Pumpkins on the front porch are rotting. Thanksgiving leftovers are almost gone. It’s time to crawl into the storage closet under the stairs to bring out our Christmas decorations. As is our annual habit, we replace our normal decor with festive trimmings.
We set up the freshly cut tree, and within hours it’s bedecked with ribbon, lights, and ornaments. I hang the stockings just so on the mantel. Figures of snowmen with carrot noses and charcoal eyes bring cheer to our guest bathroom. We put away the everyday coffee mugs and replace them with cups of Joy, Peace, and other merry wishes.
With a nostalgic ache in my heart, I set up my Christmas village on the landing. The miniature house, store, school, and church—all purchased years ago from the gift shop at my parents’ Christmas tree farm—remind me of days gone by. The farm is now out of business, but lights from the village’s tiny windows still illuminate our stairway as we retire for our long winter’s naps. With a lump in my throat, I imagine my parents smiling down from heaven.
In the music room I unpack the beaded ornaments my great-aunt gave us as a wedding gift. I set up the angels on their designated shelf and the carolers atop the upright piano.
Finally, out comes the Christmas clock. As annoying as it can be with its twangy electronic tunes and mini flashing lights, the kids—now all young adults—insist on its presence. I unpack the heavy molded-plaster piece, brushing styrofoam beads from the clock’s hands and Santa’s workshop elves. I open the back and install three AA batteries—two for the music and lights and one for the clock—and set the time. Never failing to surprise me, even after a quarter of a century, it still works.
Every hour on the hour throughout the holidays, the electronic chimes play one line of a Christmas carol followed by another line of a different carol. It’s clear that the elf who lined up the music was not a church musician, as the first line of “Angels We Have Heard on High” follows “Up on the House Top.” More pious folk might raise their eyebrows or consider it tacky, but in our home, the Christmas clock remains.
Not only do our kids expect the clock to chime its merry tunes each year, but we’ve made a sort of game around those tunes. After hearing the first lines of two random carols paired together every day for a month, year after year, the whole family has subconsciously learned which tune follows another. Now, after the first line plays, we sing the next line before the clock reveals it. Bragging rights go to the first one to do so.
The presence of the Christmas clock and the tunes it plays are as predictable as the changing seasons and our holiday traditions. They remind us we can count on certain things. Time passes. Fall becomes winter. Christmas follows Advent.
Each year, the comfort of the next thing—our Savior’s birth—follows our time of waiting. As we move from childhood to adulthood, the repetition builds expectation, and with it comes the peace of knowing all will be well.
When the Clock Stops Ticking
Still, expectations often lead to disillusionment. The Jews were waiting with great anticipation for a messiah. They expected a mighty king to deliver them from the hands of their enemies. They did not expect a helpless baby, born to a commonplace couple, lying in—of all places—a feeding trough!
What happens when our expectations turn to disappointment? When the predictable patterns of the past cease, like a clock with dead batteries? When somber silence replaces the upbeat tunes and ticking?
At one time or another, we’ve all been robbed of Christmas joy through unfulfilled expectations or altered traditions. Layoffs result in lost wages and fewer presents under the tree or less food on the table. Inflation pinches our pocketbooks. Earthquakes and hurricanes steal homes, possessions, and the lives of loved ones. Our circumstances force us to change traditions—to forgo our expectations.
A young woman who had hoped for a ring at Christmas instead finds herself single and scrolling through dating apps. A little boy asks his mom why Daddy doesn’t live with them anymore. Relationships that were meant to last don’t. Brokenness leaves heartbreak where once there were hopes and dreams.
Hospitals don’t close on Christmas. The patients in those beds would rather be home with their families. In war-torn countries like Ukraine, little remains that resembles past Christmases. Traditions? Expectations? All but gone.
I think of my good friends who every year around Christmas mark the loss of their son to cancer. I remember my widowed mother-in-law, sister, and friends, whose moments alone weigh heavily on their spirits. And I remember losing my father, and then my mother, within nine months of each other. Their passing left a double void in our family’s traditions.
How can we face the music of Christmas when it seems the music has stopped?
Finding Joy in the Midnight Hour
After placing the Christmas clock in its spot on the piano, I notice the wall above and remember there is more. Although many of our decorations reappear each year, occasionally we add some new ones.
After losing my parents, I inherited four prints they had displayed year-round in their home. I replaced the broken frames, cleaned the protective glass, and now hang them on my walls at Christmastime–two in the family room and two above the piano.
The prints, depicting families cutting their Christmas trees and gathering around them in their villages and homes, remind me of years of repeated traditions, realized expectations, and the love that grew from them.
They also remind me of the moments I spent helping to care for Mom. During her last months on this earth, those prints hung on the wall above her bed. Gazing at them now, they bring to life all that was hard and all that was good. A mix of sadness and of joy, of loss and of love.
The tension of Advent is that we’re stuck between the here and now and the not yet. Though the world is broken, we still live in the hope that comes from a most unexpected event: the birth of a baby centuries ago and laid in a manger.
As I take in the scene—twinkling lights on the tree, glowing windows in the miniature village, beaded ornaments from an almost-forgotten great-aunt, and artwork that brings memories of the farm and my parents—the Christmas clock chimes the twelve o’clock hour.
I hear the first tune and the words run through my mind:
It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold.
And I know which tune will come next. This time, the clock-making elf got it right:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come: let earth receive her King!
Whether we’re struggling through loss, heartache, illness, or brokenness, we can rest in the hope of great expectations—that in the darkness of the midnight hour, the Lord has come and will come again, bringing joy to all who receive him!
About the Author
- Linda Hanstra, a semi-retired speech-language pathologist, writes about what brings joy to her empty nest–faith, family, cycling, traveling, grandparenting, and more–at lindahanstra.com and on Substack. The author of Lent through the Little Things, Linda and her husband, Tom, attend Church of the Savior CRC in South Bend, Indiana.