Tradition

Not Quite a Christmas Cantata

They’ve been doing it for centuries. Singing in narrative verse to tell the story of the the nativity and the Christmas miracle. Wearing long red robes which morphed into vibrant red sweaters, men and women have stood on choral bleachers in front of audiences for a very long time singing songs of the coming of Christ.

Tis’ the season of the Christmas Cantata.

Raise your hand if you know what those two words mean. For those of you who aren’t attending church, never have, maybe never want to – that’s cool too. Think a carefully curated playlist of classics like Silent Night, Joy to the World, with maybe parts of Handel’s Messiah mixed in.

I have one vibrant memory of attending such a concert at the church my dad pastored. I was five or six and sat in the first few church pews, staring up in wonder at the gentleman singing in front of us. The mustard yellow upholstery scratched my little legs in their little white tights as I swung them back and forth, teetering on the edge.

I remember the glow of the candles, and the warm yellow lights bouncing off the brick walls of the sanctuary and I remember the sweaters. Bright red sweaters, probably with a crisp white collared tee underneath, were paired with khakis making middle aged men looked like Target employees. I remember sitting next to my dad and watching those sweaters move while their mustaches danced as they mouthed out melodies of all the traditional songs. I mostly remember the mustaches.

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Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

It has been years since I’ve been to a Christmas Cantata. For whatever reason, many of the newer, non-denominational churches we’ve been attending in the last decade don’t allow just any man on stage to sing.

In these bigger, more liberal establishments, musicians have to try out and prove their worth to perform with a microphone. We wouldn’t want worship led by an average engineer in khakis would we? Including ordinary folks’ talents in worship seems a lost art in the new wave of Christian religion.

This past weekend we didn’t go to a Canata, per se’, but we did go to a Christmas worship service at the local Presbyterian church. I sat in a mustard yellow church pew that surely would have scratched my legs if I was wearing white tights. Around me, the average demographics of the audience were certainly older by twenty years compared to where we sometimes worship now. On the front table were four Advent candles, three purple, one pink, one white – another tradition missing from big church stages. Above in the rafters, supported carefully in the beams, sat a most massive pipe organ waiting to be awoken by the days event. Big stained glass windows filtered the light encouraging it to dance across the stage. This was a sanctuary steeped in tradition and liturgy and it made me miss my Evangelical roots … just a teeny bit.

A tiny orchestra of ten or so men and women formed just below familiar black risers. To the left of them sat a full choir with close to thirty singers wearing floor length blue robes. Behind them, a bell choir of twelve wore plush velvet shirts and black gloves to protect the fragile tones. They were quiet – eager and ready to play and sing.

This congregation rallied over 100 talented folks to show up to share the gift of Christmas music with us. I don’t know, maybe they had to audition, but I was moved by the willingness for ordinary people to sign up and say, ‘Hey, I know how to play an instrument and I’m going to use my skill to bring some joy this season.’

Bring joy they did – an hour of beautiful music rehearsed and delivered to bring magic our way.

There is beauty in tradition, in family memories of Christmases past, and in the reverence experienced when we still our hearts enough to watch those willing to share their gifts with us. It doesn’t matter how old you are, or if you sing a little flat. Your voice carries and lifts up hearts. Your wrists make bells do magical things. And the choice to be present and not participate like the little blond boy with his arms stuffed up in his purple choir robes, refusing to sing a single word in the children’s choir – that’s beautiful too.


P.S. – There’s still time to enter the Give Light Giveaway. My friends at Colorpockit have just launched their new business and are graciously donating a set to be included in the prize pack this year. Colorpockit is the new portable adult coloring system that allows you to take your creativity wherever you go! It’s available in plastic or wood, and each Colorpockit comes with 12 dual-sided pencils giving you 24 vibrant colors, a built-in pencil sharpener, and 12 postcards to color. Fun right! You can learn more here

In Two Places at Once

I live about an hour and a half from the state border. If I wanted to, I could get in my car and drive north up to the big state sign and pull over to park. After zipping up my jacket and protecting my ears, I could exit the car and stand right next to the highway marker where miles are named zero.  I could turn to the west and widen my stance and strategically place one foot proudly in Colorado while the other foot could stamp down and stake claim territory in Wyoming.

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One could be in two places at once.

This is holiday season number three without Dad and I’m finding myself in there – in two places all at the same time.

I’m living with more joy. I eagerly completed my Christmas card and mailed them this week (I’ve got ten left if you want one). I bought spontaneous tickets to White Christmas at the Performing Arts Center. We made penguin cookies with frosted snow and sparkle dust.  I’m going to The Nutcracker, making lists for gifts, and decorating the house cheerfully.

In each of these traditions and activities, though, exists the sting of grief, the remnants of loss, and the gluing back together of the places that broke when he died.

For Christmas cards, how do you address an envelope? With peoples names who live in that household, leaving one very important one out because he doesn’t live there anymore? It’s safer to lump and title the envelope ‘the xxx family’.

In a dark performance hall you notice the stranger sitting next to you and as his arm brushes your shoulder you think, ‘huh that fabric is scratchier than dad’s coat.’ If you lean your head on this man’s shoulder, you’re gonna get an uncomfortable look and a talking to.

Dylan stands on the ladder helping wrap the garlands at Mom’s house rather than Dad. Pecan crescents are missing from the fridge because really those are gross and no one would eat them but Dad.

I’m present and happy and festive. I’m also sad and aching and have room for the light that Christ promises he brings during this advent season.

I’m in two places at once and that’s a beautiful thing.

 

PS – don’t forget to enter the Give Light Giveaway. This year, it’s super easy to enter.

Nope. Not this year.

Thursday – A Rushed Morning

7:05 am

Katie’s phone buzzes.  Olive pounces on me as I reach from my comfy flannel sheets to read the message.

Dylan: Can you bring me my jacket?

Type type type.

Katie: Sure – do you need it this morning?

No response.

We’re up late. Rush out of bed.

8:02 am

Katie puts cushions in bathroom so the dog won’t eat them, shuts all doors, unplugs curling iron, grabs jacket and says a silent prayer that Olive won’t chomp on the unlit Christmas tree while away. Drive to Dylan’s work.

8:17 am

Katie’s phone buzzes.

Dylan: No – I don’t need it this morning. Just for later tonight.

Said coat sat on my drivers seat as I waited for a stop light to stamp out a reply.

8:18 am

Katie pulls into Dylan’s work parking lot.

Type Type Type

Katie: I’m in the parking lot. I have your coat.

Dylan came out to greet me, walking up to the driver side door. He said thanks, and then repeated he didn’t really need the coat until later that night.

Katie swallowed down emotion and said out loud, “Ok, I’m feeling frustrated.”

And then Katie promptly started crying.

In the parking lot, Dylan came round and sat in the car as Katie shed some tears, holding her hand.


I wept about how pissed I am at my dog for peeing in our house all the time. I wept about feeling like schedules need managing and tasks need completing, and dishwashers need unloading and like I need help. That’s what I told Dylan.

What I didn’t tell Dylan –

At 7:40 am I also got an email from The Dinner Party. This group hosts grief tables for 20 and 30 somethings who have experienced significant loss all around the country.  I’ve been on the waiting list since October. Waiting to get placed in a group of people who get it. Just how total suck-fest this thing called grief can be.

I’ve got lots of supportive people in my life, yet I still crave connection with people my age who can say, ‘yup – me too – I’ve lost someone big and their them-sized hole will never be filled.’

As I read the email, I think I stopped breathing a bit. The Dinner Partiers might have a spot for me soon. I hate that I can belong to this club. She ended her note, “I hope you’re finding ways to take care this holiday season.”

So there I was, in the parking lot, crying tears and blurring my mascara and trying not to calculate how late to work I would be. Sure, I was pissed at my dog and helping people get their needs met. More though, I was pissed that I’m not sure I have been taking care of myself this month as others have so wisely recommended.

We got through Thanksgiving with grace and smiles this year. We decorated for Christmas and I was doing just fine. And then I opened that gracious, hope-giving email, and I sank right into the hard truth that my dad isn’t with us this Christmas.

Damnit.

Worse, too, that I haven’t been giving myself space to expect the slide backwards. Because who want’s to expect that?

I wiped off my face and drove to work, finished out another week and started asking myself – how can I take better care of myself this Christmas season? A beautiful reminder that sometimes even strangers can nudge us towards the self-care we didn’t know we needed.

I’ve found freeing answers in unexpected spaces. The beauty in saying, “Nope, not this year.”

For example. This season I can’t bring myself to make Christmas cookies. I bought the ingredients to make peppermint shortbread for Dad and then I just couldn’t stop thinking – well where would I bring them?we don’t have a graveI certainly can’t eat them myself. And why would I give them away. They are Dad’s.

And Mom and I were going to make gingerbread snowflakes like always but really I just wanted to send my Christmas Cards instead. Our time got eaten up as the grief gremlin gnawed on my heart. Sneaking cookies from tins in the morning reminds me of him and so I just can’t do it. Not this year. The weight of grief has pressed pause on our cookie tradition. The red snowman tins shall remain empty til next year.

Today, as we Christmas shopped I bought a Trader Joe’s Gingerbread Cake Mix  . We came home after a lovely afternoon out downtown and I whipped up the batter in ten minutes. After thirty minutes my house smelled lovely. I cut a warm square that looked  beautiful my white plate, gummy ginger crystals still melted from the oven. I ate a piece while watching The Santa Clause and got choked up as Santa calls Charlie Sport. Dad always called me Sport too. More feelings of Damnit. Let’s put that word in caps shall we? D-A-M-N-I-T. Let’s YELL it at the mirror!

So this is what taking care of myself looks like. Saying no to tradition because tradition hurts like hell. Finding substitutes that make life easier – like cake mix. Asking for help with Olive and holding hands. Reading my Advent devotional and remembering Jesus is coming – bringing light and banishing darkness.

And saying hello to my grief gremlin friend as she waves her candy cane Christmas wand from my heart pocket. She’s here this season too.

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P.S. – I told Dylan all of this before I shared here. He’s in the know. You can be too.

P.P.S. – The Give Light Giveaway is still going on. Send me your entry soon!

Tree Time

 

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Growing up, the Friday after Thanksgiving meant searching for a Christmas tree. These were outdoor adventures that required boots, and gloves, and a saw. The group was always composed of either my immediate family, or my cousins and my uncle, and we would chant in our matching Gap turtleneck sweaters (weren’t my mom and aunt cute) that it was time to chop down a tree. Bickering for a spot in the trunk – no seat belts! – my relatives and I would anxiously await the bumpy dirt road, the snow, the chopping and the treats that would follow once the perfect tannenbaum had been selected.

I remember these trips briefly, snippets here and there, and maybe I create stories based off of pictures in my family’s photo albums. I remember the trusty silver Subaru, the swearing in the dark when the tree fell off the front of the car, and how every year, without fail, my dad would have to cut off a few feet of tree as the piece of nature stuck out our front door, on its side, until properly adjusted for the high ceilings that hosted the tree in my childhood home. Trees look smaller in the grand expanse of wilderness, dont’cha know? These adventures make for tradition, and create laughter and embarrassment, and merriment all around.

So yes, the weekend after Thanksgiving, I convinced Dylan to go looking for a tree. I was an impatient, fair weather fan, however. Our adventure consisted of driving to Home Depot and picking out a 7 ft fir, rather than a rousing ride to the wilderness. Our cheeks were still rosy from the 25 degree weather, and we bickered a little with the strapping of the monster to the top of our car. Cold fingers and toes still gave us an eventful trip and brought my (ok …. our) tree home.

I love this beautiful transition into the holiday season. We say it every year, that Christmas tends to sneak up on us. This time last year we were moving. I am beyond thankful that we do not have to do that this December. We continue to create our own traditions while creating our own little family’s history.

 

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I spent three hours stringing popcorn and cranberries as garland for the tree. The reassuring squeak of bright white kernels as they squealed along the thread, mixed with the vibrant red juice of cranberry brought me joy sitting in our new living room. There is beauty in that bright white/crimson red color combination, in the sense of purpose in a project, and the final product hanging on the now decorated boughs of our very own evergreen. I find beauty in tradition, in merriment, and in the events that ground our lives.

Beauty in the things that require adaptation too. Every year I like to make gingerbread snowflake cookies. These treats are astounding, and I love decorating them with royal icing, and I battle my mom to get her to help me stick the beautiful frosting in a pastry bag because I don’t like to get my hands so sticky. This year, we used a different cookie cutter and the beautiful arms of the flakes, well… flaked. Each time we picked up a cookie, the fragile little stinkers broke. And broke. And broke. I have never laughed so hard, as each frosted cookie seemed to shriek – ‘not this year you don’t’. So beauty in imperfection as well.

These stories and traditions weave our lives together. I’m thankful for the transition this year, and for my beautiful Christmas tree. And for snow flake gingerbread nubs, because those too, are delicious when dipped in coffee.