This weekend marks the first Sunday of Advent, a spiritual season of preparation for Christmas. About this time, I usually thumb through my collection of holiday books to select a liturgical guide to read with my family each week to remind us that Christmas is about more than the gifts we’ll find under the tree.
“I wish I knew what had happened to Ruth’s doll,” I lamented to my children a week before Christmas. Ruth, our adopted daughter, had so loved the brown Bitty Baby I’d bought when she’d arrived in Maine from a Ugandan children’s home, Welcome Home Ministries Africa. At the time, Ruth was 18 months old and couldn’t sit up, feed herself or speak. Having been abandoned at birth, she was staying in Topsham with friends, who’d volunteered to take care of her while she received therapy for cerebral palsy.
Last week, I questioned what people who don’t observe Christ’s birth are celebrating at Christmas. It’s no secret that we live in a largely secular culture. Here in Maine, we have among the lowest church attendance in the nation, with a mere 20 percent of folks plonking down on a pew each Sunday. So it stands to reason that some 80 percent of you might be wondering what exactly Christians are celebrating this time of year. I thought it’d be fun to consult the writers of our best-loved Christmas carols. No, not John Lennon, who hoped we’d have fun and forget our fears, but those early bastions of faith who penned lyrics based on Scripture. So this is Christmas:
“What do people who aren’t religious celebrate at Christmas?” a dear friend’s daughter recently asked her – or something along those lines. “Well, some people celebrate a religious Christmas and some people celebrate a secular Christmas,” she explained, describing a friend who celebrates the season by hosting friends and giving to others even though she doesn’t recognize the spiritual significance of the holiday.
Crisscrossing strands of white lights dangled from the 200-year-old rafters of my friend Jenny’s barn. In one corner, pinecone angel ornaments hung from a fresh-cut tree. A picnic table at the end of the room held paper cups of markers and scissors, ready for the children and parents who squashed up the rain-soaked hillside last weekend to celebrate the launch of my first children’s picture book, The Christmas Cradle. After nearly two decades of spending much of my free time alone, clacking computer keys in the fragile hope that what I wrote would someday be published, last week’s party was a true delight.