A year ago, at the start of December, I was determined to create the perfect Christmas scene. I would have the perfect Advent—peaceful and prayerful, preparing. I would have the perfect Christmas, having cleaned and decorated early, so that we could all relax, and enjoy Christmas as it Ought to Be.
The first Monday of Advent I opened the mail to find a medical bill that was supposed to have been $125 was in fact more than $5000. My sister called to say that she had been laid off. Of the two burners on our stove that still worked, one had become increasingly temperamental. And then suddenly I found myself with a project that would take every waking moment of December, preparing for more necessary renovations, including packing up all of my belongings (again) to change rooms. It was chaos.
It was tempting to temper Christmas, to skip the presents again, maybe even the tree. But something in me refused to bow to the chaos. I was determined that we would have a “real” Christmas. So I bought the full size tree, at full price (not waiting until the last minute to get the more frugal Christmas Eve special as we did in years past). I bought a new stove, and took pictures as it gleamed perfectly—determined to keep it shiny and new.
There is no need to name names, or identify the culprit who decided to inaugurate the new stove with a dinner of ham and sweet potatoes. I don’t need to tell you who, exactly, pierced ten sweet potatoes and cooked them directly on the oven rack without a pan to catch the oozing juices.
But when I saw the veritable sea of black char covering the bottom of the new oven, my niece issued a strong warning for That Person. “You better leave when we do…Aunt Grace won’t say bad words in front of me, but she might if I’m not here anymore…!”
The next day was Christmas eve. We managed to get the lights up, and the tree decorated, and the presents placed, by early afternoon. It was cutting it a little close, but it was beautiful and we could actually sit down and enjoy it for a little while before Christmas Eve dinner.
“A little while” is relative. It was probably about five minutes, before we heard a small pop. It was probably a few seconds later, when someone said, for the second time in two days, “I smell smoke.” This time it was coming from the perfect Christmas tree.
Thankfully, we were using a surge protector, which could be unplugged from the wall. Thankfully, because the light plug had melted into the socket, rendering both lights and surge protector permanently unusable. Thankfully, we caught the whole thing just before the whole tree went up in flames.
That night, when I went to bed in an unfinished room, half-painted, with only my bed and lamp, and the window cracked open in spite of the freezing temperatures to mitigate the paint fumes, I didn’t cry. I laughed. Because of course it was the perfect Christmas.
Because Christmas is the antithesis of the perfect setting. It is about God coming down to meet us in the mess. I had written already about this, on many occasions. From a Holy Thursday (yes!) meditation a few years before:
And so I thought about that feeding trough full of hay. Not the sanitized one we see on Christmas cards and sing about in carols. But rather one that might be found in a real stable–with hay that is speckled with dirt and animal spittle, perhaps with tiny spiders crawling in it, heavy with the odor of other things that animals may do in a barn.
And I thought about how Mary took the First Born of Creation and placed him in that manger, that feeding trough, for all of us.
In my mind of course I wish to offer Him a more perfect room, one clean and spotless and welcoming. But there is no other room. There will not be on this side of eternity.
I can only welcome Him into the mess that is Me, or turn Him away.