What Happened When There Were No Gifts Under Our Tree This Christmas

All of us heading to NYC, including Maile, my ghost of Christmas present.

There are times in every adventure, every good idea, every new thing, when the old safe places suddenly seem vastly preferable. When you wonder what hallucinogenic drug you must have been smoking when you decided to do that thing you decided to do. It’s that moment when the Israelites looked back on their slavery in Egypt – their slavery! – and thought, we need to go back to that, because this freedom thing is way too hard and uncertain and did anyone consider where we’re going to get food out here in the wilderness?

You know. That moment.

It was around December 24th at three or four in the afternoon when I felt that way, when I started having second thoughts about our decision to go on a trip to New York instead of buying the kids Christmas gifts. We had gone to the mall to pick up a few very small things to put in their stockings (toothbrushes, pajamas, socks, that sort of thing), and I saw all the other parents racing like mad from here to there, huge bags hanging down at their sides like the packs on burros making their way through the Amazon. And for just a moment, I wanted to go back to that old slavery. To things. To clutter. To piles of Christmas wrapping paper and that Christmas afternoon malaise.

Have we made a terrible mistake?

Rehearsal for the pageant.

That night we went to St. James Episcopal for the Christmas Eve service and our four oldest kids participated in the Owen Meany-esque Christmas pageant complete with 12 shepherds, 8 prophets, many angels, and a star that was actually a very small person. I kept waiting for John to lower Owen from the rafters, his God-awful voice calling out, “Peace on Earth!” It was adorable. Our 5-year-old Sammy even had a line, which he managed to say in a firm voice, his eyes wide with something like terror when he saw the hundreds of people in the church. I think he was also second-guessing a few of his Christmas season decisions, but he managed to get his line out.

“I’m sorry, my inn is full.”

Then came communion, and it was beautiful and it took forever because there were so many guests and I couldn’t help but notice how happy our rector seemed, and I thought what an honor that must be, administering the sacraments on Christmas Eve to all of these strangers from the community who decided to celebrate with you and your parish. I took the wafer and drank from the cup and it was all there, out in the open, so plainly visible. It was one of those moments when the veil was thin.

Christmas Eve was beautiful.

* * * * *

We woke up Christmas morning and the kids raced downstairs to pull a few small things from their Christmas stockings and then Maile made cinnamon rolls and we packed up the truck. My sister and my mom and my dad pulled up outside, and we left. Destination: New York City.

We moved towards the city like pilgrims. We crossed over hills, through forests, past small towns with their factories and churches and stores, mostly quiet, mostly resting, until New York City suddenly rose up in the distance, a bright spot of hope. We cheered. We held our breath as we cruised through the Holland Tunnel. We cheered again as we came up in the midst of that bustling, that movement, that life.

I know it’s a cliché, but New York is one of those rare places on earth that, while you’re there, you really do believe that anything is possible. The wealth of nations is right there at my fingertips, and fame is just around the corner. We circled Times Square twice looking for parking for our hotel and eventually decided the valet would be worth the money. I parallel parked, nearly running over a few tourists and a man pushing a two-wheeled cart full of things I couldn’t identify. By now taxi drivers were beeping at us. Pedestrians glared. Maile and the kids jumped out and I unloaded the suitcases and the stroller. The sidewalk was shoulder to shoulder, brightly lit billboards stretched into the sky, and Maile was searching for all the blankets and pillows and we really needed to move. The traffic on the road was honking and barely moving, and the cacophony of the city rose around us, tangible, like smoke.

Then I realized Sam had not yet exited the truck, so I leaned inside.

“C’mon, Sammy, time to get out. Hurry up.”

But he just sat there, his seat belt still on, his puffy winter coat swelling up around him.

“What’s up, man?” I asked him. “Let’s go. Gotta go.”

He looked at me through solemn eyes and said something I’ll never forget.

“No way,” he said. “I’m not going out there.”

He caught me off guard. I looked over my shoulder, trying to see what he saw. Hordes of people flowing past. Exploding lights. Noise.

“C’mon, Sammy. Let’s go. You’ll be fine.”

But I know how he feels.

* * * * *

I feel like I’ve been asked so many times during the last five years to get out of the truck. Do something different. Go somewhere new. Give up those old dependencies. And it usually feels pretty safe and secure right where I’m at. These addictions of mine are pretty comfortable. I’d rather not get out. I’d rather bide my time. I’ll get out. Soon. Just not yet.

Then that voice.

It’s time to get out. It’s time to move on. Let’s do it together. You’ll be fine.

* * * * *

10517571_10152621514852449_864184494690742915_nNew York City was beautiful to us for those 24 hours, the shops warm, sidewalks long and straight. The kids used some money they had saved up to buy a few special purchases. I found a macaroon café close to FAO Schwartz and ate a weeks’ worth of exquisite sugar in four bites.

Then we got back in the truck and escaped the city, back through tunnels and over bridges, back through the woods, back to our small city that now felt like a wilderness compared to the immense largeness of New York. The gift of that trip far outweighed anything we could have boxed up, anything the kids could have unwrapped on Christmas morning. We all agreed it was a huge success, a new Christmas tradition.

You gotta get out of the truck.

* * * * *

I’ve decided that during this season of being very busy, I’ll be blogging here on Mondays for the foreseeable future. I hope you’ll join me.

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8 Replies to “What Happened When There Were No Gifts Under Our Tree This Christmas”

  1. Perfect timing, God’s timing, to read this today. First time mom who feels like I’ve hit a wall with my stamina. Blessed beyond measure with my sweet baby boy. But just feeling a little bit of longing for the easier, sleep filled days of past. This helps me keep perspective and press on. Thanks Shawn!

    1. I get that, Sarah. Just asked my wife the other day if we’ll ever get to sleep through the night again…and then last night, magic! More sleep will come when you least expect it. Hang in there.

  2. Oh, I love this. And it is so well told. Thank you. We, too, are fairly new Episcopalians. This was our second Christmas Eve service at our church. Both years I’ve heard a few sly remarks from regulars about all the strange new faces who show up at this service. But, like your rector, I love it. I love that it seems as if the whole neighborhood dresses up and comes to church because it’s Christmas.

    1. Thanks, Christie. Episcopalians know how to celebrate Christmas. I’m looking forward to Lent and Easter quite a bit this year.

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