Christmas Dinner with People I Don’t Know – The Abrahamic Version

Our sons and their families are not strange. But they are far away — and one family is Jewish, so we don’t do Christmas with them. That’s been OK in previous years, because Christmas Day was the day I collapsed after all the Advent activities, two or three services on Christmas Eve and, if Christmas fell on a Sunday, on Christmas morning, as well.

This year, free of that activity, we learned about some other folks who were going to be alone at Christmas. We contacted them, pooled our resources and everyone gathered around the table at our house on Christmas Day. About half of us were Christian. The other half Jewish.

When the meal began, I knew everyone from a little bit to not at all. Then, we shared stories of where we came from, people we missed at this time of the year, and kindnesses we have received in the past year. After the sharing of stories, I understood at a deeper level my wife, Jacquie’s, observation: “To know someone’s story is the love them.”

The coincidence of the gathering of relative strangers on Christmas Day has made me ponder the theme of hospitality that runs through all three Abrahamic religions.

For example, I have heard stories coming out of Iraq of American soldiers breaking down the doors of houses in search of insurgents, only to be offered tea by the Muslim family whose home they invaded, so strong is the teaching that those who “believe in God and the Last Day” will offer hospitality even to those who come unannounced.

Christians and Jews remember Abraham’s hospitality to strangers who came with the promise of an impossible child. Thus, a Jewish Christian wrote in the first century, those who welcome strangers may “entertain angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

At Passover, a place at the table is set for Elijah.

At Christmas, our manger scenes testify that Jesus came into a world that believes it has no room for strangers, and those who find the real meaning of Christmas seek to reverse that.

Henri Nouwen defined “hospitality” as making room for other people to be themselves. What I did not realize is that the ostensible host gets to be himself or herself, too.

Often, when we gather with relatives — or even with old friends — we think we know everyone and everyone thinks they know us. Recall a family gathering in which you were treated as if you were the 10-year-old you used to be. Family gatherings are great blessings, but they can hamstring us into old roles that we have outgrown — or want to outgrow.

Dinner with strangers, on the other hand, can reveal something new and delightful — maybe something that you thought was impossible, if you give each other room to be yourselves.

Christmas Dinner With People I Don’t Know

Nine relative strangers joined us for dinner on Christmas Day. That may be better than eating with nine strange relatives. Let me explain . . .

We belong to a co-op for older people. Like a babysitting co-op, we trade favors; rides to the doctor’s office or the airport are high on the list. And we get together socially. We are very close to some of the members, especially our sponsors, but we don’t know everyone. About a week before Christmas, one of the organizers of the co-op sent an email to its fifty-some members asking if any of those who would be alone on Christmas Day would like to join her for dinner and a movie.

WE were going to be alone on Christmas Day, since the East Coast half of our extended family is Jewish and the other half lives so far away on the West Coast. Jacquie decided to invite everyone to our house who wanted to come for Christmas dinner.

The folks who came were people I knew from a little bit to not at all. Jacquie knew everyone at least a little bit. We were about equally balanced between Christians and Jews.

As we began dessert, Jacquie asked each person to respond briefly to three questions:

  • What is your name and what is one thing you want us to know about you?
  • Who did you once spend the holidays with that you are thinking of this year?
  • What was the greatest act of kindness you received this year?

One of our guests talked about her husband of 55 years. She met him at a meeting she had organized to protest the execution of the Rosenbergs.

One guest read a “Lake Woebegone” type of reminiscence about good-hearted women she remembered from her childhood. I noted her detail that a lot of these good hearts were baptized Lutheran but became Methodists as their hearts enlarged.

One guest, a retired physician, described his desire to treat a new patient, humanity, which is in danger of dying from climate change.

His wife described the transformation of her own heart as she participated in caring for a dying friend.

Several people who moved here from such different places as Central Europe, the East Coast or the hills of Kentucky described kindnesses that they received as they found a new home in Cleveland.As we looked back on Christmas dinner from Boxing Day, it struck me that it was different from a family gathering in that, when family gathers around a holiday table, everyone thinks that they know you. They probably do. It is good to be known — and loved.

But when strangers gather around a holiday table, we are open to discovering new things about other people, and ourselves. They get to tell their stories and we get to choose what we will tell them. As we listen carefully to each other, we also get listened to. And we listen to ourselves. We come to know ourselves and others in a new way. A marvelous Christmas present.

Have an Awful Christmas

Another blog to which I subscribe introduced me to this letter written by a German soldier standing guard in the Russian winter in late December 1942:

“The most beautiful Christmas I had ever seen, made entirely of disinterested emotion and stripped of all tawdry trimmings. I was all alone beneath an enormous starred sky, and I can remember a tear running down my frozen cheek, a tear neither of pain nor of joy but of emotion created by intense experience.”’

Can you imagine how awful his Christmas was? How far this young man, barely out of his teens, was from his home and family? How cold he must have been to have tears freeze to his cheeks? How he feared that he would not live to see another Christmas?

Yet, that enormous starred sky created the most beautiful Christmas he ever saw.

It reminded me of Christmas on the farm in Southwestern New York where I grew up. It was a lonely place far from the city lights that I take so much for granted these days. The snow-covered fields and the woods that surrounded us were silent. The barn where we milked the cows steamed in the cold as the animals ate from their feed troughs, AKA “mangers”.

It was easy to imagine an awful Christmas when a young woman and her husband were denied shelter by their fellow humans and found refuge with the animals.

But above all this was the sky filled with stars, so it was also easy to imagine the stars that once began to swirl, like a Van Gogh painting, turning into angels who sang about peace on earth and goodwill for everyone.

Into this night, a baby is born. In some ways the most awful and most awe-full thing that can happen.

I don’t really wish you an awful Christmas, not like the one that soldier had; not like the one Mary and Joseph had. It’s just that awful Christmases are unavoidable.

Sometimes, it is in our awful Christmases that we see the real beauty of Christmas stripped of tawdry trimmings. Just as we are able to see the wondrous stars when it is really dark, so we are able to experience the awe-fullness of Christmas the most when Christmas is awful.

Christmas comes around every December 25th to ask us, “Do you get it, yet? Do you understand?”

“Presents?” asked our 4-year-old grandson.

The word came up in a conversation between his parents and grandparents the day after Thanksgiving. We didn’t know that he was listening — and he probably wasn’t — until someone said “presents”. The very word “presents” conjured visions of wrapping paper and action figures for the 4-year-old and it grabbed his attention. He knew about presents.  The next month would go slow for a 4-year-old waiting for Christmas 2006.

It would go even slower for his Mom, who was eight months pregnant at that Thanksgiving.

I was one of the many adults in my grandson’s life who talked with him excitedly about the new baby that was coming. He listened to this chatter about a new baby respectfully because he loved the people who were talking to him and sensed their excitement, but it didn’t mean nearly as much to him as boxes wrapped with pretty paper under the Christmas tree.

Ten years later, our smart, articulate grandson probably couldn’t tell you what was in any of the boxes under the tree that Christmas, but he could tell you some of the differences the smart, articulate little girl that was born a few days after Christmas has made in his life. Furthermore, I’ll bet he’ll be able to appreciate her impact even more 50 years from now.

“Jesus is the the reason for the season”, probably sounds to most of us like “You are going to have a baby sister” sounds to a 4-year-old. We listen respectfully, because sometimes those who use such words have  internalized their meaning and speak with joy and wonder — just the way a grandparent speaks of the arrival of a new grandchild. But, most of us just don’t get it — and neither does the World into which He was born.

I have seen almost 70 Christmases and I am only beginning to understand what difference this Child has made in my life and in the world.

“Love your neighbor as yourself”

“Do unto others what you would want others to do for you.”

Yes, others said the same thing before Him and independently of Him, but because He said it, those words have a force that pushes back at the attitudes of privilege and hatred that threaten to tear apart our communities, our country and our world.

  • His story about a man of another religion and race stopping to help a stranger counters all of our fears about how those people are out to get us.
  • When we set His life of giving over against our lives of consuming, we cannot help but feel that there is a better way to live.
  • His mission of forgiveness and healing makes us question our military expenditures and our prisons and our vindictive sense of justice that is eroding our economy and our culture.
  • The story and songs about His birth to a homeless couple in a barn in the darkest part of the night at the darkest time of the year have helped hundreds of millions of people look for hope in the most hopeless situations.
  • The story about his family becoming refugees before he could walk have caused people 2,000 years later to show kindness to those that our current King Herods want to ignore or exterminate.

Those are my answers to the question Christmas 2016 is asking.

What are you discovering about Christmas this year?