop and play It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year we would carefully place antique glass ornaments on the tree. Last of all a paper angel that had been in the family for generations would complete our tree trimming. That place was a little piece of heaven.

Sitting next to the front door in her house was a little nativity scene. Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus were painted in fading pastel hues. One of the cows lying next to the manager was missing an ear, knocked off years earlier by some clumsy observer. I would look at that nativity and imagine what it must have been like to be there on that night. I always felt warm and happy when I gazed at that scene. 

I knew that Christmas was about the birth of a baby, a very special baby. I knew that we sang about Him and talked about Him at church but the connection between the feelings of love and peace that I felt around December had not connected with that person. 

Fast forward about twenty years. I had made a conscious decision that I was going to figure out how to really get to know the Savior. I had heard people talk about if forever, having this personal relationship with Christ. How did one have that when He wasn’t physically present? Intellectually I knew the doctrine, I had seen miracles and blessings, I believed, but knew that I was missing something significant. 

That decision sent me to the scriptures where I read every single thing I could find that Christ had said Himself. I then moved to modern day prophets and buried myself in Talmage and McConkie. I prayed fervently to receive that relationship. Over a three year period I learned wonderful and amazing things about the Lord, my testimony increased, but still I did not feel an emotional link to Him. What was I doing wrong?

With this weighing on my mind I was asked to sing in the choir for the Christmas Cantata the ward was putting on. I attended the practices and enjoyed expressing the love I had for Christmas in a musical way. I was also singing alto in a beautiful arrangement about Mary for the same concert. 

The night of the performance was going well and there was just one hymn to be sung by the choir before I was up. It was a hymn I had sung hundreds of times and was honestly not one of my favorites. The piano played the introduction and I sang:

“The first Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay,
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter's night that was so deep.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel!
Born is the King of Israel!”

As the harmony of “born is the King of Israel” left my lips something slammed into my chest. I felt it physically hit me with all-pervading force. It took my breath away. Stunned and overwhelmed, I tried to process the feeling that was enveloping me head-to-toe. It was familiar. I immediately recognized it as the same one I had while I looked at the little nativity all those years ago, just intensified. 

Much like the Grinch from Dr. Suess I experienced my heart growing three sizes up there on the stand. I knew for a fact that the Lord loved me. I recognized that I had been feeling it all along and not recognizing it. At the birth of my children, at my grandma’s funeral, in kind things people did and said, in sunsets, and in music. Every day it had been there, lifting and helping me along.

Tears streaming down my face, barely able to function, I stood up and choked out my part in the quartet. I looked like a lunatic and got a lot of raised eyebrows as I bawled in front of 150 people, but wouldn’t trade that moment for anything. 

I finally knew why I loved Christmas so much and realized I could have it with me all the time. My prayers had been answered. It was so simple.

I learned that the key to Christmas is this. "The real Christmas comes to him who has taken Christ into his life as a moving, dynamic, vitalizing force. The real spirit of Christmas lies in the life and mission of the Master....

"If you desire to find the true spirit of Christmas and partake of the sweetness of it, let me make this suggestion to you. During the hurry of the festive occasion of this Christmas season, find time to turn your heart to God. Perhaps in the quiet hours, and in a quiet place, and on your knees—alone or with loved ones—give thanks for the good things that have come to you, and ask that His Spirit might dwell in you as you earnestly strive to serve Him and keep His commandments" (Howard W. Hunter, "
The Real Christmas," Ensign, Dec 2005, 22–25).

I pray that you have the sweet Spirit of the Lord with you this Christmas season and that you find the moments to let Him into your heart. 


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