Breathe out, focus.

Here I am, coming up for air (read the last post if you don’t understand why) and relieved that today is the last day of the school year. From tomorrow, no more routines, no more deadlines, no more school lunches to make and shop for, no more getting kids out ready for school ‘til early 2015. Congratulations to all parents for making it to the end of term. I salute you.

All this time off (for the kids at least) sounds great. And for me it is too, at least for the first couple of days. Before the kids start to fight and the house collapses into a chaos of abandoned clothes, toys, crockery and lolly wrappers. At this stage even I begin to crave order. Understanding dawns about parents who schedule their kids’ holidays as tightly as term time. I’m torn between admiration for them and sympathy for their children, knowing that I would have hated to have to go anywhere or do anything much in my summer holidays.

Those were different times. My parents, like many, simply didn’t think that way. The only commitment I had was a Christian youth camp which ate up a week of real time, two weeks of anticipation and at least another fortnight of coming down again. Happy days. At least one of my tribe will be going to a similar camp again this year, and is there in spirit already. Apart from that, a weekly date in a park with some other harassed mums is probably the most planning I’ll achieve.

We haven’t really thought much in our family about how to do this Christmas. Last year was one of the best for me since I was a little girl. I had been worrying about my parents’ first Christmas since my brother’s death and toying with the idea of going back to the UK to be with them. With a week to go I finally broached the subject with Mum. They had made plans to go away. (Very sensible of them. And they had a great time, btw.) Relief lifted me instantly. We had a quiet day at home and then went to the beach for the late afternoon sun. It was glorious. Beautiful.

That Christmas spoiled me. Now I want the same again. I want the peace that came from the inside out and had nothing to do with how amazing, or big, lunch was, or how fantastic the presents were. It was a peace more poignant somehow after a difficult year. We need that this time around, after another loss. We need the peace that is beyond understanding, peace that is for me an almost physical sensation of relief and wellbeing. The angels in the Christmas story proclaim peace on earth and goodwill towards men. I find I need to cut through the false gaiety of this season to get to anything like that.

Doing the nativity play this year has helped. Having to focus on the story made me, well, focus on the story. Not on what I disapprove of or think is too commercialised and shallow. Not on how spiritual I am failing to be in imparting to my children what this time is really about. Not on what gifts would delight them without spoiling them. None of that. It made me focus on the story. Jesus’ birth in such basic and precarious conditions, moved me again, touched my heart again. It made me think more about those who live under the threat of oppression, with no home to go to. It made me think of the poor, the vulnerable. The director picked a great Third Day song which told the story from the nativity all the way to the resurrection. Despite my ridiculous dreams of the night before, no one forgot anything, the dancing angels managed not to collide and the set remained in place throughout. They’ve even asked us to do it again.

You may not have had a nativity to plan, but unless you live in a cave you’ve probably seen your fair share of Christmas tat by now, from gift catalogues to food porn convincing you that your festivities need some or other special recipe or product to really make it special. I invite you to simply focus on the story as I did and see what happens. What happened to me was that instead of being very grudging about the whole thing, I find I am excited to celebrate the greatest event in human history and I’m actually looking forward to Christmas. Quite a novelty.

Enjoying the ride

Enjoying the ride

My last post was about living small, taking away the unnecessary clutter and keeping it really simple. In a funny way this is what I want to do with Christmas. Make it smaller, simpler, less so it can mean more. By now, like me you may already be strapped into that roller coaster called Christmas. In my house, with my kids, it looks and sounds a little like this.

‘…No you can’t put up the decorations til after your sister’s birthday at the beginning of the month and then we can start thinking about it. No we won’t get a real tree because remember the last one shed all over the place and your sister was allergic. Yes by all means write a Christmas list but remember it’s for guidance only. Maybe you will get (insert whatever it is everyone allegedly has already) but not if you keep pestering me. I don’t know how Santa will get down our blocked chimney. Your work Christmas drinks is tonight? No I don’t know what exactly we’ll be having for dinner on Christmas day. Your Christmas concert is WHEN? And you need antlers for your play? No I did not give Santa a spare key. What school breakfast? You forgot to give me the letter…?’

For me Christmas is easily the most pressured and stressful season. But this year I have had to get involved with the church nativity play. Gulp. All the usual suspects have somehow dodged this task and it has fallen to three of us not-so-usual ones to round up those children not absent due to sickness or overcommitment elsewhere. I was less than thrilled about it until I saw an article in Christianity today called Christmas Scandals which gives fascinating context to the spare biblical account in Luke Chapter 2. It was just what I needed to get fired up again. ( I tried linking to it but it didn’t work, so if you’re interested, go to http://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2014/December-2014/Christmas-Scandals)

God himself chose to enter his own creation. Not on a flaming chariot (that’s how I might have done it), but from a womb. Down a birth canal. Into the fetid air of a stable. Amongst animals, into the immediate care of a teenage girl and her brave, brave husband.

I want to give God the respect due, not least for being willing to humble himself in ways we would find unimaginable. I want to make space to contemplate that. I want to find positive ways to escape the tidal wave of nonsense that threatens to inundate us in the lead up to Christmas. I haven’t been sure how to do this but ironically, it seems to have started with this nativity play. The project that was more or less forced into my hands has made me think again about what an extraordinary event it was.