“So, are you excited about Christmas?” Suddenly I was whisked away to a dimly lit room housing a single chair, hands tied behind my back and drenched with a beaming brightness. Locating my interrogator through the luminance, all I could make out was a festive pointy hat, sleigh earrings and a gleaming smile.
“So. ARE YOU excited about Christmas?” only a little louder this time.
This was the question asked of me last night as I stood in the checkout at Albertsons on 27th in downtown Billings. My inability to answer the inquest startled me. There’s a certain body language that accompanies not being able to answer a question. You know, pursed lips, a gentle cock of the head and elevated shoulders. It wasn’t until I let the groan I’d been carrying squeeze through my clinched teeth that she answered her own question, “I’m taking that as a no.” Unfortunately, that was how the conversation ended. Me and my Bryers ice cream escorted to the exit by a bouncer named Shame. I had failed the baby in a manger – again.
It’s a common question this time of year. I remember the first time the condition of my heart prevented me from answering it. The year was 1994. I was living in north central Montana in a small city named Havre. I was working at a church and carried the responsibilities of directing the choir. Choirs and Christmas seem like a match made in heaven. Cheery vibratos and sopranos bent on breaking glass come together to make something beautiful. But, this union takes effort and time. Someone’s got to tweak this and adjust that. More alto. Less tenor. Someone has to check the lyrics and prove that the announcing angel in the song The First Noel doesn’t have an “s” – so please stop making it plural. It all takes work: time and effort. Someone had to do it and that someone was me.
Mark Clatterbuck was a guy who ministered to the Native American population south of Havre on the Rocky Boy reservation. Mark was just a few years younger than me and I remember him being a bright and witty fellow. He’d come here from the east coast after connecting with some native students at an Indian Bible Camp in Hungry Horse hosted by Richard and Hope Stewart. That summer changed Mark’s life and he wanted to spend at least another year with his new friends. Mark and I were eating lunch one day catching up on ministry level stuff when he asked me the question.
Mark wasn’t the first person to ask me if I was excited about Christmas. But it was the first time that question ran headlong into the scales around my heart. In a surprising moment void of hesitation, I told Mark that I hated Christmas. His shock was immediate. I’ll never forget wanting to reach out and help Mark gather his jaw. It just dangled there like a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from a rearview mirror swaying to the tune of jingle bell rock. I’ll also never forget reading Mark’s Christmas Newsletter about his friend who hated Christmas. Blogs are the children of newsletters. And, Mark’s unnamed friend, the one who hated Christmas, was being tried for murdering the baby in a manger on the front page of Clatterbuck’s courtroom.
It’s not that I really hated the sacred event of Christmas, I just hated some of the things that came with it; making it all the things it was never supposed to be. While others were frolicking in july lake water, choking on boat fumes and choking down seared hotdogs, I was choosing a Christmas cantata. By the time Mark’s question rang my eardrums, it had been six months. Six months of Christmas and sheer saturation had skewed my perspective.
Why, eighteen years later, isn’t it any different? Why do I feel like answering “yes” to the question would be a lie of the most grievous sort? Why can’t I be excited for Christmas?
I’m troubled actually. Soon my family will gather on Christmas morning, which for us will be December 28th with the late arrival of my oldest son from Phoenix, to be reminded that Christmas isn’t about pine trees, garland and twinkly lights; not about church services, parking lots or gift cards. It’s about the greatest gift given to man through the life of a baby born to die. I just wish I could remember all of the simple beauty in the moment of inquiry.
So, are you excited about Christmas?
I am. I hope you are too.