I never knew either of my grandfathers, but I did know Richard. He had mentored my father back when Dad was a freshly minted Ph.D., just learning how to be a professor. Their offices were side by side, and to have an office next to Richard was to gain a friend – if for no other reason than that Richard’s voice could be heard as easily in your office as in his own. But it was this strong voice that I waited for each Christmas, when he would come to my house to share a meal.
These were magical dinners for a small boy. The dining room table was cleared of papers and trinkets. Candles were lit, and their flames flickered and danced by reflection in the glassware. The silver was polished and laid beside the fancy plates – the ones you knew you would be in trouble if you dropped. The smells of a kitchen being fully used mingled together and wafted through the house. All the preparations were made; there was nothing to do but pretend to be patient while waiting for Richard.
When he arrived, it was always the same, even as the years began to take their toll: the same smile, the same small laugh, the same big hug. We would all sit in the same chairs, and Richard would tell us the same stories – the ones about gators and snakes and growing up in the swamps of Kissimmee, Fla., and playing pass receiver at Newberry College. This was Christmas, more so than presents or cookies or trees. Christmas was hearing these stories, letting them work inside us as we found our place in them.
Now that I am a minister, it is amazing how little has changed about Christmas. Richard is no longer with us, yet I still gather with family every year to hear the same story, no longer of gators and swamps, but of angels and shepherds and good news of great joy for all people. I gather to sing the same hymns and carols, to pray the same prayers. I gather to be lost, again, in a story bigger than myself, to allow this story to work within me as I find my place in it. This is Christmas, more so than presents or cookies or trees. Christmas is hearing, yet again, how God comes to be with us so we can be with God.