It is the Feast of the Epiphany, and I’ve watched the sunrise—as I have almost every morning of this blessed season—beyond the sparkle and magic of my Christmas tree. I’ve seen the low-hung clouds turn lavender and then flush with gold, as if at some heavenly delight, and the old holly tree awaken, its branches spangled with the glory of dawn. It’s a beauty both familiar and astonishing, and the joy it bears is an old, old friend.
For twenty years I’ve stood at these old windows, steaming coffee in hand, marveling over the tender mercy of a December dayspring. For twenty years I’ve watched and waited and prayed in all that early morning twinkle and glow, yearning to make room for the One I love—the original Dayspring, the midwinter Rose, Immanuel. And then I’ve gotten up, poured another cup of coffee, and thrown myself, with varying degrees of delight, into a day’s worth of preparations for—or enjoyment of—Christmas.
So much of it has remained constant over the years—the same dog-eared recipes, the same beloved ornaments—now grown to quite a collection from newlywed days! The creche in its place upon the Empire chest in the den and the Advent wreath hung in the window. Years ago, one of my dearest friends worked as an editor for Southern Living, and they shot a Christmas spread here at our place. One of the things the stylist left behind was a lavish quantity of hand-dyed red silk ribbons, and those ribbons have become one of the treasures of our household. Every year I take them out of their tissue paper swaddling, iron them carefully, and tie them on the chandelier in the front hall in big, drooping bows. It is perhaps this act, more than any other, that signals to my house that Christmas has really returned.
Every year I’ve made gingerbread ornaments for the tree, because that alchemy of fir and spice is one of the sweetest, most memory-laden scents of the season for me. Every year I’ve crammed the freezer with cookies and treats, and raided my yard for clippings of cedar, holly, boxwood and ivy. Since our seventh Christmas, I’ve always put in a call to the wholesale florist for a big box of crimson roses, and for at least 15 years I’ve been perfecting my recipe for caramels, which I give to people I love very much. Each act has become precious to me, fraught with all the gathered tenderness of memory and time.
Every year has been different, of course. There have been seasons in which anguished longing has flowered—miraculously—with mirth and beauty; and times when nearly all the preparations were made through a veil of tears with a burning ache at the back of the throat. There was our first Christmas, wherein I cried a little bit because we didn’t have our own traditions yet, and our second Christmas, wherein I cried because we did, and they were already so sweet to me. On our third Christmas, we re-instituted the big Christmas Eve brunch with family and friends-like-family which had always been such a staple of Philip’s holidays; four years ago there was an empty place at the table, and this year there was another–yet we touched hands with an even more grateful and timeworn affection:
Ah, friends, dear friends, as years go on
and heads grow gray, how fast the friends
do go. Touch hands, touch hands,
with those that stay. Strong hands to weak,
old hands to young…Touch hands! Touch hands!
~William Henry Harrison Murray
And then there was the year—two years ago, to be precise—when we had none of it. No cookies and caramels, no Christmas Eve brunch. No happy bustle and clipping of holly and making of beds. No crimson roses—only a brave little Fraser fir crammed into the corner of a camper and an Advent wreath suspended from the cheap vinyl ceiling.
I haven’t written much about the challenges of that Christmas—for one because we were living in the midst of a genuine miracle of restoration, and neither Philip nor I could believe how swiftly and skillfully our contractor was repairing the post-fire ravages to our home. It felt a little indulgent to lament for a lost Christmas when every day brought us that much closer to our hearts’ desire. But we still had quite a ways to go, and we were tired, and it was December—all of which accumulated into an icy burden of longing and homesickness in my heart.
A few weeks ago, we set up a stout-hearted little fir tree in the space upstairs that’s come to be known as the Common Room—an erstwhile guest room which we totally reimagined into an open gathering place for house guests, with access to a spacious new bath, and stairs leading to a third floor attic bedroom. This room is directly above the kitchen, where the fire started, and so had seen some of the worst damage in the entire house. Even when we were framing it up, however, our vision for its new uses was gathering force and clarity, so that scarcely were the stairs roughed in that I stood in the little alcove beneath them and announced to my contractor, “Next year I’m going to have a Christmas tree right here!”
I could already see friends gathered before the yet-mantle-less fireplace; the soon-to-be-built windowseat; the family photographs on the walls and the Willow Bough paper enfolding the room with its incomparable atmosphere of snugness.
I didn’t get around to putting a tree there last year—we were still too much in a whirl, I think, from moving back in and getting our bearings once more. So it was that this year, when I opened the box of ornaments I’d made and collected for our little “Camp Marah” tree, I was greeted with a rush of memory so piercing it took my breath. Two years ago, I’d packed a very hard Christmas away in that box, and it wasn’t until that moment, I think, that I’d given it a good, clear-eyed backwards glance.
I remembered the Narnian magic of a rare December snowfall which blanketed all the construction debris with an illusion of calm and swirled in showers of diamonds among the pines the next morning. I remembered the neighbors inviting us to trudge over for dinner and a firelit glass of wine, afterwards sending us home to Camp Marah in their own coats and gloves, as all of ours were still in storage. I remembered coming back to a collapsed awning—a tangle of canvas and metal, bistro lights and mosquito netting, which we had to clamber over for days until the snow melted.
I remembered the wild relief of a New Year, ushered in with the ringing of the old school bell off the back porch—only to step inside the camper and find that all the pipes had frozen while we were making merry outside by the campfire.
“I think the New Year is laughing at us,” I told Philip dismally.
Most poignantly of all, I remember crying my eyes out, parked in the empty lot of a Jiffy Lube one Sunday afternoon in mid-December, because I simply could not bear the sadness of my home so empty and desolate at Christmastime. Looking back, it was probably a healthy cry, a needful cry, sounding a lament, not only for our present circumstances, but for all the grief of the past several years piled up together. As many tears as I’ve shed over the loss of my dad, I don’t think I’ve ever wept for him with such soul-rattling sorrow. I cried for dreams unrealized, and children unborn, and for the awful isolation of grief itself.
I felt like a hollowed-out shell of Lanier, dark and cheerless as my house itself. Some emotions, and the seasons in life they’re associated with, are so overwhelming they seem permanent. Grief, it appeared, had taken up residence in my soul, to the point that both the memory and the hope of a merry Christmas felt like a mockery. I was clinging for life to the flotsam of a wrecked ship; everything safe and familiar had been thoroughly, if temporarily, swept away. I couldn’t see it at the time, of course, but the gloom-cloaked gift of that Christmas was the resounding assurance of just how desperately I need a Savior—for the ‘wreckage’ towards which I’d reached with such blind anguish was Christ himself. God with me, not only in the overarching mercies of a life-saving plan, but in the misery and doubt of a storm-tossed sea.
God with us, in the hollowed-out places—both physical and metaphysical—which grief has hewn in our lives.
It was a spartan Christmas, which was entirely appropriate, and I was too weary to wish it otherwise. But of all the trappings and traditions I’m used to, it was my crimson roses I missed the most. For years now, roses at Christmastime have been a personal symbol and statement of faith: an affirmation of the character of a God who is always working to transform the wilderness places of our lives with beauty and redemption—and never in the way we expect.
But even as I was seeing the bones of physical beauty emerge from the ashes of my house that Christmas this image was hard for me to hold onto. In all honesty, I was muddling through, flinching away from anything that might sharpen the contrast between what was and what had once been. Early in the season I’d hung a brave, beribboned wreath on the front door, only to find it tossed on a pile of debris in the dining room the next day. This certainly wasn’t the year for roses.
One afternoon, very close to Christmas, I came home to a quiet construction zone. The contractors had cleared out uncharacteristically early, and Philip wasn’t home yet, so I unloaded the groceries, fed the animals, and did the barn chores before going up to the house to see what progress had been made in my absence. It had been a hard and exhausting day, in a hard and exhausting week, and as I wandered through the dark, empty rooms, my dog Bonnie at my heels, the whole place felt haunted with the memory of happier times.
I saw it as soon as I stepped into the front hall: a long box perched on a stack of lumber. And with sudden, searing instinct, I knew what it was, and I knew who it was from. Hastening back to the camper with Bonnie, I tore open the box, and then I sat there on the floor, weeping over an armful of long-stemmed crimson roses. The glorious impracticality; the deathless, blood-red symbolism.
Her note said that she’d been praying for weeks about what to send me for Christmas, and that there were so many references to roses in their Advent Lessons and Carols service the weekend before that the Lord had just dropped the idea into her head.
I called her, still crying, and said—without the least exaggeration—that it was one of the most beautiful things that anyone had ever done for me, and that she had made my Christmas. Her sensitivity to God’s prompting had infused hope and courage into my exhausted heart, and I will never forget it.
Here, too, those roses proclaimed, defiant against all appearances and losses and seemings, here, too, is beauty, and grace, and redemption.
Here, in this shell of a house; in this shell of a heart. In this cramped little camper with its leaky roof and miniscule hot water heater—right here is where light invades our darkness and we glimpse, through a glass darkly, the loving purposes of God. The wilderness is not exchanged or left behind—it is transformed into a garden of impossible beauty.
Sitting in the tree-lit warmth of my Common Room the other night, I looked back at that memory of myself, crying on the floor of a camper over a box of roses, and I realized—more lucidly than ever before—that her sorrow was inseparable from my present joy. My friend Doug McKelvey in his wonderful book Every Moment Holy includes a liturgy for “An Inconsolable Homesickness”—an ultimate longing of which Philip and I had so poignant an image in our year-long exile from home—and in it he voices the assurance that “we are not just being homesick; we are letting sorrow carve the spaces in our souls that joy will one day fill.” This Christmas, Christmas in the year of our Lord 2019 and the 20th I’ve observed here at our little farm, I have tasted the truth of that promise in countless ways. Tasted, touched, smelled, heard and seen!
I have felt the affection of Christ rippling through these rooms like a current of unheard laughter. I have seen the faces of people I love, tender in the glow of candles and good wine, gathered at tables gratefully set. I have known the joy of firelight dancing wholesomely, healingly, on paneled walls and polished floors, and the tear-bringing beauty of Christmas lights twinkling back from wavy glass windows. I have cooked, cleaned, wrapped, decorated, and savored, held in the firm knowledge of how good it all is, and how good is our God at the heart of it all.
The butter and spice of a gingerbread caramel, the sweet, clean scent of cedar, the waxen gleam of English holly and the aroma of roast goose (a first for me!)—all have borne grace and gladness to my heart this year. And while our Christmas-keeping has not been untouched by shadow and the memory of loss, we have remembered our absent ones with a few honest tears and have spoken of them with joy.
A truly happy Christmas—such a simple expectation, and such an astonishing gift when placed in our hands. After everyone had gone to bed on Twelfth Night, I walked slowly through the rooms, blowing out candles, sweeping up crumbs, setting things to rights. Rejoicing quietly over a Christmas well-kept, and feeling, as I always do on such occasions, the ancient, unseen, thrumming happiness of my home to have held such mirth within its walls.
Glad and golden hours, indeed!
Today I will dismantle all the sparkle and magic, burning bits of greenery in the kitchen hearth and packing ornaments away in reams of tissue paper for next year. Down will come the boxwood wreaths, the cedar and fir, the holly and the beloved red ribbons. It is not a task I love, and, I confess, I’ll do it with a heavy heart.
But not without keeping and pondering the memory of a Christmas that’s been everything my heart means by ‘merry’.
I wish you joy in the New Year, friends. And, as good old Charles Dickens would have it:
Many Merry Christmases, friendships, great accumulation of cheerful recollections, affection on earth, and Heaven at last for all of us!