Christmas first captured me with its magic when I was five. My aunts, uncles, and cousins had traveled from every direction to congregate in our modest South Dakota home where Thanksgiving had left us satisfied with food and laughter. Yet I woke the day after our turkey feast instinctively aware that something had changed.
I think it was the smell that first pulled me up through dreams back into wakefulness. Wafts of melting cinnamon on twists of fresh bread curled their fingers around my shoulders and lifted me from my cocoon of quilts, wooing me to the kitchen. Something even more wonderful than breakfast pastries awaited me there, as a roomful of aunts, grandmas, and my little sister (whom the cinnamon rolls had first taken captive) greeted me with hugs and smiles.
We laughed and told stories for hours, our hands busy mixing cookie dough. I rolled the peanut butter bites in sugar, sometimes sneaking a taste when I didn’t think anyone was looking. Across the counter, mom explained the secret of her sugar cookies—something about cream cheese. The grownups laughed at a comment about calories, which I didn’t understand. What I did understand was the delicious vanilla almond flavor that danced across my taste buds and made me glad I was a girl in this particular family, so I could eat these secret cream cheese cookies.
While the cookies cooled on wax paper on every inch of the kitchen counter, we moved into the living room to decorate the tree. It stood like an elegant lady, towering above me in evergreen glory. The lady wore beautiful crystals and iridescent ribbon, holding in her branches perfect spheres of blown glass in which I could see my wide-eyed reflection. I couldn’t help myself but gasp when somebody turned the light off, and she glowed in a hushed holiness in the corner of the room. We wound garland across the banister, and finished with crimson, velvet bows, adorning the staircase to welcome visitors into our haven of a home.
My mom sat down at the oak piano, and gently pressed the keys. The strains of “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” and “Away in a Manger” floated off the vibrating strings, softly landing upon my ears and striking a chord deep within me, resonant in my soul. Several of my family members began to sing along with the carols. As the music enveloped us, the lovely tree lady pointed upward in elegance. The flavors of vanilla lingered in the air.
It was so beautiful, I cried. The tears formed in my eyes and raced down my cheeks. I was sad. I was happy. I didn’t know what I was, but I felt so satisfied and so empty at the same time. Reassuring and beautiful angst wrapped me up that evening, as all my senses feasted on the Christmas wonder of our home.
Twenty-five Christmas seasons have passed since that first magical experience. Each year, the day after Thanksgiving, my soul begins again to stir, wistful for that day—I long to wake up to the smell of baking, to hear the laughter of generations of women in my family upstairs. I feel the still-painful tenderness of the loss and absence of some of those women, remembering my grandma’s bubbly laughter, and my aunt’s dry sense of humor. I smile a little at the memory of a towering tree lady, who, these days, is a lot closer to my own height and stature. I do my best to make her beautiful, but she just isn’t quite as lovely as she was twenty-five years ago. It’s the same story with the piano. Try as I might to pluck out the familiar songs, my mom is still a better pianist than I, and her music more moving than my own.
Even as an adult, that empty fullness, that beautiful pain, plagues me. At Christmas time, my senses awaken, and grow sharper and more sensitive, more alive. Memories click into clear focus, and nostalgia transports me back to a time of carefree innocence. I’d give anything to spend this season with my loved ones, to feel wrapped up in comfort, security, and the knowledge that all is as it should be. I’m homesick for a different time and a different place, and I feel the gaping distance of every one of those 871 miles that separate me from my family’s South Dakota home.
This nostalgic longing lives deeply within each of us. Whether ten years old or thirty, the tug of memories and the simplicity of a more innocent time moves each of us to attempt a recreation of the magic we experienced as children. We decorate and bake, we wrap gifts, we pass down cream cheese sugar cookie recipes to new generations. Yet nothing can ease that ache. For as beautiful as it is, Christmas is laced with longing and tempered with homesickness.
C. S. Lewis wrote of this homesick wistfulness in The Weight of Glory. “I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence . . . our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. . . . But all this is a cheat.”
Perhaps our nostalgia is a beacon, not calling for a return to days gone by, but to alert us to a coming reality. A new world that whispers to us in glowing lights and hot cocoa that warms us from the inside out. It showcases its reality in family laughter around a dining room table, the aroma of vanilla, and sound waves that interlock in perfect harmony. Could the longing we feel actually anticipate a world of enchantment and peace and security, rather than reminisce of one?
Lewis goes on.
The books or the music or the tree or the Christmas carols in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. . . . For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
Perhaps we have been mistaken. Perhaps our nostalgia isn’t for childhood gatherings and peaceful carols, but rather for a country we have never yet visited. Like a word on the tip of our tongue, or a dream we desperately try to remember upon waking, our Christmas longings are echoes and promises of a coming country—a country whose regular reality is a whole lot more like Christmas than every other part of the year.
Perhaps at Christmas, we taste what is to come in the New Kingdom—security, belonging, family, peace, wonder. Christmas strikes a chord within us, and our souls resonate with the world for which we were made. Maybe in the magic of Christmas, God is whispering, “You’re almost home.” Perhaps our longing is not for what has been, but for what is to come.