As a child I would go to bed on Christmas Eve so excited I could hardly sleep. Of course, part of the problem was that the last words I heard from Mama before I went to bed were “Go to sleep now; Santa Claus won’t come if you’re awake.” So I went to bed terrified that I wouldn’t be able to sleep and certain that if I didn’t sleep then there would be no gifts for me.
Very early on Christmas morning I would wake up; I’m talking 5 or 6. The rule was that I had to wake Mama and Daddy up and let them go into the living room to see if Santa had come before I went in. The other thing that was happening was that Daddy had to get his Brownie movie camera with its twin spot lights all fired up. Finally Mama would say “Lights, camera, action!” or “You can go in now” or something like that and I would walk into Christmas morning in all its glory.
When the chaos subsided we would get ready to eat lunch with Mama’s family and open presents there. Somewhere along the way Daddy would say, “Well, that’s that for another 365 days,” thereby plunging me into a depression that I would usually snap out of by Presidents’ Day. It was pretty much like that every Christmas for 16 years.
Christmas 1975 was the one when everything changed. Mama died in June of that year. By Christmas time Daddy had begun to take steps to get on with his life. I had just finished my first quarter of college.
I couldn’t see it then but everything was up in the air and all bets were off. I wanted to cling to the way things used to be but in so doing I was trying to cling to the way things were never going to be again and, truth be told, I was probably trying to cling to the way things never really had been in the first place. I mean, it had been good, but sometimes things look even grander in the rearview mirror, especially when you know, even if you don’t accept it, that they’re gone for good.
My Uncle Johnny, who has childhood memories of the aftermath of the Great Depression and of World War II, says that he agrees with his cousin Charles who said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with firewood and chicory coffee; they both remind me of hard times.”
For years I was that way about artificial Christmas trees. My parents had bought an artificial tree for $19.95 a couple of years before Mama died. I agreed to it as a concession to the need to make things easier around the house. A couple of weeks before Christmas we’d all put the thing together and decorate it.
That year, though, I got home from Mercer a couple of weeks before Christmas and, all by myself, put the tree up and decorated it. I don’t know if I was more sad or mad. I think that’s one reason that I insisted on a real tree for so long; well, that and they smell good and I guess I liked having to water it every day and having to clean up the needles.
That year, for the first time in my life I had absolutely no trouble going to sleep on Christmas Eve. When I woke up on Christmas morning it was 10:30. I looked at the clock and rolled over covered up in the sudden realization that I wasn’t a child anymore. I realized, too, that the world had changed. I thought at the time that it was broken and busted and warped and out of whack and absurd, but I was wrong about that. It had just changed.
Christmas teaches us many things. I think that one of the truths that Christmas teaches us is that God is in the changes. After all, the coming of the baby Jesus to Bethlehem’s manger turned the world on its head. The earliest Christians were referred to as those who had turned the world upside down. Surely God can and does work through those events that turn our worlds upside down and inside out and crossways.
Oh, by the way: this will be the second year that we have used our nice artificial pre-lighted Christmas tree. I think it’s beautiful.
Michael Ruffin is pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga. This column is adapted from his blog.