I ate cheese out of a can and Ritz crackers tonight at 11 pm while sipping a glass of Coca Cola because that’s what I did nearly every year on Christmas Eve with my grandfather until last year. The routine was nearly identical each time. Show up, deposit coats on a dining room table chair, smile at the very notion that cheese can come out of a can, and then be “polite” by eating several crackers with that oozing, orange oddity that somehow still appears on grocery store shelves. The FDA would probably ban it they knew it still existed
I find it amusing that my cherished Christmas memories
revolve around the stuff. Christmas couldn’t begin until we ate some. We couldn’t exchange presents until the ritual had been observed. After a couple of crackers coated with it, you’d need a swig of Coke to wash it down. I’d stand in the kitchen, looking out at the backs of Christmas cards that covered the bar, enjoying the handful of Christmas knick-knacks around the condo. The plastic street scene that would light up and snow when you flipped a switch, the thin artificial Christmas tree with tinsel hung and ornaments scattered about. The background music changed over the years. At one point it was Reader’s Digest Christmas LP’s playing on the record player that now sits in my living room. Eventually, Grandpa had a DVD player hooked up to the TV, and I think it really tickled him that he could play CD’s on it and make music come out of the television.
Grandpa died on Christmas Day. It’s hard to think about death at Christmas. On the one hand, it draws the meaning of the incarnation much closer to home, that death isn’t the last word for us. But when everything else around screams that we should be jumping up and down, making so much commotion at this time of year, the silence of death is disconcerting. Christmas is anything but silent most of the time. For some of us.
I think about the 26 families that lost children or loved ones last year at Sandy Hook and the silence that those families probably had at Christmas. I think about Palestinian families I met this year and heard about whose young boys are arrested and shot frequently, some just recently in Bethlehem, steps from where Jesus was born. I think about Allan and Jean Howe, a couple I’ve met a few times from Reba Place Fellowship in Chicago, lost their son to gun violence last month when some robbers shot him on the front porch in a struggle when they tried to force entry into his home (see their inspiring response here). I think about Jesus’s birth and Herod ordering the killing of all young boys under age 2, which today would include my own nephew.
In fact, silence is always part of Christmas. Death has always been part of Christmas. It does not sell well as a Christmas card at Hallmark, but it is there whether we like to admit it or not. I think death at Christmas is especially difficult because it throws back a question at us: what do you really believe about the power of death? Do you really believe what the Incarnation points to? I have asked myself this question almost daily for a year.
My grandfather inspired me to go to Palestine to do peacemaking work. I listen to records on his record player. I sit in his rocking chair. I drink water out of glasses and cups that belonged to him. I use tools and a toolbox that were his. I sleep in sheets that he owned on the mattress and box springs that belonged to him and my grandmother. I put loose change in empty Peanut Butter jars because that’s what he did. I use a chest of drawers he bought for my dad as a kid. And he is the reason that I will eat cheese from a can once per year on a Ritz cracker. My life is richer now than it was a year ago because of Grandpa, and if this is any indication of how much power death actually has over life, than Christmas is more joyous and true than ever.