The first Christmas I can remember, I was about four years old. I woke to the sound of an electric train set circling the Christmas tree in the living room. That was the sound of Christmas morning in our house until long after I graduated from high school. By the time I was in fourth or fifth grade, there was enough track to run the train through the entire house, and the company that manufactured it went out of business.
The small Southern Baptist church in the rural community in Southeastern Arizona where I grew up always did a Christmas play every year. That was my main connecting point between the celebration of Christmas and the birth of Jesus. Memories of those plays are still strong in my mind. And I always used to wonder, in a church where 50 in Sunday School was a high attendance day, with upwards of 25 or 30 members of the church in the cast, who was going to be the audience? But we always seemed to have a full house. The play was something different every year, from re-enactments of the nativity to plays with practical spiritual applications related to a Christmas theme. The drama teacher at the local high school was a member of our church, and she always whipped us into shape.
One year, our pastor and his wife played Joseph and Mary. We put boards across the baptistry to make a nativity scene in the background, as the performance took place on the stage in front. Near the end of the performance, a couple of the boards gave way, cracked, and dumped Joseph and Mary into the baptistry. Fortunately, it was empty, and once it was confirmed that neither were hurt, the congregation roared with laughter.
White Christmases are rare in Southeastern Arizona, but when they happen, they can come with a vengeance. When I was in fourth grade, a snowstorm dumped about 10 inches of snow on our town early on a Monday morning in mid-December, causing school to close three days earlier than expected for Christmas. On December 23, another six inches fell, the first white Christmas I remember. The only other white Christmas Arizona delivered was when I was in college. Twelve inches of snow fell in a few hours on Christmas eve, beginning just after dark, and for three days the high temperature hovered around 16 degrees.
The most surprising white Christmas happened just two years ago, in 2004, right here in Houston. We always attend a candlelight Christmas Eve service at our church, which ends by the congregation lighting candles, singing Silent Night and walking out the back door of the sanctuary, down the steps and out to the front of the church with the orchestra playing on the steps. That night, as we exited the sanctuary, it was snowing outside. By the time we got home, three inches of the white stuff was actually sticking to the yard, the roof, the cars, the trees. I’d never seen our neighborhood look like a winter wonderland, but it sure did that night. People were out building snowmen, having snowball fights, setting off fireworks, until at least midnight. It was the first white Christmas ever recorded in Houston, Texas.
The coldest Christmas I can remember came in 1989. I had just graduated from Southwestern Seminary, and it was 25 degrees on graduation day. We left the next day and headed for St. Louis, to spend Christmas with my wife’s family. When we got to Blytheville, Arkansas, and the afternoon high was zero, I knew we were in for some real cold weather. The temperature signs in St. Louis were flashing -22 degrees when we arrived there late that afternoon, and for almost a week, we were in a deep freeze with high temperatures staying below zero. That was cold.
During the nineteen years my wife and I have been married, we’ve made some traditions of our own. We’ve spent Christmas with friends from the churches where we’ve served, in the Ft. Worth area, Missouri, Kentucky, and back here in Houston. Not having had that many white Christmases when I was growing up, it was always nice when we lived in Missouri and Kentucky when that was a bonus, along with the seasonally cold weather. We do “simultaneous” Christmas shopping for each other, after we’ve gathered gifts for our family. We go out on Dec. 21 or 22 at the same time, to the same place, split up and go shop for each other. So far, we’ve never bumped into each other, either in the stores or on the way to secret what we’ve bought in the car, and we don’t peek, either. At least, I don’t.
With all of these memories, I am always reminded that Jesus is the reason for the season. Everything we do centers around, and focuses on Him, and the celebration of his birth. When we moved back to Houston in 1994, we joined a church that added a new tradition to our household, one that we have followed ever since, and that is celebrating Christmas through Advent. More than anything else, that’s helped me keep my focus on Christ during the holiday season, and it has become as much a part of our celebration as anything else.
Merry Christmas to you, and a Christ-filled New Year.