I was trying to figure out what else to possibly say, as I sit and write on Christmas Eve. Much has been said in the last few weeks about the bittersweet authenticity of Christmas and the need to sing more carols earlier. Perhaps the closing thought for this season (and for the year, as I will be gone until the 12th), is the realization that you can’t force Christmas—it just comes, and sometimes it doesn’t look the way it was supposed to look.
We all have memories as children anxiously awaiting Christmas morn. I don’t think I am the only one that ended up trying to stay up all night as a child to catch Santa in the act. No matter how hard you tried, it was going to happen when it was going to happen—an especially pertinent message now that I am the one with a small child who will no doubt be waking me far too early tomorrow morning.
Sometimes forcing Christmas takes the form of desperately holding on to traditions of the past that we can’t make work any longer. Perhaps it was the way Christmas dinner was cooked, or how we opened presents, or what decorations should be hung, whatever the case, there comes a point at which we can’t force those Christmas realities either. Dinners change as the baton is passed from cook to cook. Turkeys get burned. Traditions change depending on which people are with us. Decorations fade, and so do the memories about why that particular bauble was important.
All this is to say, we often set ourselves up for heartache and loss when we try to force Christmas to be whatever it once was. Just think of the Israelites and their expectations of what the coming of a Messiah was supposed to look like—you couldn’t force that either, Baby Jesus just comes—and not with pomp and circumstance, but the lowliness of a manager.
There is the story of a golf course in India that was built in British colonial times. It was a beautiful course, but there was one major problem—the monkeys! The monkeys would wander on to the course and play with the golf balls. At first the course tried to trap the monkeys and remove them. But no matter how many they caught, there were always more monkeys to steal balls. Then the course tried to built a giant fence—you can guess what happened there since monkeys are natural climbers. They tried to tempt them away with fruit, but once the monkeys had their fill, they went back to playing with the golf balls. Eventually the course was forced to adopt a new rule—you play the ball from wherever the monkey drops it! I suppose that it makes for a bit more interesting game when you never know whether the monkeys will look upon you with favor or not!
The point is this: sometimes we have to play Christmas (and other things in our lives) as they lie. We can try all we want to control the monkeys, and the changes around us, but eventually, the monkeys win—things change!
This is a reality that pastor’s families learn early and often. Christmas is almost always a travel day for us. We have had to learn to play Christmas as it lies (wherever the monkey drops it in a given year). At first this came as a bit of a challenge, but now—it is fantastic. Yesterday, we did Christmas with my parents. Grace got to wake up and excitedly open presents then, she will get to do so tomorrow before we pack into the car on the way to San Diego, and she will get to do it again the first morning at Nana’s house. Three mornings of exuberant childish glee! It is pretty wonderful, but not at all like the traditions Tiff and I had as children.
Traditions are wonderful, but be ready for monkeys to get in the works, and when they do, play the ball as it lies. You never know what strange new wonderful tradition may develop in place of the old ones. I am pretty sure that Joseph and Mary, the shepherds and the wise men weren’t expecting what came their way that first Christmas, but I am pretty sure they are all thankful that they just rolled with it—it turned out pretty good for all of us! We can’t force Christmas, but we can trust that God is somewhere in the process no matter how strangely our story may develop.