My family has many Christmas traditions I cherish and think upon with a soft smile and a far away look. The day after Thanksgiving, the four of us would go to the Boy Scout Tree Lot and pick a tall, skinny, but full, evergreen. We'd let it soak outside in a bucket for a couple of hours, heat up the leftovers, and then bring in the tree and decorate it while we munched on turkey sandwiches and watched A Christmas Story. When done, we'd sit around the tree drinking hot tea and bask in the soft glow of the twinkling lights. We'd point out which ornaments were our favorites and recall that time we made the ice cream cone in third grade and the hand angel in the first.
My mom and I would bake coconut cakes to give to our neighbors for Christmas. It was just a recipe we found on Food Network, but it became our special recipe. The kitchen would smell of sweet coconut flakes and rich frosting. We'd pick holly branches from our tree outside and wrap the ends with tin foil and stick it in the cakes. My mom knew how to arrange it beautifully. She told me to be very careful for holly berries were poisonous. I'd worry and wonder why we'd place such a dangerous decoration on our gifts, but the finished product calmed my nerves. The dark green leaves with the bright red berries against the snowy cake always produced audible sighs from our loved ones.
My favorite memories, however, are of the Christmas Eve services when I was in elementary school. My mom, dad, brother, and I would dress in our finest red and green outfits and drive downtown to our family church. The sanctuary was always full of excited parishioners and chrismons ornaments hung heavy on the boughs of the large tree at the front of the church. The crowd grew silent as the Christmas story was read but burst through the rafters with the joyous tunes of "Joy to the World" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing".
Suddenly, the sanctuary would grow dark. Candles were passed out and the organ would play as one person passed their flame to another. Anticipation rose inside of me as I waited for my candle to be lit. The congregation would sing "O Holy Night" softly. It was as if they were scared they'd extinguish their candle if they sang too loudly. Finally my candle would be lit and I'd look around the room. Tiny pinpricks of light surrounded me and I'd fall silent and listen to my mom and dad sing. At the end of the song we were told that though we had to extinguish our candle it didn't mean that the light went out. We were meant to carry that light into the world. It was a reminder that Jesus was with us. We didn't leave him in the church as soon as we stepped out the doors.
My brother used to help lead the youth group I attended in high school. Sometimes we'd gather in his house, and whenever we did so, he'd light a candle. He said it was to remind us that God was with us, Emmanuel. The flame wasn't some sort of voo-doo magic that called upon Him, for he was already there. He was in the room, with us, hearing our prayers and watching over us.
Sometimes it's hard for me to remember that. Many times I feel as if I'm talking to a wall. This couldn't be farther from the truth. I love Christmas because there are candles everywhere. In the windows of people's homes, on the advent wreaths of our dinner tables, and in luminaries along our neighbors' driveways. Their flickering lights remind me that not only did our Lord come to live among us when He was born in that Bethlehem stall, but He is still with us. We are loved.