Christmas Writing Project 2006 Reject
I’m not the kind of person who usually is considered to be a charismatic, or openly spiritual. In fact, as I work in public schools, I do a good job of appearing neutral in matters of faith. That being said, I belong to one of the coolest prayer groups I’ve ever heard of. It’s a group of artists who get together to only pray about the projects they are working on; that God will direct their energies in a way that will please him and keep them true to their art with out making compromises for what the world (Christians included) around them says is unacceptable. Every year, as a gift to each other, we do a themed piece of work having something to do with Christmas. We put it together in a binder and read/present it at our Christmas party.
Over the years I’ve submitted a few things to this project, but for some reason it was really hard to do this year. Something about going into the Christmas season is really hard, especially when it’s not even Thanksgiving yet (deal line for submission is Nov, 28th). So I started this idea, that I didn’t really have much conviction about but pushed through anyway. While putting the finishing touches on it, I had an idea of what I should do and went with that instead. All that to say, here is the submission that the Niños will never see.
It’s kind of funny what you do and do not remember about your childhood. For instance: I remember that I got some major splinters playing with some kids when I was eight years old and my parents had to hold me down on the couch in order to get them out of my hands, but for the life of me I could not tell you what the names of those friends were. I can also remember having some really great times in Little League Baseball, but the names of my coaches are lost to winds of time. I can remember times where I was absolutely miserable on a trip to some place with my family, but not the reason for being on that trip. As I get older I’m starting to find that I have some really strong memories, with really big wholes in them. One such memory is of a Christmas caroling hayride I took with my high school youth group.
My mother dragged me to choir practice when I was twelve years old. Ever since that year, as well as every year there after, I was given the “opportunity” to go caroling with the choir during the Christmas holidays. Imagine it: a teenage boy, out in the freezing cold of winter, standing in snow, singing songs by flashlight with people twice his age. After all growing up in a small ski town makes these kind of activities a requirement. Heaven forbid Norman Rockwell find out that these mountain dwellers let a snow covered cabin in a forest landscape, go without a good bit of festive holiday cheer. The man might rise from the grave and give us a stern talking to. So in an effort to thwart my mother’s desire to subject me to the freezing cold of winter in the San Gabriel Mountains, I came up with the perfect plan: I would join the youth group, who always had a party the night the choir went caroling as a sort of tradition.
Which is how I ended up going to a birthday party for a girl I did not know, with a bunch of my friends who also did not know her. Her family had just moved into town and started going to our church and her family thought it would be a great idea to invite a large number of perfect strangers over to her house to celebrate her natal day. I think it was one of the best parties I ever went to as a teenager; I think I was thirteen at the time. Plenty of food, good music, and her family went out of the way to do fun games and activities that seem to be a requirement anytime you get teenagers together.
After we had all been well fed, and had a chance to get to know the girl a little bit better (I still don’t remember her name), her father passes out some very thick coats and tells us all to come out in front of the house. And like the well feed, well watered, sheep that we were, we figured he just wanted a picture in front of the house. What we found was a horse drawn hay wagon, with blankets and thermoses of hot chocolate waiting for us. He was going to take us caroling, on a hay wagon, through the streets of town. Where had my plan gone wrong?
One thing you should know about this youth group, is that we were cursed. I’m not kidding you. We went on a trip to the Grand Canyon and lost a kid, as well as a chaperone, in the canyon. We went on a canoe trip from Laughlin Nevada to Lake Havasue, and only made it half way because our food canoe capsized and we had to chase after our food as it floated down river. We went on hikes into the wilderness with an eagle scout as our guide, got lost, and had to carry one of our largest football player chaperones out after he severally sprained his ankle. This was not the group you wanted to be taking with you on a moonlight night, in the middle of winter, in to a town you just moved into.
Back to the story, we were sitting on the bails of hay on this horse drawn wagon that fit about fifteen people on it. You see hay has a unique quality that it can absorb water like a sponge, and still freeze into a solid block of ice. I remember that the night was clear and every star seemed to be shining brighter than usual, and I tried to point this out to the girl who was sitting next me. I had a crush on her at the time, and managed to spill hot chocolate on her lap as the wagon hit almost every possible bump on the way into town; which is a feat considering the roads were paved. The hay bails upon which we sat did not help matters on bit, as they seemed to have frozen long before we embarked on the little jaunt through town. It all added up to a delightful situation where I was sitting next to a very irate girl, feeling every shred of body heat I could generate be sucked out of my body and into the lump of straw and ice beneath me, and having my hot chocolate privileges revoked along with a warm spot on my cheek where the girl I had a crush on had slapped me. It was turning out to be one grand night to be singing Joy to the World.
The cart made it’s way though the down town section of Wrightwood, where shoppers and Skiers all went about their business, but took time to point us out and take pictures of the teenagers becoming popsicles and singing carols. And it was about this time that the driver of the cart realized that the roads were a lot icier then he had anticipated. So icy, in fact, that the cart started to slide on the slanted roads as we were pulled along the mountainside, and had problems stopping at intersections. Not wanting to kill the members of the youth group of the new church he and his family had joined, he cut the night short and took up home before the roads got any more icy.
Having spent only about an hour caroling, we huddled around the large fireplace back at the house and waited for our parents to pick us up. We were all so cold that we were standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the flames, hoping that we could spread the warmth faster. Drinking hot apple cider, and listening to on another’s teeth chatter, someone started to hum the tune to O Holy Night. The tune passed to the whole group, one person at a time, until we were all singing the words as well. It was then that it hit us what the Christmas carols we had been singing, while we froze ourselves to the bone, really were about. Somewhere in the midst of having fun, and trying to escape my own family, I had completely shut out what the words we has sung that night meant. But in the moment, with all of us gathered around the fire, a warm and genteel reminder of what the season was all about descended on all of us.
As parents arrived to pick us up, the mood caught on. Soon an hour and a half had gone by and the house was packed with people who were singing. The words of Away in a Manger, the First Noel, and O Little Town of Bethlehem, rung out in a way that seemed to make the walls of the house vibrate with energy. Soon we were caught up in the spirit of Christmas, and the remembrance of what we were all supposed to be celebrating. And we did not want it to end.
A popular song on the radio these days had a line that says, “every new beginning, comes from some other beginning’s end.” At some point one of the adults said a prayer and brought the night to a close. We were in a family’s house after all, and they needed to get to bed. We all left that night with a better understanding of how God can use a time that was totally not intended to be about him, and make it about him in the most meaningful way. I count myself lucky to have been part of that “cursed” group of teenagers, who God so frequently blessed and worked through is small yet powerful ways.
In the next few years the youth group would try to recreate that night…which of course meant that I no longer had an escape from the obligatory caroling that came every year. Yet I did not mind so much anymore. The cold might be worth enduring, if we allowed God to show up like he had that one night. While we never really had the same magical moment we did on that particular night, it became something more than a night of caroling for my core group of friends that shared that special night with me. It became a occasion where we were reminded of the time when God showed up to remind us why we sang those songs at Christmas, and why we sang song at all. I regret not having the opportunity to share that same kind of moment with those around me today. But I will always have the night in my memory as a reminder of what God can do when you least expect it.