Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”.
This week has found me in the eye of the storm, so to speak. I’ve just returned from my fifth trip away from home in the last seven months (four of them on the other side of the country), I’m in the middle of working on newly-elected Metropolitan Jonah’s enthronement vestments (which is a great honor and blessing, even though I find myself praying for galloon to arrive from Greece on an almost hourly basis), and wouldn’t you know, it’s two weeks to Christmas, a fact I just discovered today.
Now, I’m definitely in the Happy Homemaker’s Club, a club whose membership these days can seem a dirty secret (“What, you’re home baking cookies when you could be out saving the world?!”) and I love the time of preparation leading up to Christmas. I happily send Christmas cards, decorate my house, and begin planning gifts ‘round about October. I knit and sew and cook for the people I love and I find great satisfaction in doing so. Fact is, I secretly enjoy the preparation almost more than Christmas Day itself. This was brought home to me recently, when we were giving our daughters a small surprise in the evening and told them so at lunchtime. My oldest daughter sat contentedly, enjoying the not-knowing quality of the surprise, while my youngest demanded to know the surprise right away. “Why”, we asked, “don’t you want it to be a surprise?”, “No”, she answered emphatically, “I want to be able to look forward to it!” Yep, I thought, me, too!
I find that a great deal of my enjoyment of any event is looking forward to it and better yet, preparing for it. If I’m traveling, I have my packing list ready at least 2 weeks before I leave and my suitcase out the week before. If I’m going to a friend’s house for dinner, I want to look forward to it all week, not be invited the same afternoon. I’m not at all spontaneous, truth be told, and all in all, it’s a good fit as an Orthodox Christian, since we get plenty of lead time before just about anything happens—40 days before Christmas, 40 days before Lent, two weeks before Dormition—we are seriously about preparation.
Preparation is good for us because in a large part it is “metanoia” or turning towards. Preparation is an act of repentance. When we prepare for Lent, we are turning from our outward, passion-driven life, towards our interior, prayer-filled life. When we prepare for Christmas, we are turning from the outward, consumer-obsessed holiday also called Christmas, towards the quiet and humble cave, awaiting our Saviour’s man-loving Incarnation. These are big events and we need time. You’ve heard the phrase “turn on a dime”? Well, you can’t spiritually “turn on a dime”—turning and adjusting our nous takes time, and the Church recognizes this by giving us long periods of preparation before our greatest feastdays.
For many of us, this kind of spiritual preparation also has a physical manifestation. During Holy Week, we might make meat- and dairy-laden dishes in anticipation of the feast. Before Christmas, we might decorate our churches with trees and greenery to adorn the physical space in which we come to worship Christ. My sister-in-law is amazingly talented with flowers and greenery and she always drapes our church’s entire iconstasis in fresh evergreen garland the Sunday before Christmas. As soon as I see the garland, I know Christmas is near. These actions become a physical outpouring of our spiritual growth and are a good thing. And, over time, we come to associate these physical rituals with the feast and no feast seems complete without our little preparations. My godmother, who grew up in Lebanon, recounts coming home from Lenten services and her Mother giving all of the children a sweet with the words, “Lent is sweet”. Again, this was a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality—Lent is sweet. We know in our hearts that these physical markings of our spiritual lives are not absolutely necessary, but they deepen and enrich our spiritual experience and our preparations seem somewhat lessened without them.
As an aside, this is what I think is at the heart of the what I call “the consumerist-holiday also known as Christmas”. As human beings created in the image and likeness of God, our hearts are called to God and His love and mercy and we want desperately to prepare for Him. We bake, we shop, we decorate, we go, go, go—all in the name of preparing for one day. This is why we cannot judge our brother when it comes to Christmas. We have to recognize that each of those people standing in the customer service line at Macy’s is trying to prepare for the King of All. Their hearts are drawn toward repentance and they are doing the physical preparations. We have a natural inclination towards fasting and feasting, towards a rhythm to our days rather than a life of monotony, and so Christmas is tantalizing in its whirlwind of little rituals and the absorption of our lives in such preparations. We find ourselves “caught up” in Christmas and in the deepest sense, so it should be—we should be caught up in the Incarnation of Christ. But, in all the hullaballoo and traffic and busyness, it’s easy to get lost in the external and never move deeper into our hearts, our very nous, where Christ is coming Incarnate. Imagine going through all the fasting and sheer effort of Lent and then getting to Pascha and finding there’s no feast—you just continue fasting—how soul-depleting and wearying this would be. This is how Christmas is for so many people and we need to give an extra measure of mercy and love to our fellow man in these times.
But what do you do when a season comes into your life when you cannot make the same physical preparation as you have in the past? These times come to all of us—we may have a new baby in the house and can barely manage to make breakfast, much less Christmas cookies. We may be in a period of transition—newly married, or settling into a new city, or children leaving the nest. We may be getting older, possibly facing sickness. Whatever the reason, our little preparations must fall by the wayside.
I’ve found this especially true this Christmas Fast, since I’m up to my eyeballs in work, which is a great blessing, but also a great winnower. My life choices lately have been going something like this: Cut out an omophorion or wrap my shrubs in twinkle lights? Well, I’ll definitely choose the omophorion. But, I feel a little wistful about the twinkle lights. Which has led me to think deeply upon twinkle lights and wrapping paper and my expectations of the physical manifestations of preparing for Christmas in general. I feel a bit of a Scrooge this Christmas, since I’ve had to winnow down my little rituals to the bare minimum. I have gifts tucked away for my children and husband, but barely anyone else; I have a tree, but my daughters decorated it; and I’m going to have to whittle down my baking list to just one or two items in order to have any sweets done by Christmas Day and not Theophany.
For twenty years of married life, preparing for Christmas has formed the backdrop of every November and December (and usually most of October, too!) and here I am with nary a wrapped gift in sight. But instead of picturing to myself the sight of my loved ones opening their very special hand-made gifts, I find myself imagining myself standing in church with my daughters during the Divine Liturgy on Christmas Day, basking in the sweetness of a festal Liturgy. A few years ago, my husband began serving Divine Liturgy on Christmas Day and it was a hotly-debated topic in our house because while I knew in my heart of hearts that Liturgy on Christmas Day was completely right, it went against a life-long American expectation of waking up Christmas morning to gifts and hot chocolate. There was a little part of me that initially responded with, “Oh boy, more church?!” But since we began this custom in our parish, I am finding this the most wonderful way to begin Christmas. Being the second-most important day of the year after Great and Holy Pascha, it seems profoundly appropriate to begin the day with Liturgy. There’s a peacefulness in this Liturgy, attended not by a huge and bustling throng, but by a small group of “regulars”—we’re the Saturday night Vespers crowd for the most part and we’re accustomed to praying with one another on a regular basis. And, last year, our immediate family, which in the past has always exchanged gifts from everyone to everyone (no gift exchange or name pulled out of a hat for this family, mind you, but a positive flurry of gifts back and forth) to all of the adults giving to one charity together on each other’s behalf, which turned out to be really fun when we sat around on Christmas Day choosing animals and bicycles to send to a third world nation—“Let’s get two sheep!” “No, let’s get more chickens” “Can we pick the color of the bicycle?”. No more trying to find that “just right” gift for my wonderful father-in-law—which was becoming harder and harder after the year I gave him the marshmallow shooter. All of these have been little changes in how our family prepares for Christmas and all of them moving towards a simpler, more spiritually-focused day.
This winnowing of my Christmas preparations has turned out to be a great blessing, since it has allowed me to be a little less wrapped up in the externals (no pun intended!) and a little more taken up with my interior preparations for the feast. Fasting doesn’t really take any time (after all, eating less takes less time) and almsgiving is a little easier when my gift list is shorter. My extra load of work is an opportunity for intensified prayer if I choose to make it so. And, by lessening the amount of candy and twinkle lights in my life, I find I have more mental space to focus on Christ’s Incarnation and getting my heart and nous, prepared and “turned towards” Christmas. In a way, it feels as if everything I knew about Christmas has been taken away so that I can truly see what Christmas is about.
The other evening, I had worked a long day and was planning on working into the night, when my husband came into the workshop and said, “Hey, we’re going to go take a quick walk to see the Christmas lights—want to come?” Usually, I never stop work on a long day until I’m officially “done”, but my new attitude to Christmas made me want to pause, if even for a brief little walk. So what if I was 20 minutes behind—I knew I wouldn’t regret the time spent with my family. So I put on my walking shoes and headed out with my family and the dog.
One of the things that should have been advertised on the real estate flyer of our new home was “Christmas Light Extravaganza”. This neighborhood is serious about Christmas lights and lots of them—energy crisis, what energy crisis?— you can see the glow of the lights from the freeway. It’s a far cry from our old, urban-hip neighborhood where our two demure strands of lights on the rhododendrons looked positively riotous. It’s also a very orderly and organized suburban neighborhood, so almost every house has those little clips that hook the lights to the gutter in an orderly row and the really done-up houses have the little light stands that outline the entire yard with lights. There are the basic white lights and the multi-colored vintage-looking lights and then the people who had lots of time on their hands and have the one red, one white, one green strands of lights. There’s the sweet elderly couple a few houses away who began putting up lights almost 4 weeks ago and it seems that every day or so another strand goes up—I keep wondering if they’re going to take them down that way and if I’ll be looking at Christmas lights come Clean Monday. There’s the house with the chic, perfectly-installed white lights outlining the roof line with the light-up Martini glass on the roof which reads “Happy Holidays”. Then there’s our favorite house, one that in the day-time has a rock path that looks like a creek bed, but at night the path is covered with little blue twinkle lights to look like water and two of those twinkle-light deer stand at the “water” drinking—very creative. All in all, it’s like free entertainment just walking through our neighborhood.
So there we were, admiring all the lights when my husband spontaneously broke out in song (he does this occasionally as he is far better at spontaneity and singing than I am), beginning with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and working through what seemed like every Christmas carol known to man. Our girls chimed right in since singing at the tops of their lungs while walking through the neighborhood does not seem in any way abnormal to them and I thought to myself with contentment, “This is Christmas”. I didn’t have a single gift wrapped or cookie baked, but I was looking at the wonder and beauty of Christmas in my family’s joyful expectancy and being blessed by other people’s physical manifestations of the spiritual reality of our loving and merciful God becoming Incarnate for our sakes. Who knew twinkle lights could be so sacred? I was most definitely in the eye of the storm with all the busyness that this particular season of life has brought me whirling about me, but standing in the calm and peaceful center, waiting for the birth of Christ.
As we approach the great and glorious Incarnation of Christ, may our hearts be turning towards the beautiful and mysterious cave and the Wonder beheld there. May our merciful God bless all of you richly whatever preparations you have made.