By Katie Funk Wiebe
As I held my new grandson in my arms, his dark eyes looked boldly into mine, seeing and yet not seeing. The year was 1979, the year of the Iranian crisis. Our Christmas celebration would be different this year because of this tiny newcomer. His life story had begun, we added a new chapter to ours.
People often relate their “best Christmas” or “most disappointing Christmas” stories as part of a festivity. Digging through the store of Christmas memories can be valuable, even when a person is celebrating alone, for through the backward journey we become familiar once again with the plot of our life story, the main characters, the conflict, and at which points in the action we allowed God’s grace to become part of the resolution. And, especially, make it part of the continuing pattern of life. Often at Christmas the year’s events come into full focus. Some memories gleam with a splendor that outmatches the starry heavens. One year was highlighted by joy, love, and laughter. Other seasons were scarred by hurt, failure and grief. Who hasn’t completed the required round of activities not feeling particularly spiritual, or even happy or sad? Christmas came and went like any other day, and left no mark. Its recall draws a blank on memory’s screen. What did happen that year?
What happened at Christmas isn’t as important as recalling how we dealt with the Christevent itself, year after year, and seeing the pattern of our attitudes toward it. Christmas began for me, during the Depression years, as it did for many children at the time, with high expectations of presents from impoverished parents. Gifts, small or large, were tangible symbols of love, and we children relished the season because it brought the excitement of surprises and rare treats of candy, an orange, and nuts.
One year I ruined our simple family celebration because the doll beside my plate on Christmas morning wasn’t as pretty as the one beside my sister’s plate. I fumed and fretted. After the holidays, my doll with its cotton body and hard composition head with a hole through which to tie a ribbon, was returned to the mail order firm for one with a china head, hair, and eyes that opened and closed. I got what I demanded, as well as the memory of a Christmas I wish I could forget.
After we teenagers started earning our own money, Christmas included the exquisite agony of buying gifts for others—as big as our small budgets could afford—but always with the hope they would look more expensive than they were. We sent out cards and counted the ones we received in return.
We approached the season with energy and enthusiasm, unencumbered by failures and disappointments. The season included rounds of programs, parties, singing of “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” and listening to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” on the radio—activity of all kinds.
And then, gradually, over the years, Christmas became a time to draw close to persons rather than activities and things. Family members had moved or died. Gifts took second place. Christ’s love needed person-love to make it complete. One year, early in our marriage, when my student-husband and I were living in a tiny, one-room apartment with two small children, we faced one of our first away-from-home Christmases. The outlook looked as bleak as a blustery winter day in Winnipeg. Another young family, also restricted to the area, and we joined forces. My parents had sent a large turkey, which we roasted in the college cafeteria oven. We set up tables in the dormitory hall. Afterwards, the children ran shrieking through empty halls with abandon while we adults lingered over coffee and told ourselves we would always remember this shared money-less Christmas.
Over the years, the plot of one’s life story often moves in directions one never expects. I have found that Christmas is possible without all family members, but not without people. Christmas is possible without gifts, although a symbol of love brings joy. As I grow older, I understand Christmas is also possible without travel, programs, and banquets, but not without the hope there will be courage to continue loving. I agree with Madeleine L’Engel in The Irrational Season that the “Nativity is a time to take courage.” What good did the infinite God coming in the form of a finite child do? she asks. Human beings are still evil.
I look about me this Christmas 2010. We still do not have peace on earth of which the angels sang that first Christmas day. There are still wars and rumors of wars. People continue to murder and abuse to satisfy their own desires. Though the Bible is a best-seller, pornography and other trash has a strong following. Though interest in spirituality is increasing, people search endlessly for solutions to stress and change. Did Christ’s coming change anything? God came to earth as a human being to share our living and our dying, writes L’Engel.
That is an irrational act. The sovereign God in the form of a helpless baby doesn’t make sense in human terms. The price of God’s love was the pain of being human.
Christ came to share the life of this newborn nestled in my arms, I told myself, decades ago, as he looked about with the wondering eyes of a newborn. Christ came to share my life—the pain and joy of being human. He knows about it because he was Emmanuel—God with us. Christmas 2010 is the time to move ahead with courage because God knows us in our humanity. Because of Christ’s death, we can know him in his divinity. The message for this year is still Emmanuel—God with us because God loved us. Take courage to hold others in love—and be held.
Katie Funk Wiebe is my mother and this was her Christmas letter to us this year.
I wish many blessings to all my readers this holiday season! May you have courage and emotional resilience for the year ahead.