One December my parents hocked their wedding rings at a trashy pawn shop in Salt Lake City in hopes of scraping together enough cash for something small for at least the youngest children. Growing up, Christmas was an anxious time, my mother crying a lot, my dad working around the clock—hoping for a paycheck that wouldn’t bounce. But it was full of happy memories too, surrounded by family, good music, good food and much joy. People were often generous and our stockings usually weren’t empty. I don’t dislike Christmas, but I don’t love it.
My first December in Moscow I spent a p-day cutting up an ugly red plaid skirt that I was too embarrassed to wear and sewed it into makeshift stockings for all the missionaries in my zone. My companion and I stuffed them with candy and cards that said Happy New Year in Russian. A week later we all walked together beneath the light of the moon through a forest of evergreens. The quiet of the forest felt cleansing; white pillows of snow fell covering the dirt from snows past. It’s one my favorite memories of both winter and my mission.
On New Year’s Eve the following year my companion called home to St. Petersburg a few hours too late. Her mother was too drunk to talk amidst the night’s festivities. In the ensuing days we walked down streets that fell dark by five o’clock, the sidewalks on Leningradskii Prospekt and Ulitsa 1905 bereft of the sober. It’s hard to do missionary work around the holidays. As we trudged through the snow with frost collecting on our fur hats and salt collecting on our boots, we found peace together in the bleak and in the solitude.
**I would like to be serious and silent
From stars learning quietude deep,
And like that maple of the highlands,
To guard Russia fallen asleep.
I’d like the moon, bright and broad,
To wade in grass, leaving no track…
Missions are funny things. They have a grand way of changing priorities and altering perceptions. Christmas at home felt foreign to me. I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting around opening piles of gifts. I fled the scene and chose to work through the week of Christmas hiking in the desert with struggling teens. After two days of hiking we arrived at the top of a dusty mesa on Christmas Eve. I alternated with Mike, each of us taking two-hour shifts around the clock to keep watch. We gathered wood from Juniper trees and stoked the fire to keep it ready for cold hands at breakfast. We laid out oranges, chocolate and new gloves for each of the girls in our group. The sun rose behind us on the horizon; we spent the day whittling spoons, twisting rope from Dog Bain and flinging rocks from leather slings. In the evening we stared in the distance at the setting sun, a backdrop of pink and purple streaks across the sky. The Arizona Christmas air breathed warm, chasing away heavy sleeping bags until late into the night. We lay back staring into the speckled blackness of the sky, the stars staring down at us, telling their tales.
The scriptures are replete with symbols drawn from nature, the God of Heaven Himself described often in terms from the celestial sky, His voice as thunder, the wind the breath of His Holy Spirit. This wasn’t lost on John Milton when he composed On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, I think we’ve lost some of this.
Christmas became fun for me again around the time my first son turned two. My husband hoisted a small tree over his shoulder, losing pine needles on the train car home to our small apartment. He went to the biggest toy store in Moscow to find the perfect gift and paid too much for a set of astronaut figurines with a NASA spaceship. Sometimes it seems like Christmas has become a list of the perfect gifts for each of our children. Each Christmas Eve we lay out gifts and I photograph our family tree surrounded by glossy packages with even glossier bows. And each Christmas I get a little sick to my stomach at the obscenity of it all.
As the Winter Solstice came, swept in by a total eclipse of the moon, it felt a little different this year. I lay alone on the frosty grass and stared at the majesty of it all, the moon glowing red as it hovered in penumbral phase. The foggy mist cleared, exposing the Big Dipper, Draco, Pisces and Orion—whose foot my son is named after. I remembered how great the insignificance of man (Moses 1:10), and how great the God who created him. At this season I am grateful to the Creator of heaven and earth and for His Son who descended to bear the burdens of mortality alongside us all.
*Having Lost My Sons, I Confront The Wreckage Of The Moon: Christmas, 1960 by James Wright
**Songs, My Songs. Yesenin: The Complete Poetical Works. Bul, Victoria. Pg 75