I’ve been married for 10 years and here is the number of times my husband has put Christmas lights up on our house:
He doesn’t care about Christmas lights on the house, he barely even cares about Christmas, and no matter how much I love the season of lights, I’m not going to put them up on the house myself… I’ll just stay inside with my coffee, thanks though. So we’ve never had them out.
Until now. Because this year, we have the relentless persistence of a three year old and a five year old, in awe of the neighborhood light shows, wondering aloud when Daddy will put our lights up, because these relentless children cannot fathom a reason not to. So, up the lights will go, our house a cheery string of twinkling reminders that children are meant to get us off our seats and into a life we never could have imagined. Children are a decisive interruption of self; startling mirrors and joyful invitations all at once.
Christmas with my children is startling, too. Tradition doesn’t matter to a young child- it is all brand new, all open to questioning, all free to close examination. Christmas is one of the only shared celebrations the world over, a holiday so steeped in cultural customs that most people blink in surprise when they find out other family’s rituals, like the bizarre people who open gifts on Christmas Eve or the crazy ones who use a pretend elf to spur on good behavior. We know it’s all invented, though, right? We invent traditions and then act like they invented us. These are where my children’s questions come from, the rituals they see acted out as though there is no other way to act. But to a new human, even after just a few years on Earth, all of these things are so clearly made up. Who is this Santa? Why do we give presents? Did Jesus have a Christmas tree too?
While it’s exhausting to be questioned about every decision all day long, I’m glad for the opportunity to consider my life and my habits. Childhood scrutiny is a powerful magnifier, and lately it’s given me clarity on this particular holiday season. I know this – I could leave every tradition behind, leave my house un-decked and the tree in the forest and the presents on the store shelves, and still have a reason to love the holiday season, which is this: At Christmas, we pray.
Every year, as Christmas approaches and we try to make it special with outlandish traditions and shallow rituals that often bring stress and debt, there is something more happening. There is a stirring in the world. There is something that happens on these winter nights, something that speaks mystery and love to us, even when we aren’t sure what that means. We know there is more. We might call it love or hope or peace on earth, but in our heart of hearts we know there is something better to be had, and at Christmas we are allowed to wonder what it is. So we “send love” or “hope for peace” or “wish you a happy new year,” but what we’re really doing?
At Christmas, whether we know it or not,
I know it’s weird to talk about praying. Especially if you don’t usually pray. Or you think it’s wasted breath. Or you’re downright opposed to the idea. And we don’t really know what it is, right? We use the word ‘prayer’ like we use the word ‘wish,’ which is like swimming in a puddle and calling it the ocean. The unknown element, the secrecy with which we must approach prayer because it is so intensely personal and within, makes it all the more complex to write about, to speak about.
My daughter said something last night in her bedtime prayers that made me laugh, and then made me think. Sometimes my kids just rattle off their prayers as a quick list of “thank-you’s,” thank you for mama, thank you for daddy, thank you for food, thank you for our beds. Sometimes they pray for people they love. Sometimes they don’t want to pray at all. And sometimes they pray in a way that brings heaven crashing into their bedroom, a stream of glory lighting their tiny bunkbed full of stuffed animals and blankets in a way that renders me silent, sets me still in the face of a God who listens intently to my children, and in the face of their astounding faith in the divine listener.
Then last night my 5 year old prayed, “God, Jesus, Holy Spirit- I just want to SEE you guys. Can you please make me see you? And Mary and Joseph, can you bring them back to life so I can see them too? I know they were here on earth a LONG time ago, but you’re still the Holy Spirit today, and I know you can do it! I love you. Amen.”
Ridiculous though it seems, I felt such a presence in the exactness of her prayers. She said what she wanted. She said it with confidence because she thinks God loves her enough to listen to anything she has to say. I mean, she doesn’t even feel that way about us like she used to. She’ll preface a question or request with disclaimers like “This won’t take long to help me,” or “I know you might say no.” She doesn’t trust us to listen with an open mind, which is partly because we’ve been listening for 5 years and have developed a non-sense meter that tends towards suspicious, to be honest. But in her prayers? She speaks openly. She speaks with abandon. She speaks like a child, loved and free.
I read this a while ago and it struck a cord in me that keeps playing and playing:
“Prayer is God’s gift to those who pray.”
I could read that sentence one million more times and still wrestle with everything it means. Prayer is God’s gift to those who pray. Prayer is God’s gift to those who pray. The prayer itself, the very movement of the thing, is a gift. The unknown of the process, the slow blossom of a seed in the awaited response: the mystery is in the alchemy of the act.
Certain events in our lives make it impossible not to pray, even when we don’t know to whom or why we speak. Survive a terrible accident: thank you, we breathe. Hold a terribly ill child; please, we weep. Nothing is going right and we falter on the edge of despair; help, we plead. There is tug inside of us towards grandeur, towards a felt presence, towards a tender goodness, towards the sunset and the baby’s healthy heartbeat and the saved marriage and the miracle rent payment and the rescued children; the doubters, the hurt, the angry, the deserted, the lonely, we break under the pressure and open ourselves to prayer like the earth split open on a fault line. Disaster and beauty and desperation and joy bend our knees and soften our hearts until prayers escape our lips, messages to the sky that make us feel at once vulnerable and fortified.
Christmas does this. It reminds us of something. The traditions, silly they may be, can actually be a road inward, a path towards a feeling we can never quite shake:
We are homesick. And Christmas reminds us of that, so at Christmas, we reach for home. We light our candles and our windows. We give good gifts. We gather. We eat. We laugh. And though we don’t know it, through it all, we pray.
I can’t explain prayer. I can talk about it, I can tell you about it and how it changes me every day, I can write about it, but I can’t ever really give it to you. “Prayer is God’s gift to those who pray.” That’s the mystery. And that’s what I’m inviting you into this Christmas- let the mystery settle around you. When you feel yourself looking around, wondering who to thank or who to ask for help or who is speaking to your heart in ways you can’t seem to explain; close your eyes, whisper your prayer, and look towards home.