Growing up as the son of a Lutheran pastor meant that our family was integrally involved in the Christmas season. There was planning and orchestration in preparation for the celebration. All of us played a part, while my father’s days were spent mostly away from home for the week preceding.
Being a part of the team that made it all work carried a sense of pride, in part because it was a church organisation, in part the theatrics themselves were not unlike a stage production.
When I was but 3 or 4 years of age my father built a wood and cardboard extension on the back of my tricycle. I rode this through the makeshift isles of folding chairs in Springfield, South Dakota, where my parents managed a Christian dormitory. I first distributed then collected the hymnals each Sunday morning.
More than a dozen years later, at Faith Lutheran in Phoenix, Arizona, I ran the lights, making certain they were dimmed at the right time for the candle light service. The pipe organ was one of the finest in Arizona, the fruition of my father’s effort to have it shipped, rebuilt, and installed. Often, I wished the Christmas service was without accompanying vocals, for the pipe organ alone was enough to invoke the desired emotion.
Christmas Eve was a busy time for us, but most of all for my father. He was at the church all day, preparing for the service while my mother, brother and I prepared food for dinner. Our tradition for this occasion evolved to include manicotti, a zesty, frozen fruit salad, spiced green beans, and a light desert. The aroma of apple cider spiced with cinnamon sticks, cloves, and an orange slice permeated the entire house.
We joined my father at church for the first service, then came home and waited for his later arrival to eat dinner. Back to church for the second, midnight service. Finally, home for opening gifts into the early morning hours. 1:30 or 2:00 A.M., the only time I recall my parents staying up that long. Last night, I received a WhatsApp message from my mother at 12:30 am, her time. The tradition continues.
Even when one or more of us slept in the living room, as kids near our gifts or as visiting adults on the sofa, somehow, Santa managed to sneak into the living room and fill the stockings which hung from the 1800s pump organ.
With Thanks Giving and Christmas both, we always sat with guests, relatives, church members, or friends of friends who didn’t have a place to call home that year.
We often discussed the street population in Phoenix, and how we could assist those without a home. One year I served food at the shelter in down town Phoenix; years later in Denver Colorado. Each year I would suggest that we invite one or two of the homeless, total strangers easily found on a street corner our home. Each year the expressed concern was for the safety of our family, and of course, the potential drama.
As my father spent the better part of his career serving the homeless population (as all inner city pastors do), it was not for lack of desire nor effort, rather, our Christmas celebration was a time for family.
We did our best to keep it simple, quiet, and familiar. Some of my most fond memories are of those Christmas eves, both as a child and adult.
Last night, Christmas Eve, I hosted a dinner for nine friends here in Muizenberg, South Africa. It was a spontaneous gathering, and an eclectic mix of people.
Two from the States, one from Ethiopia, one from the African country of Benin, and five from South Africa. We gathered with only two days notice, quickly organising a menu which in the end was more food than planned and all quite tasty.
I baked three home-made pizzas, an apple crumble, and a dozen cinnamon rolls from the left-over pizza dough. Zoe helped prepare the pizza sauce, Zama the fruit salad. Gilad and Fran brought a chick pea salad and Sam, summer greens.
Four of us are student researchers, one a tutor, three working professionals, and two without a home, living on the mountain, just above Boyes drive. Combined, we speak at least ten languages with one individual fluent in five. The diversity of backgrounds generated a wonderful unfolding of stories.
As I had desired many times as a child, I invited relative strangers to my home. Just twenty four hours prior a fight had broken out between two car park attendants, one having taken the job of the other. I broke up the fight, physically carrying Eurica away from the man she was hitting.
No, that drama did not find its way into my home, nor our unique dinner.
We all told stories. Stories of our childhood, stories of where and how we grew up. Surely, there were difference from Chicago to Nebraska to Ethiopia and Benin. Each was unique, rich in the telling. But it was when Eurica spoke that we the room grew totally silent.
She grew up in a township of South Africa. She lived in constant fear of being attacked, of being raped. Her childhood was spent with the gangs, shooting guns as a past time. She said, “We didn’t know any better. We’d go out shooting at people. We didn’t expect to live long. There was no future. That’s all we knew.” She paused, then continued, “I don’t think it’s change much. It’s just about the same for them. I got out, praise the Lord, but my son, he’s getting involved with the gangs too.”
Mixed conversation slowly rose again. Two, three threads quietly entertained. Sam engaged Eurica and her friend for more stories. I baked cinnamon rolls while I imagined her childhood, growing up like that.
For me, it was perhaps the best Christmas holiday I had ever spent. It was, in many ways, an engagement of the holiday as intended, a celebration of diversity under one roof.