“The angel said to them: ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David, a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:1-14.
In early October, I was back on familiar ground, namely Manhattan, the City of New York, and walking along West 21st & Tenth Avenue, passing by the General Theological Seminary where I had taken a graduate course, many, many years ago.
It was on this very site, in the 1840s, where a professor of ancient languages, Clement Clarke Moore, penned the most memorable of Christmas poems.
Girls and boys, maybe you can help me. I think you know it.
“’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a mouse.
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, with the hopes that Saint Nicholas would soon be there.
“With a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be Saint Nick.”
This venerable poem, known as a “Visit from Saint Nicholas,” became instantly popular thanks in part to the newly emerging Penny Press. This emerging new social media of the time forwarded the beginnings of American literature with writers like Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, and illustrators like Thomas Nast, who captured the image of a Santa Claus in his art.
Moore himself came from a wealthy family that speculated in land development, including that section of Manhattan known as Chelsea. He was the father of nine children, so the recitation of this holiday poem was a family entertainment for young and old.
Imagine, instead of Play Station 5, a father reading to his kids. How novel, maybe we should try it sometime!
The idea for “’Twas the Night Before” as well as the precise authorship draws heavily on the Dutch heritage of New Amsterdam, much the way Washington Irving created tales like Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Most of all, this poem gave New Yorkers a way of celebrating Christmas, which we still cling to and has taken hold of our culture and holiday imagination.
Back on the streets of New York, from General Theological, it takes only four minutes to walk from the seminary toward the Hudson River to what is now known as New York City’s High Line.
What had once been a raised railroad spur of the New York Central Railroad to load cargo onto the Erie Canal is now a 1.45-mile elevated urban park, the High Line.
More than that, the gardens in the lush summertime and architectural design have become so popular that it’s a prime tourist attraction. To my mind, it’s an example of how something that looked obsolete, impractical, and ready to be torn down, has been re-purposed and creatively re-imagined.
Yes, let’s not re-build, and replace, instead let’s re-imagine our present and future.
So what’s the connection with Christmas?
I would argue both the poem and the urban park are examples of reclaiming what is ours, giving both this Christmas season and this urban space a new purpose, the potential for further growth.
With time, resources, and mostly imagination, these might spark a renewal not just of hotels or restaurants, seminaries, or even the relocation of the Whitney Museum but the community itself and our best efforts for civic fellowship. Yes, it’s not tear down. Nor retire and replace. Instead, let’s re-imagine.
People ask me, so you’re retired? I reply, no, I’m re-purposed! This is as true for me, as it is true for all of us in our personal, civic, and religious lives.
By the year 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi created the first of these barnyard scenes of the crèche or crib to help us re-imagine the miracle of Christ’s birth.
Francis’s idea was to encourage believers to enter more fully into the nativity. Here all of the participants, including the oxen and mules, praise the God of all creation.
So welcome the birth of this child and all children.
And welcome, once again, the promise of the new year 2020.
Our prayer is that we possess the clarity of 2020 vision and embrace this world of ours — with imagination, purpose, and the grace of Jesus Christ.
So kids, let’s end here, and I can use your help!
“And laying his finger aside from his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim as ere he drove out of sight – Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.
A Christmas reading Gifts of the Magi – A selection from “Simple Abundance”
By Sarah Ban Breathnach.
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” Jo March (Louisa May Alcott) in Little Women.
Jo’s right. Remember when she grumbled about not having any money for presents in Little Women? Christmas is about gifts. Always has been.
But we feel uncomfortable with this emphasis on gimme, gimme, gimme. Buy, buy, buy. Charge, charge, charge.
We admonish our children to remember the reason for the season, even though we have difficulty remembering it ourselves when we’re caught up in the chaos and commotion of the holidays.
Oh, yes. Christmas is all about gifts. Nothing but gifts. But such gifts!
Gifts tied with heartstrings.
Gifts that surprise and delight.
Gifts that transform the mundane into the miraculous. Gifts that nurture the souls of both the giver and the given.
Perfect gifts. Authentic gifts.
The gifts of the spirit, a frightened teenage girl, her bewildered sweetheart, the Child, the angels, the shepherd boy, the inn-keepers’ wife. The gifts of the Magi.
Unconditional love. Selflessness. Trust. Faith. Forgiveness. Wholeness. Second Chances. Comfort. Joy. Peace. Reassurance. Rejoicing. Generosity. Compassion. Charity. Wonder. Acceptance. Courage.
To give such gifts. To truly open our hearts to receive such gifts gratefully.
Christmas just won’t be Christmas without any presents.
On “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” (12/13/19) Niall Horan, the popular singer and Irish leprechaun, reads ‘Twas the Night before Christmas in seven accents. Very funny!