When you move to a new country, the people around you become your family. For us as a young pastor’s family in Nyon, Switzerland, our church became family to us. Being a community of many different nationalities and cultures, Christmas was a big deal for our big family, and my mind always wanders back to memories of Christmases gone by.
She had special outfits just for Christmas – I remember green shoes, and a red blazer, and a tartan skirt. There was some sparkle in there, too. She tastefully planned the church’s Christmas decorations weeks in advance – wreaths, candles, tree ornaments, tinsel…nothing was missed, and her cheer was contagious (not just at Christmas.)
We decided to get fancy and have real candles at our Carols by Candlelight services. The lights were dimmed, and boxes of candles were ready to be handed out to the congregation. We even had specially cut-out cardboard holders so that wax wouldn’t drip onto anyone’s fingers. What wasn’t planned for was the wax dripping onto a visitor’s expensive fur coat…or the flame that caught onto someone’s luscious locks from the candle behind her.
Dad dressed up as Santa for Quiver Club, the mother and toddler group. My sister and I got as excited as the rest of them, but his hands and Northern Irish accent (there weren’t too many of those around Switzerland at the time!) were a dead giveaway. We kept quiet and enjoyed the performance – which child doesn’t enjoy being ‘in’ on a Big Secret?
Accents were a fun part of our community – we all appreciated/laughed at each other’s (“hey Gemma, say the number between seven and nine!”), all the while merging our own into a slightly more third-culture sound. Then there were the funny mispronunciations in Sunday School. I remember a little boy standing up and boldly explaining Christmas to the congregation one year: “Christmas is Jesus’ barfday.”
Then there were the elders’ meetings at our house on Sunday nights after church. We’d come home with mum, be fed French toast and then head to our rooms at the back of the house. The laughter that followed from the living room was comfortingly distracting, and after a number of these meetings, my sister and I penned a song to the tune of ‘I, the Lord of sea and sky’ (remember that?!) –
Silly elders, it is you-ou
I have heard you laughing in the night
Drinking Coke (Diet, to be precise) and eating chocolate
I’ll remember you for years to come
And there was a lot more music, especially at Christmas time. We’d spend weeks preparing – choir, band, sometimes a mini-orchestra. We went over songs and parts and kept our sheet music in specially folders that she had specially organised and designed for us. There was a group of us who loved to sing and one Christmas, we got to be a part of a Christmas Tour (that is, we sang in one of the church’s sites in the morning, and the other in the evening). Still, it was so exciting and I realise now that these times were instrumental (pun intended) in launching many a musical endeavour since. We spent ages picking our outfits – mine turned out to be a bit of a fluke, though, when I sat down at the back of the stage during someone else’s solo and, when I got back up, found my stiletto-adorned foot, suffering from a bad case of pins and needles, to be refusing to let go of my skirt (nothing a good leap up in the air couldn’t fix.) I can almost hear the raucous giggles that ensued from that episode. I miss them.
But the one memory that is most vivid to me is one of him. We were tiny at the time and had just had our Sunday school Christmas party. Dissecting peanuts and trying to avoid eye-squirts while unpeeling tangerines, we sat there on the grey carpet while the grown-ups packed up and chatted, the smell of cinnamon and mulled wine lingering in the foyer. We were always last to leave – pastor’s family’s duty, right?! The sugar rush from the last of all the candy canes we’d eaten an hour before suddenly came upon us and we decided to have one last dance, 8.10PM rebels that we were. After spinning in circles in the hope that our dresses would become wings, we collapsed again into the sea of ribbon and peanut shells and glitter. And I looked up and saw an elder of the church, an american businessman whose three sons were the ‘cool kids’ of the church (one of whom later became one of the kindest and most inspiring bosses I’ve ever had). He had a smile on his face and a vacuum cleaner in his hand. The rest of the clean-up crew had gone home, and he was left, restoring some peace to the madness that had ensued.
It’s a simple memory; but the fact that it has stayed with me is something I’ve often wondered about. It wasn’t an unusual sight to see this man helping out in practical ways as well as sharing his strategic mind and caring heart. But I remember the scene so clearly – probably 20 years since it happened.
And I suppose, rather than trying to draw Big Life Lessons from it, I’m reminded that it’s often the simple, quiet, everyday things that have an impact on people. The seemingly menial tasks, or gentle words, or kind looks. These are the things we remember – and are remembered for. They can be hidden, especially around Christmas, under a pile of ribbon and peanuts and glitter. Let’s take care not to forget them, or throw them away. They are profound, and meaningful…and etched in the memory of that little 8 year old girl, dancing on the carpet, drinking in the world around her.