It was the early 1990s in Azusa, California, where I was in college. It was December, it was finals week, and, needing to blow off stress, we went Christmas caroling.
We hopped into a friend’s truck and drove to a neighborhood of tract homes and perfectly manicured lawns where we serenaded the unsuspecting residents with our favorite carols. We were young, we were enthusiastic, and we were all music majors. We sang like angels.
Still, something felt off. Despite the fun and the spontaneity and the joy we shared it still didn’t feel right to me. It took a while, but I finally figured out why: we were Christmas caroling in shorts and T-shirts. We sang songs about snowmen and horse-drawn sleighs, but we were in Southern California where it was 75 degrees and sunny. Green lawns shaded by palm trees were our musical stages. A cold glass of water was more welcome than a mug of hot cocoa. It just didn't fit.
All my Christmas experience to that point had been at home in the Pacific Northwest and, as the song goes, Christmas here is a gift God wrapped in green. Cold weather, snow in the mountains, and fog-shrouded evergreen trees are the backdrop of our holiday season. Sweaters and parkas and boots are the costumes of caroling. We don’t just sing about frosted windowpanes and frost-bitten noses; they are our winter reality. Christmas caroling in shorts in summer weather doesn’t compute.
That spontaneous holiday excursion helped me realize that not everybody experiences Christmas the way I do. My own family traditions are simply that: our traditions that aren’t necessarily enjoyed by others. Some have real trees and some have artificial ones. Some enjoy Bing Crosby and others prefer Mariah Carey. Some host fancy dinner parties, some spend a quiet day alone, and I’ve even heard that some go out to the movies on Christmas Day. Some don’t even celebrate Christmas.
Over time I have realized, however, that almost everybody, whatever their traditions, is doing their best to find joy, to celebrate goodness, to bring meaning into their harried lives. These traditions that have so much meaning to me might be foreign to others, but I have witnessed how other families’ cherished traditions are important to them. We are all trying hard to create meaningful moments that build us up across our lives.
When Christians gather to celebrate the origin of this holy day, we remember the glorious pronouncement of angels to lonely shepherds on a hillside outside of Bethlehem, a promise of “good news of great joy for all people.” After all we have endured over the last decade, it seems to me that we could use some joy.
Unfortunately, one of the newer traditions in our country is the annual argument over the supposed War on Christmas. Arguments about how and what people celebrate and how they greet each other drain the joy out of what should be a season of happiness and light. If there truly is a war on Christmas, I suspect it is the grumpiness and bah-humbug-ness that often marks our discourse, and judging others who we suspect of celebrating “incorrectly.” Perhaps we would be wise to take comfort whenever we see people doing the things that bring joy to their lives.
This is, after all, the great promise of the Christ-mass; that divine love has entered the human condition to restore life and peace and love and joy. I believe that, if something is infused with joy, then it must carry that divine spark, and that is a very good thing. If it brings true joy, it must be of God.
As for me, I’m going to put on Handel’s Messiah and enjoy it while sipping my cocoa beside our decorated tree, and, should I go caroling, I’ll be wearing my warm sweater and boots. I hope to see many of you out and about reveling in your own ways.
On behalf of the churches on the Key Peninsula, I wish you all joy in this season, whatever your traditions and however you choose to celebrate, if you do. May the carols of angels pronouncing good news fill your heart with gladness.
Award-winning columnist Dan Whitmarsh is pastor at Lakebay Community Church.
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