For me, Christmas and nostalgia walk hand in hand. Every ornament has its story; every decoration a memory. Our tree always displays a Northwestern University ornament—although no one in the family went there. It was the gift of a young student who spent Thanksgiving with us one year. The cow bell was given by our Swiss exchange student. The lighthouse ornament came from dear friends who joined our family vacation and explored Raspberry Lighthouse with us on Lake Superior.
When I put up Christmas tree lights, I remember my dad, a staunch colored-lights man, attaching aluminum reflectors on each bulb, a precaution so the heat of the bulb would not come into contact with the tree branches.
My dad has been dead for years, and those reflectors have been gone even longer. Yet my childhood memory of unscrewing every light bulb on the strand to insert the reflector is as vivid as if I attached them yesterday. Our Christmas memories are a peek into our personal Christmas snow globe; family and friends suddenly are more present to us in the smell of pine or the glint of brightly colored Christmas lights, wrapping us in the warm embrace of tradition and ritual.
It’s easy to let my mind wander into the story of every ornament that catches my gaze. And yet in the midst of all these stories and memories, where is the story, the one about an unwed pregnant teenager who must travel from her home with her husband on a donkey to deliver a child in a stable because there was no room at the Inn? This new mother and child who fled in the night as refugees to a new land to avoid persecution?
I pondered this as I set up our crèche this year, a crèche I might add that I purchased so I could share the story with my children: of Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth when she discovers she is pregnant; of angels who proclaim the good news and shepherds who hear the good news and respond; of Joseph, who responds to a dream and flees with his young wife and infant son to Egypt; of stars, donkeys, sheep, hay, innkeepers, evil kings, and adoring kings.
As I set up the crèche, I wondered, where am I in this story this year?
- The star? Pointing to the baby Jesus, shining light and leading others on the path?
- Herod? So threatened by the new visitor that he feigns interest but has no space in his heart for Jesus?
- The Innkeeper? Not a malicious force like Herod, but just too wrapped up in the season to consider how Jesus might fit into his home this year?
- The hay? Am I feeling eaten alive by all that needs to get done before Christmas?
- The angel? Proclaiming the good news to others?
- Mary? Saying yes to God and discovering her life unfolding in dramatic and unexpected ways?
I realize this year I am the stable. I’m a simple structure who provides welcome to others. Perhaps my stable’s not the most pristine accommodation in the land, with a few too many animals visiting any given day. But this is why my Christmas tree has ornaments from schools I never attended and bells from countries I haven’t visited. They are small tokens of thanks for the welcome of strangers into our home, reminders to me of the many people who have come to live with us: a nephew who lived with us through high school; a newly grieving widower; exchange students; students and friends who couldn’t afford plane tickets home at Thanksgiving or Christmas, dance team classmates of our daughter who emerged bleary eyed after sleepovers Saturday morning as Steve served up pancakes; people (and dogs!) we’ve met along the way who needed hospitality for a night, a week, or maybe a year or two.
Truthfully, my ego would have preferred to find myself in the Christmas story as either the star or Mary—either a light leading others to Jesus or a courageous woman willing to say yes to God and follow an uncertain and rocky path. But obviously someone else had the lead roles in this year’s Christmas pageant. I take solace in the words of Paul to the Corinthians, “There are many gifts, but the same spirit, many ways of serving, but the same Lord.” (1 Cor 12:4-5)
In that mess of a stable, I hope I have space for Jesus. I hope I see the face of Jesus in all who stay with us—and that I have the grace and hospitality to be the face of Jesus for others. I hope to always remember the promise from the Letter to the Hebrews, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)