“You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14)
When I was growing up in the 1950’s, I watched for three faithful heralds of Christmas: the Sears Christmas catalog, an Advent calendar, and sugar cutout cookies. The Sears Christmas catalog, colloquially known as the Christmas Wish Book, was the first to arrive in early November. I spent hours pouring through its pages and dreaming about Fort Apache toys, Davy Crocket hats, Erector sets, Lionel trains, transistor radios, and festively displayed chemistry sets. In my mind I can still smell the ink and feel the tissue-like texture of the oft-turned pages. The Advent calendar was the second to arrive on the first of December. It was a cardboard affair with small windows numbered from one to twenty-five. Each morning another day in the countdown to Christmas was marked, as a new window was peeled opened revealing the picture of a toy or winter scene. Sugar cutout cookies, like the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, were more mercurial, arriving in their own time – in other words, whenever my mother had time to bake them. Normally they appeared a week or so before Christmas Day. Shaped like camels, angels, and stars, these were plain sugar cookies with no frosting or decorations, yet they were most welcome guests. Like apparitions they soon disappeared.
You might wonder why I have not mentioned a Christmas tree as being a herald of Christmas? The reason is that in our house the tree was never put up early, indeed, sometimes as late as Christmas Eve itself. And so, when I was a child, the Christmas tree was mostly a lagging indicator of Christmas. Why we waited until the end of Advent may seem inexplicable to some. But my father had his reasons, which were rooted in basic economics, as opposed to any deep theological objection or concern over “rushing” the season, as it were. For, you see, my father was a child of the Great Depression, which had indelibly imprinted frugality upon his soul. He was also a natural negotiator and reckoned that if he waited until Christmas Eve to buy a tree that he would get an undoubted bargain. As a philosophical matter, I questioned the strategy some years later when the thought occurred to me that the seller surely recognized a buyer who had his own pressure to come home with a tree. Nonetheless, many a Christmas Eve found my Dad shopping the lots for a last minute sale.
Even though the tree arrived late in the season, its importance was not diminished. It was to squeals of delight that the tree, always a balsam fir, was carried into the house and secured in its stand. Many hands made short work of trimming it – first with lights, then with ornaments, and finally with strands of aluminum tinsel. The ornaments were nothing special – an eclectic assortment of family keepsakes, trinkets crafted at school, and plain dime store balls. But they were our ornaments and we each had several favorites that we gently hung on the tree after first making a careful reckoning of the best location. Lovely as the ornaments were, for me the magic was forever in the lights. Red and green and white and blue, strings of lights girdling the tree washed it with a spectrum of color. A special few bulbs were shaped like candles and had a liquid core that bubbled when heated by their socket. When night fell and the tree lights turned on, everything was transformed. The tree positively glowed, and the room took on a new quality in the soft illumination from so many points of light.
As the years have passed, the heralds of Christmas have changed. When Pat and I married we blended what was best from our families of origin, and gradually new traditions emerged. These continued to evolve as our children grew, and we adapted to different seasons of life. These days I no longer pour over a Sears Wish Book, indeed Sears itself has been through bankruptcy. Advent calendars disappeared with the passing of childhood and only make a brief appearance now as gifts to our grandchildren. And while Christmas cookies are still a big deal, expanding waistlines mean that we no longer devour them as once we did in our youth. The Christmas tree, however, remains an essential part of our Christmas celebration. It literally stands alone as a tradition that has transcended the passage of time. No longer a last minute purchase, we now secure a tree shortly after Thanksgiving, decorate it, and enjoy its comforting presence in our living room until the New Year.
The tree has, for me, never lost its luster. The magic I felt as a child is still there when the tree lights are turned on against the darkness of night. Each little bulb casting a soft light that reflects off of so many shiny ornaments and merges with the light of myriad others to gently illuminate the room. This is a time when many of us study the lights and reflect upon the season.
There are those who see the heavenly stars when they look at Christmas tree lights. Perhaps the day in creation when, “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” (Genesis 1:14-15) Others are reminded of the star of Bethlehem heralding the coming of our Savior, and of the Magi who asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2) These are all wonderful points of reflection to fill the soul of an evening during Advent.
But, for me, it isn’t so much the stars of the heavens that I see in Christmas tree lights. Nor is it even the light most central to the Christmas story, namely that of Christ, whose “life was the light of all mankind.” (John 1:4) Rather, in pondering Christmas lights I see the faces of many people I know, authentic followers of Jesus, who have, “the light of life.” (John 8:12). These are the faces of friends and family who are incarnating the spirit of Christ by selflessly serving others. The ones who have taken Jesus’ words to heart, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
There are so many people who come to mind. Here is one sacrificially loving a spouse. Here is one honoring a parent. Here is one patiently listening to a child. Here is one advocating for immigrants. Here is one giving food to the needy. Here is one visiting shut-ins. Here is one providing medical care for addicts. Here is one praying for the sick. Here is one bringing the good news to a far corner of the world. Here is one encouraging the anxious. These and so many others who offer hope where there is despair, healing where there is pain, and indeed light where there is darkness.
When the Christmas tree is illuminated after sundown, the darkness of the room does not vanquish the light of the tree. Just the opposite – the lights of the tree overcome the darkness as hundreds of tiny little bulbs bravely stand against the stygian gloom and cheerfully and indiscriminately radiate their light onto everything in their path. And so it is with true believers who shine the light of Christ into a dark world. May it be so with you.