after the guests have gone…

It is Christmas Eve Eve.

As households all over the world start to swell with the arrival of relatives and friends, our family is experiencing the opposite: a rare moment of having our home to ourselves for a couple of days.

We have a permanent lodger – although really he’s a good friend, and plays the part of a fun uncle as far as our kids are concerned. We eat together, spend evenings together, look after the house together. He left yesterday to be with his family over Christmas. We had another friend staying for a couple of days – he left this morning. On Christmas Day we scoot off to see extended family – but for these two precious days, our home is just the four of us.

This year, our guest book tells us nearly 50 friends and family stayed in our home…including some American friends of friends who stayed when we were away, and whom we have yet to meet. In addition, we housed a theology student on placement for a month, a friend who was without accommodation for a couple of months, and a guy who was here to do the main talks at the York St John mission week. We’ve hosted thank-you suppers, mums’ (and kids’) socials and student meals. We’ve had most of our church over for Sunday lunch. (At least, we had had most of our church over. But it’s hard to keep up when God is growing the church!) And there are friends who pop in regularly – little people come to play, bigger people come to play Settlers of Catan or watch an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Many people come for work-related meetings with Desert Dad – and, if they come near a mealtime, they’ll almost always stay for food. We’ve never been precise with portions, and there’s always enough.

This is not a boast – it’s just the context for why having a couple of days by ourselves is unique and special. The thought of it all may make you feel tired – actually, summarizing it like that makes me feel pretty tired too! Well, here’s what I’ve learned which makes the whole thing loads easier:

* I don’t have to be über-sociable every time someone enters our home. People don’t come because we’re perfect – they come because we’re genuine. We don’t hide our arguments, our strops, our tired moments, our stressful days. I don’t have the energy to play perfect hostess this much. If we only invited people over when I did have the energy, then I can’t imagine what beautiful opportunities for hospitality we would miss.

* God does it. I know this sounds clichéd, but He does. We give Him our home, our cooking, our kids and ourselves – and He shows up and makes it work. I don’t know how, but He does. I know this because people return and return, despite the negative things outlined above.

* God is gracious, and gives us times of rest. Desert Dad and I preserve at least one night each week solely for each other. We preserve (as much as possible) our day off together as a family. We grab little moments here and there whenever we get them. And this couple of days is one of those moments.

Do I regret this lifestyle choice? Because, even though I would argue that it’s what Jesus demands of us, it’s what the Bible calls us to – it is, still, a choice. As we enjoy some quiet time together, I’m so grateful for what my children get from this rather manic, open-door lifestyle. They are both brilliantly confident at talking to adults – from a whole range of backgrounds. They get attention from lots of different people throughout the week. There’s rarely a dull moment in the house! They are learning to put others first – to offer them the chocolates first, to ask what drinks people would like. Yet they know they have a secure place to call home, and a safe haven in the embrace of Mum and Dad, however many people are in the house. They know they are loved – and are learning to love others as they welcome them into our home.

Happy Christmas! Hope you all have a very blessed, peaceful time this week.

From a rather chilled-out Desert Mum xx

the grace of receiving an unwanted gift

As Christmas approaches, I find myself mulling over something which is starting to make me just a little uncomfortable: the possibility of eliminating giving from our Christmas celebrations.

Let me backtrack a little: I often hear people say, or even say myself, variants of “We won’t do presents this year”, “Let’s just give to the kids – we adults don’t need anything” and “Why don’t we do a Secret Santa instead?” Now, don’t get me wrong, there is plenty that is very good about the sentiments beneath these suggestions. Most of us can’t afford to give something exquisite to everyone we know – or even just everyone in our family – and we’re clear that Christmas is about something more meaningful than racking up credit card debt. Also, we know we don’t need more Stuff. So attempts to decrease this buying (which we can’t afford) of presents (which aren’t needed or wanted) can be very sensible.

But there’s a problem when we connect the giving of gifts purely with the accumulation of material possessions.

See, Christmas is about giving. Whether you celebrate Jesus’ birth or not, it’s clear that this is a story all about giving: the giving of God’s son to His people; the giving of Mary in pregnancy and labour; the giving of Joseph in reputation; the giving of the innkeeper in the stable; the giving of the shepherds in adoration and worship; the giving of the wise men in their extravagant gifts. Our tradition of giving stems from this story – and we lose a sense of what Christmas is really about when we stop giving.

One reason we can be keen to eliminate gifts at Christmas is the fear of getting the wrong thing. I know that as I get older, I become more sure of what I like and what I don’t, what I’ll wear and what I won’t, what I’ll display in my home and what I won’t. To be honest, the thought of being given something I dislike does fill me with a sense of futility about the whole procedure. Surely it would have been better to give the money to the poor, I muse, echoing the complaint of Jesus’ onlookers, when a woman gave him, to put it bluntly, a very impractical gift (Matthew 26, Mark 14, John 12). For what do you get for the man who has no home, and no possessions other than those he wears? Perhaps a new robe or a new pair of sandals? Definitely not a jar of expensive perfume. And yet this was exactly the right gift, for it came with the love of its giver.

Gift-giving is not an exact science. We will not get it right every year, with every person we buy for. And neither will they always hit the mark with us. Gift-giving is not an exact science – but neither should it be. Gifts are there to express how we feel about our family and our friends – sure, the product itself might not always be a brilliant choice, but the act of giving it says “I thought of you – I took some time to think of you as I shopped for, or made, your gift”.

Next week, I can pretty much guarantee that all of us will receive some things we don’t like. Perhaps things we hate. How can we receive them graciously, looking not to the unwrapped package, in all its hideous glory, but to the eyes of the giver, and what that person means to us? We invest a lot of time in teaching our children not to be greedy, to be content, that gifts aren’t the main event at Christmas – but it’ll only take them a few seconds to glance at our faces showing obvious disappointment at a gift, and all that will be undone. How can we teach contentment, when we so clearly show that we’re unhappy with our own gifts?

This Christmas, my prayer is to be more gracious – more Christ-like – in the receiving of gifts. I’m not going to lie, but perhaps my response to an unwanted gift might be more focussed on the giver, and not on the gift itself. “That was so kind of you”, “You’re so thoughtful”, “Thanks for thinking of me”. I want to use it as an opportunity to deepen my relationships with those I give to and receive from.

Jesus came to earth as a tangible expression of the relationship God seeks with each one of us. I hope and pray that each one of us can grow in our relationships with each other this Christmas.

the art of the christmas round-robin

Way back before Facebook, the human race had another way of sharing inane details about their lives with those they loved the most: the Christmas round-robin. We still receive a few of these each year, and I have to say they make entertaining reading, although perhaps not always intentionally. This year, we’ve rattled one off for the first time in ages – so if you’re returning to tradition like us and planning to send your news by snail mail, let me offer you a few words of wisdom:

1) Two A4 sides. Absolute max. And don’t be thinking you can shrink the font lower than 11pt and get away with it.

2) Photos. Lots of them. 90% of round-robin readers say they don’t read the text anyway. (This statistic may or may not be true.) The pictures have to tell a story.

3) Hide the evidence. Every employer knows that their staff will use the company photocopier to reel off their Christmas round-robins in full colour – it’s kind of a done deal. But at least you can be discreet and take the master copy with you when finished. I got some interesting gossip from a newsletter left by the machine when I went to do mine.

4) I’m not interested in why you didn’t renovate the bathroom as planned, how you’ve ended up with six cats, or a lowdown of all the possible schools your little one could have gone to, with all their pros and cons. If you want to write this sort of info, do us all a favour and start a blog, where you can drone on about it to your heart’s content, and at least we can ignore you.

5) By all means embarrass your kids if it’ll entertain your readers – after all, you’re writing it for them, not your offspring. Think of it as premature revenge for the hell they’re going to put you through in their teenage years.

6) Add a bit of gloss (and I’m not talking about the photos). Lying? Not at all. It’s merely a bit of ‘artistic license’ – this is an actual Thing that writers use, you know. It elevates your writing. You need to realise that Christmas round-robins function in much the same way as Facebook: people nosey into your life to see if it’s better than theirs. If you’re going to go to the effort of writing up your year, you might as well provoke a bit of envy.

7) Choose your Christmas cards wisely. Folding your carefully-worded Christmas missive seventeen times to cram it into the tiny little envelope along with its tiny little card will only occur Royal Mail charges – for you or for your recipients. And that is not cool.

So there you have it, readers. Never say I don’t do anything for you. And, if you’re on our Christmas card list, expect your round-robin shortly…

a magical Christmas – but where’s the magic?

I am a sucker for Christmas.

I love my festive season with all its trimmings. I adore stirring the Christmas pud with my kids, making mince pies and constructing a gingerbread house with shaky hands before the gloopy sugar cools and hardens. I love getting out our Advent box full of Christmassy books and toys to enjoy throughout December. My heart skips a beat at the thought of present shopping, wrapping and sending. I can’t get enough of Slade and Band Aid and Wham and all the cheese – and I adore singing the carols (preferably in parts, sinking to alto depths then screeching the descants at top volume just because this is what geeky musoes love to do).

In short, there is nothing I don’t like about Christmas. For me it’s a magical time of year, from start to finish – a time which draws together all my favourite things (family, cooking, baking, music, presents, time off) in celebration of Jesus, my Saviour and friend. What could be better?

Every year I engage in long, meaningful discussions with friends about how we can avoid the ‘trappings’ of a Western, consumerist Christmas, and get back to the simplicity of the original narrative. (I’ve had two such conversations in the last four days.) I spend buggy-pushing time wondering how I can make this Christmas more centred around Christ. I search for Advent reflections to help me make this period count. But, on the whole, I think I can hold all these things in balance fairly successfully – yes, we enjoy the material trappings, but our Christmas is certainly about Christ.

However, I’m not so sure our kids are able to balance it all. What message do I give them when I’m furiously herding them into the kitchen to bake some Christmas goodies, or strictly enforcing Christmas-card-colouring-in time, or banging on about Christingle, or Santa, or Bob Geldof? (Mister must be the only five year old in the country who is more familiar with Sir Bob from his early days as the green-trousered frontman of the Boomtown Rats. Honestly.)

I’m not anti these things – if you’re not convinced, perhaps re-read the opening paragraphs of this post. But, since having kids, I’m realising the need for clarity. I can hold the various elements of Christmas festivity in balance – but they probably can’t, and neither should I expect them to. So, the question is: what are we celebrating this Christmas? Because the narrative which truly gives our Christmas its magic – the story which sparkles infinitely beyond any Christmas myth, film or song – is what I want my kids to remember. It changes us in December – but, more than that, it changes us through the year.

Christmas is a magical time for kids. But if we source that magic from the Disney store, trips to see Santa, Christingle services, tree-decorating or anything temporary, we run the risk of breeding a generation of materialistic, self-centred individuals who know nothing of their place in the most incredible story of all time.

I want my kids to have a magical Christmas. And this starts with telling them the most amazing story ever known: that God should not leave us in our chaos and mess, but send His son to live among us, to understand, to empathise, to die and be resurrected. How our house is decorated will point to this story. The songs we sing will point to this story. The food will celebrate the story. But mainly, we will be telling the story – because this story is the true magic of Christmas, the magic which lasts and doesn’t fade.

* In case any of you are concerned about my use of the word ‘magic’, I offer this disclaimer. No connection to black magic or anything otherwise un-Christian is intended – my use of the word is based on its prominence in the language used around Christmas time. For example, M&S rebrand as ‘Magic and Sparkle’ throughout the Christmas season; parents talk of wanting to make the season ‘magical’ for their children; Christmas activities are marketed as ‘magical’.

If you’re not bothered about my use of the word, forget I ever said any of this.