[Note: this is Part 5 of a 5-part advent series. If you missed the earlier posts, start here!]
Every year I’m surprised at how quickly Christmas is here and gone. In our house we extend the fun by having the whole family over in the evening on Christmas Day. We eat a big meal. Again. Then we scoot the furniture back and have a dance party, to the tune of Kidz Bop songs.
Jesus was born at the wrong end of time for many—too late for all the people who died awaiting their Messiah, too early for those who didn’t get the political firebrand they wished for. I think of Baby Jesus wrapped in linen and sleeping in a nest of hay, like the baby bird hatched at the tail-end of November.
He was born at the bottom of the staircase, among the animals, a horse of a different color, a baby bird nestled with hopes and dreads. Unlike you and I, who never asked to be born, Jesus freely poured himself out and put on animal skin.
Early Christmas morning, cold and dark, I heard the phone ring downstairs. I tried to go back to sleep, but I knew even then that a phone call at 4 a.m. meant bad news. Christmas 1984 was a blur of funeral arrangements and phone calls and disbelief that God hadn’t healed my grandma.
At the bottom of the staircase in her house of wonders was a wooden baluster topped with a finial that looked just like a fat cinnamon roll. She had stood at the foot of the staircase as long as she could, but that Christmas morning she was carried upstairs, healed into another place. When I meet her someday in brand new skin, I believe she’ll be wearing blessed assurance all over her face and gold dancin’ shoes on her feet.
On a recent morning too cold to exercise outside, I drove to the mall and stood in the warmth near Dillard’s while untangling my earbuds. Over the mall speakers a Christmas song I’d never heard before pierced the pre-shopping silence: Tony Bennett’s recording of “Christmasland,” with lyrics by Brian Farnon.
It begins with some pleasant holiday-song clichés: “Come along, follow me / Let me take you to Christmasland.” Then it veers in a whole new direction: “Waiting there for you / You will see all the friends you knew.” What is this place? It’s a place where all the friends you knew—past tense—are waiting. Christmasland sounds a lot like heaven: “In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore . . .”
The song returns in the next few lines to twentieth-century Christmas themes: “Santa Claus will be there / There’ll be toys and some mistletoe / All the things that you loved as a child / Many years ago.” So, it’s like heaven, but it’s located in the past, somewhere east of childhood and west of nostalgia.
I was struck by how the song conflates Christmas and heaven in a way I’d never seen before—in a way that losing my grandma on Christmas morning had already whispered to my subconscious. It allows for seemingly unlike things to sit side-by-side: anticipation and sorrow, Baby Jesus among the animals, expectation and not knowing just what to expect. In the subtlest way it sweeps from hope to peace to joy to love to the arrival of a long-expected savior. It’s a song of advent, in the lowercase.
“Come and take my hand. / We’ll find happiness. / Let’s go to Christmasland.”