I’ll share with you my first Christmas memory. It has nothing to do with Jesus, shepherds, or Magi – or even St. Nicholas. I was four years old. My father was working in sales for 3M, and he must have been doing well, because that year my family moved out of a cramped two-bedroom starter home into a brand-new home. A home with hardwood floors that we could slide on in our stockinged feet. A home with a stone and glass fireplace between the living room and family room, where our Christmas stockings could be hung, and Santa could squeeze down the chimney.
Christmastime in southeastern Pennsylvania seems to be infrequently white, but that Christmas it snowed, and snowed, and snowed some more. All day long, while my mother was busy in the kitchen whipping up a holiday feast and my Grandmommie White sat in front of the fire with her knitting, the snow fell, changing our neighborhood from a familiar suburban subdivision into a strange landscape of winter white.
My mother’s parents and grandmother (also known as Grammy, Pop, and Nana) were on their way to our new home for a Christmas visit. They were coming from rural New Jersey, where Grammy and Pop had been dairy farmers. They were literally traveling over the Delaware River and through Penn’s Woods. Pop was a Buick man. Although I have no recollection of the car he was driving that year, I’m sure it was enormous, boat-like, possibly with fins and bright silver hubcaps. This was, of course, before the day of all-season-radial tires and all-wheel-drive SUVs. I am certain that Pop’s Buick was a dream for a Sunday-after-church drive, but it was not a vehicle of choice for a long snowy journey.
All day long, we waited, and we waited, and we waited, for Grammy, Pop, and Nana to arrive as we watched the snow grow deeper. Although my Dad made a number of forays out to shovel the deepening snow, we didn’t see the snowplow. Nor did we see any cars venturing down the long hill that led from Route 202 to the new house on Buckingham Drive that we called home. I suspect my Mom was worried.
Pop, in the meantime, was intrepidly inching his Buick along the road to Doylestown. It was an impressive accomplishment, especially since he probably had plenty of backseat-driving-advice from Nana, by far the most formidable and opinionated member of the family. Born Anna Elisabeth Stelzenmuller to German immigrant parents in Flatbush Brooklyn, Nana had long ago ditched her German roots. She went instead by the Americanized name “Betty.” She was a hairdresser and fashion icon, in the days before anyone had ever heard of fashion icons. She always smelled of the exotic scent of Shalimar. Nana as hair stylist had spent many years on her feet – and she had the feet to prove it. They were all arthritic knobs and bunions, corns and tough callouses. Yet, somehow Nana packaged those beauties into the most fashionable of footwear – pointy-toed pumps of sumptuous suede or patent leather with kitten heels and bows or buckles.
Pop’s Buick made it all the way to Doylestown. At the top of the long, steep Berkshire Road that led down to our home, Pop took one look at the unplowed, snowy depths, pulled over, and ordered, “Everyone out. We walk from here.” They did just that. Pop was loaded down with presents. Grammy carried at least one pie and undoubtedly a Jello salad. And my Nana following in their wake in her fashionable shoes. I remember the knock on the door and my family gathering around to welcome them in from the cold. We were all full of laughter and tears and wonder.
I remember what happened next, too. My Grandmommie White had put down her knitting. She was a nurse by trade and knew exactly what was needed to thaw frozen feet. She filled the tea kettle to warm water on the stove. Once it was piping hot, she filled a basin, took a soft towel, and then she knelt at my Nana’s feet. She took off my Nana’s now ruined shoes, and then she began to massage and wash those terrible, ugly feet – bunions, bulges, callouses, and all. Most Christians practice the rite of footwashing at Easter, as they remember the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his friends. But that year, my Grandmommie washed feet at Christmas.
Thinking back to that Christmas many years ago, I’ll tell you what I learned: Christmas is about love. It’s about the kind of love that makes you inch your way through a snowstorm in a big old Buick. It’s about the kind of love that frets all day in the kitchen while you think about your kin, traveling hazardous roads. It’s about the kind of love that sends you walking through deep snow with a big white fuzzy dog with a pink bow clamped under your arm to give to your first granddaughter. It’s the kind of love that sends you to your knees to wash feet, even Nana’s feet.
Over the years, I’ve learned that all that love gives us a taste of the Holy Love that came down to us at Christmas. In our love for one another is the echo of God-made-flesh, of God born to poor peasant parents, of God who chose to draw first breath in the barnyard muck, surrounded by sheep and goats, donkeys and oxen, camels, hens and doves. Love came down at Christmas in a tiny babe, the Christ-child, who would one day teach the world what it truly means to love – big-hearted, open-armed, without limits.
May your Christmas be filled with love.
1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.