In the current issue of New Times (Uniting Church in South Australia's monthly newspaper), a few Uniting Church folk were invited to ponder Christmas Joy. In my paragraphs, I anticipate a Christmas without the joys of Christmases past - I will be far away from my family; I will hear, but not tell the story; I will sing, but not play the songs; it will be freezing cold, not blisteringly hot.
Here's what actually happened.
Via the internet, I watched some of the Carols with my sisters - a tradition they started some years ago, and which I don't usually share, as I'm off leading a worship service or two.
I was late for the Christmas Eve carols and lessons, having mixed up my times (and I was very wet and windswept having walked through wild Edinburgh 'Weather'), but I did indeed listen to the story without telling it; sang the songs without playing them.
Until I got home. There is hardly anyone in residence in my accommodation complex, and no one but me in my block, so the self-consciousness I had felt about playing clarinet in my flat with neighbours so close disappeared, and I took out my beloved friend and we played carols while my dinner cooked in the oven.
After dinner, I continued with my cross stitch as I listened to a radio drama of Dickens's A Christmas Carol: I haven't listened to radio drama before, and think I will do more of it. Then I heard the watch night service I had been involved with making. BBC Scotland recorded this program at Greyfriars' some weeks ago, and I read one of the Bible portions.
So I did play the songs, did help tell the story, after all – the things of Christmas that bring me joy.
I awoke early - for me, the night owl, 6:30 am is early - and connected by the internet, I enjoyed a champagne breakfast whilst my family had bubbles and nibbles, and we talked and laughed and opened presents. Different to Christmases past in that one of us was beaming in from the other side of the world, having breakfast; the same in that late afternoon after one sister and brother in law have had lunch with his family, we share our gifts with each other and drink bubbly.
Mid-morning, I joined with one of my Christian communities, the folk of Greyfriars' kirk (on time, today). In some moments, it felt just like Christmas - carols, joy, a message reminding us of light and challenging us to carry it into every day. In others, the unfamiliarity of this new experience of Christmas was more pressing - different carols, no family members, I was in the pews, not presiding.
The afternoon and evening overflowed with joy new and somehow still familiar. Sharing a love of beer with others, we tried different brews from local producers in and around Edinburgh. Sharing the age-old tradition of nurture through good food, we ate, we ate, we ate. Our meal was made by folk from America, so much of it was new to me, pumpkin pie and roast chestnuts in prosciuto and barbecue sauce, and the joy was even greater for this introduction to my friends' traditions. Sharing a love of games at Christmas, we chose a game that was familiar to many in the room, one family from America, me from Australia. And my, how we laughed and schemed and delighted in playful competition!
Our hosts have a book in which they record the special moments: I was invited to fill a page for our Christmas day. Not being so talented with the visual arts, I composed a poem.
In the bright midwinter,
walk we t'ward the hearth
of friendship newly born here
in old Dun Eiden town;
hasten we across the field,
on the city's holy road,
with gifts we come,
find sacred gifts abounding –
and laugh we deep and full.
Now aglow as only folk can be
who embrace the miracles of life,
traversing sacred paths
through song and story old
into the heart of hope
with joy and sigh of peace.
Late into the night we walked home through empty, icy streets, though I hardly felt the cold at all.
It was different in so many ways, this Christmas present - eating food of American tradition, drinking Scottish beer, not with my parents and siblings. But it was the same as Christmases past, with good food and drink, laughter, love, games (and one - Phase 10 - I play often with my family), crackers (which was new to the Americans in the room), poetry, and joy. So much joy. A Christmas present, indeed.
As Christmas Day turned over to Boxing Day, I was with my family again - beamed into another lounge room, as they ate breakfast this time, and I ate nothing at all, having no room for anything more! We watched the start of the Boxing Day Test (biggest cricket match in the Australian summer for those from non-Commonwealth countries) together as we have for most years of my life. Different, but still, somehow, the same.
This year, my family and I are separated by half the globe - but with Skype conversations bookending my Christmas Day, and the familiar story and songs, the love of friends in between (in person and via email and Facebook), I hardly felt that distance at all. I may not have got a white Christmas, but I did get joy - and far beyond expectation.
Thank you, one and all. Merry Christmas.