What one word best evokes the holidays for you?
I’ll tell you mine, then I want you to send me yours. I’d like to print some of them.
For me, that one word has changed over the years.
As a kid in northern Kentucky, I started looking forward to Christmas immediately following my birthday in early April. After ripping through all that wrapping paper, I calculated that I’d get my next haul of gifts Christmas morning.
So my one word growing up was ... PRESENTS. Make that PRESENTS!!
There were some years when I had a particular present in mind. So when I was, like, 10, my one word was ... BIKE.
And Santa was readin’ my mind. When I woke up that snowy morning – it always snowed on Christmas when I was a kid – I ran downstairs to check out the mountain of presents under our tree. And there, resting oh-so-cool on its kick-stand, was a purple Schwinn Sting-ray, with a sporty white banana seat and chopper-like handlebars I’d be gripping all over my neighborhood in the ’burbs.
In my 20s, I left home for graduate school in Missouri and then my first newspaper job in Alabama.
Christmas week, I’d travel back to Kentucky. There, I’d get to spend quality time with my dad and mom, my brothers, my aunts and uncles and cousins and, in time, my sisters-in-law and my nieces and nephews.
I had a new word for Christmas: FAMILY.
Now I’m 60. I still head home for the holidays, still enjoy catching up with my family, and still delight in presents – mostly the ones I carefully pick out for my nieces and nephews.
But after all these years, I have re-discovered “the true meaning of Christmas,” as the Benedictine nuns used to say during my time at St. Paul’s Grade School.
We’d have to go to Mass every morning in those days in the 1960s. And during Advent – the weeks leading up to Christmas – I remember gazing at the crèche, better known as the Nativity Scene, in the front of church. There, frozen in stillness, were statues of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and their sheep, the angels, and, of course, baby Jesus.
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,” we’d sing in our child voices, “the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.”
As another Christmas approaches, I find myself pondering anew a God who decided to enter the world not as a pampered, powerful king but as a poor, vulnerable infant.
There was no room for their kind in the inn, so the best Mary and Joseph could do for Jesus’ birthplace was a stable – a smelly, cold barn. They had to place their newborn in a manger – a hard wooden or stone trough where cattle fed.
And the first people to “ooh” and “ahh” over their baby were not the three kings from the East – they came later. No, the first to visit the family were those lowly, uneducated shepherds, beckoned and no doubt baffled by angels.
After the birth, there was no grand procession back to family and friends in Nazareth. Instead, Mary, Joseph and Jesus had to flee Bethlehem for Egypt, becoming – yes – scorned refugees.
The baby I sing hymns about every Christmas grew up to be an itinerant Jewish preacher. He surrounded himself not with priests and intellectuals, but with fishermen.
The Roman occupiers in Jerusalem publicly executed Jesus by nailing him to a cross. And on the first Easter Sunday, when Christians believe he went from death to life, Jesus first appeared not to apostles Peter, James and John, but to Mary Magdalene – this was during an age that was so patriarchal that women were considered unreliable witnesses.
From beginning to end, the story of Jesus is one of pitching his tent among the humble, the have-nots, the outcasts, even the losers in a society, then as now, that prized prestige, money and might.
So here’s the word that speaks to my heart now about Christmas:
What does all this mean for me? I live comfortably, and work at a trade where I get my name – and often my picture – in the newspaper. Humility?
I don’t think the message of Christmas is that I should forsake my home and start bunking in the nearest barn.
I do think it means that I’m called to reject – especially at Christmastime – the idol of consumerism and getting more and more stuff for myself. It means doing what I can to help people in need.
And increasingly, it feels like an invitation to embrace my own spiritual poverty, that inner sense that I find my worth not in possessions or in worldly success or in the size of my ego, but in my relationship with God – a God who, I believe, meets me in my brokenness, in my weakness, in my HUMILITY.
Now it’s your turn. What one word best evokes the holidays for you?
Send us your word
This month is rich with holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Bodhi Day, Milad un Nabi and Winter Solstice.
Which of them do you celebrate? And what one word best evokes that holiday for you?
Send us your word and a brief explanation of why it speaks to you. Then we’ll run a selection of them.
Email your word and the story behind it to firstname.lastname@example.org.