"What mattered was the simplicity: a simple gift given in love and community."
Memories of Christmas Eve
When I close my eyes and picture Christmas, I am a child holding my father’s hand and standing at the door of our small Lutheran church in the mountains of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I am 6 or 7 years old, dressed warmly in coat, gloves and hat, wearing shiny black patent leather shoes. The Christmas Eve service has ended, behind me the church smells of candles and cedar, and people are talking and wishing each other Merry Christmas. In front of me it is a dark cold night, with snow shining on the ground and stars winking in the sky. A winter night full of mystery and magic.
Cedric was always at the door of the church as we left the Christmas Eve service. I went out into the crisp winter night, holding my father’s hand and reaching up for the small brown paper bag that he gave each child. It was the same gift every year. I knew exactly what was in the bag: a few walnuts, several pieces of chocolate candy, and a tangerine. But that wasn’t what mattered, you see. What mattered, and what is stamped into my understanding of Christmas, was the simplicity - a simple gift given in love and community.
Childhood Christmas Magic
What I remember best about Christmas in my childhood is this mystery and magic, these touchstones to my senses. Sure, there was the whole Santa Claus thing, I even remember trying to stay up all night one Christmas Eve so that I could see him come in the front door. He had to come in the door, I figured, since our fireplaces were sealed shut. I parked myself on the steps in my footy pajamas to wait for him. I woke up the next morning in my bed with no recollection of how or when I got there!
There are presents I remember - dolls, board games, books. But it is the brown paper bag that has stayed most vividly in my memory.
It was a tradition, like many in our family and community. Not fancy, very small, but centered on the giving of a gift in community. These traditions of the Advent and Christmas seasons have given me my most precious memories. They are traditions and memories based on the senses: seeing candle light, stars and snow; smelling cedar, oranges and cookies; hearing silence, Christmas carols and family laughter; feeling the brown paper bag in my hand; tasting what was inside.
I don’t recall celebrating Advent like many of us do today. But we had our rhythms and traditions that prepared us for Christmas. They involved making Christmas decorations with friends and family. Trees folded out of Reader’s Digest magazines, then spraypainted green and sprinkled with silver glitter while the paint was still wet. Ornaments for the tree made of ribbons and sequins pushed into styrofoam balls, or cloves pressed into fresh oranges.
My father and I fed the birds together. “When you see a red bird,” he’d say, “that means it is going to snow.” He’d read me the Christmas story from a beautiful picture book. With my brothers, we’d put up the model train. We got out the crèche. My mother cooked and cooked: fruit cakes, endless cookies, cinnamon candy, spiced tea. We decorated the house and the tree. We wrote and mailed Christmas cards. We dwelled in the mystery of the preparations waiting for the magic of Christmas.
The Smell of Oranges
As I look back, the magic was Christmas Eve, more so than Christmas morning. It was the late-night service, the darkness sprinkled with carols and candles, snow and stars. It was the brown paper bag. It was a very small bag, the top folded over several times. Cedric would hand it to me, and I would get into the car with my parents and we’d drive the half-mile home. When we got home, I would sit on my father’s lap with mom beside us. Pop would crack the walnuts and we'd eat them. Then we shared the chocolates. Then I peeled the tangerine. The smell of that tangerine as it squirted into my face was pure joy. To this day, whenever I smell an orange, it takes me back to this magical Christmas moment and Cedric's brown paper bag.
May your Christmas be full of magic and mystery, sights, sounds, and smells. May your Christmas be filled with the gift of time with others, as well as the gift that is given to us in mystery made flesh.
Carolyn Moomaw Chilton writes and blogs as a spiritual discipline and an invitation to conversation with others. You can follow her on Twitter @episcoevangel and Facebook as EpiscopalEvangelist. She is currently on staff at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia as the Assistant for Evangelism and Stewardship.