Monday, 26 December 2016

Christmas 2016

Not much gets recorded on here any more - more on travelswithpickle and my wordsfromgodtoday blogs which take my musings. Advent, and all it means, has preoccupied my heart.

But Christmas is here. Christmas Eve, as I write. I'm putting off peeling potatoes ready for roast and mash tomorrow. Reflecting and writing is much more fun , especially listening to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin trolling through Christmas songs while Richard wraps Christmas presents. He seems to have needed a lot of help in locating scissors, sellotape and wrapping paper - which have been lying, ready for use, on the bed all afternoon. AND it all seems to be taking a long time. Oh well - the mystery of men and Christmas presents remains dark and... mysterious.  No doubt tomorrow will reveal all.

And now that we're here... well, I'm looking forward to tomorrow. We're having friends round, with their dog, Howie the Boston terrier.  Howie and Pickle have been best friends and sparring buddies for the last five years and are completely chilled with each other. We'll have a walk, sit down to dinner, play games, maybe watch a movie... just laid back and relaxed. Kareena and I have divvied up the food between us so it all seems very easy.

But this Christmas is the first one where none/neither of our children will be with us.  Indeed, Cat has only managed one Christmas in the last five years: New Zealand is a little far to come flying home for Christmas and in any case, she will be with her new husband and her in-laws.  Jonny and Adele have spent the last two - and the first two of their married life - with us, so it is Phil and Judy's turn this year. All good and right.

This has caused me considerable, self-inflicted, grief. The thought of reaching this milestone - a first Christmas without children - has been very hard to contemplate. No amount of reasoning by my oh-so-well-adjusted-sensible head with my hurting lonely heart has made any difference. I have even had a couple of melt-downs, much to my head's disappointment - it is used to getting its own way and keeping my emotions firmly in check. My feelings have been well-disciplined over the years and don't normally hold sway in my life.

But that has changed in the last couple of weeks. I've recognised that, against my will, knowledge of the Gospel and better judgement, I have unwittingly bought into the 'Christmas is happy family time' lie and that if I don't have my family, or even my happy, it's not really Christmas.

A lie, indeed. Christmas is Grace. It is remembering Jesus. The Gift. Emmanuel - God With Us. And all His other names...amazing, undeserved favour on us from God. Anything that helps me remember that is good. Anything that distracts - is not. I have reminded myself of that over and over again and, as I have done so, I have moved my heart nearer my head, recognising in the old traditions the timeless reminders of God's love for us. For me, undeserving though I am.

So decorating the house, Christmas baking, writing cards, taking part in carol services... all have taken on a new meaning as I do them to celebrate HIS coming, not my children's homecoming.

I have continued to put out our African nativity set - the human faces made of natural clays so real, almost unattractive in their crude simplicity. Yet it reminds me of the Story. I look at the faces of the kings - almost grumpy, as perhaps they were in tiredness from long travels.

Other memories of Kenya...
I decorate with evergreens, creating natural wreaths from willow and garden shrubs. I ponder on the everlasting love of God which remains new, not just at Christmas, but every day. I marvel at the uniqueness of God's creation as I look at the perfect red berries, the delicate tracery of leaves or the toughness of bright green leaves which resist our fierce storms.

I put up our little artificial Christmas tree - surely more than forty years old now, still stretching delicate, realistic looking branches out to receive the ornaments.
Every decoration holds a memory: made by one, given by another, bought with a third, collected with a fourth. Family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances - all have a part in our tree and I am grateful that they are in my life, whether near or at the other ends of the earth.
One of the latest additions: a kiwi from Cat, from New Zealand

Just one more reminder of where she is...
I bake for Christmas: always, Swedish pepparkakor, a tradition in our family long before I ever lived in Sweden myself. The smell permeates the house, whispering God Jul  - Merry Christmas - to my heart. I bake, not for family this time, but for myself, to enjoy with a cup of tea late at night when the house is quiet. I bake to share, as I invite friends and colleagues to my home for coffee. And I bake to give away, packaging handfuls up in cellophane and bright ribbon.

I bake a traditional Christmas cake, covering it with thick marzipan and thin royal icing, putting on the little ornaments - gifts from my mother - which I have kept for decades. But this year, no little children playing in the snow... just Father Christmas and a snowman...

This year, there are no 'happy children playing in the snow' on my cake. There always used to be - a boy and a girl - but this year is different.

I plan the shopping, doing it in a couple of different trips when I am out running errands. It seems stress-free.

I find a new craft, as I do every year or so. Last time it was to sew little red felt hearts, decorated with tiny white buttons. There are so many of them, in various sizes - for sewing them became addictive - that they have their own tree.

This year, my latest obsession is to create willow wreaths, weaving the long withies round and over each other. I gently bend the long, thicker end, feeling it give gently, as I 'take the spite out of it'. Willow needs to flex gently or it cannot create the gentle curves demanded by a wreath. A bend renders the withy useless. I carefully create the first circle, hugging it to my body to get the correct shape, then reach my arm through to grasp the tip, pulling it back through the centre, always reaching, pulling, round and round.

Then, I decorate with red and green, perhaps a ribbon or a bow.
A simple, first attempt.
A centrepiece
I do much as I have always done.

And in all this: Ann Voskamp puts it so beautifully:
It's *okay* that you didn't get it all done. And that it's messy & far from perfect. There is brokenness and failing and hurting and falling and dying and burying and there are times you don’t know how to breathe — but there is always, always, always Hope.
The Star-Maker, the Wisdom-Carrier, the Hope-Bringer — He had to take on skin and come with lung and lips and warm breath because this is the gift that all the heart bruised need: Hope resuscitates.
Let your heart prepare Hope room.
If you don’t let your heart prepare Hope room — it’s your own house that comes crashing down.
It’s worth it to take courage and let your busted and broken heart prepare Hope room and prepare room for the prodigal to come home and the hard-hearted to change and the hurting to not hurt and the wounders to heal and the impossible to find a possible way and let nothing stop you from following the star this Christmas.
There’s no performing Christmas, producing Christmas, or perfecting Christmas.
There is resting in Christmas.
There is breathing easy in Christ.
He will prepare your heart for the coming of the Lord.
There’s a hope waiting right up ahead right now for you in the dark.
Hope’s always making a way — follow the Star.
Merry, Merry Christmas Eve...
#TheBrokenWay #TheGreatestGift
from the post: when you’re weary & just want to prepare your heart for Christmas — & a bit of Hope -->
[ print's free for you right here: ]

And things in my life are indeed broken. That unbroken-for-decades-tradition of having family together has gone. Symbolically, the Jesse tree ornaments my daughter and I made from salt dough are also broken. The damp has finally got to them and they have started to become soggy. I will try to dry them out, but perhaps I need to create new ones now. New shapes, new memories.
New traditions.

So on Christmas Eve, when much is done, I go out with my willow wreaths - for I have, by now, made many. I drop them at friends' doors while they are out last-minute shopping; sometimes I stay for a cup of tea and catch up with their news. I reconnect with those I hold dear, rather than grieve over those who are not near. I bless friends and neighbours.

I have heard of a Christmas Eve tradition of blessing strangers with gifts, going out for coffee and leaving a large tip, so I too try to do this. I pray, and look for someone who is perhaps in need of a gift of a little money. We cycle to our nearest cafe, but it is closing. This is Guernsey, after all, not the USA or an urban metropolis. Perhaps this is not a tradition I can make my own. But as we leave, my husband points out the cleaner: "What about this lady?"  She is just settling down in her cupboard with a sandwich by the time I have taken money and the Christmas 'card' from church out of my bag. She looks up wearily, then leaps up, hugging and kissing her thanks in broken English.
She will work until 8.30 tonight, this Christmas Eve, far from home. I am humbled. My little gift seems sadly lacking.

We cycle home a different way, through quiet lanes lit up with occasional Christmas lights. Trees glow through uncurtained windows. The night is calm, still, the air is mild. Perhaps this, too, can become a tradition: enjoying the creativity and entertainment of light decorations.

So now, I return to the potatoes. The turkey waits in the fridge - I'll get it out tomorrow. We'll Skype with our daughter over our early morning coffee, have a leisurely breakfast, go surfing. Skype with our son - and share the surfing news, for this was a tradition he established. Then our friends will come, and we will rejoice again, and celebrate, and love.

For this, this Love, is what Christmas is all about. 

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