Dad loved Christmas. His eyes would go all shiny and bright as he recounted stories of his youth, how he and his brothers would choose a Christmas tree, cut it down and drag it home by sledge through the snow. We never knew how true this actually was. As with many of Dad’s stories, it could have been true or it could have been generously imbued with a sheen of rose tinted nostalgia and imagination. Either way, it made him happy. It made us happy too.
Yesterday, teetering on a chair, my husband and I put up the fancy streamers Dad bought us to put in our hall. They are white and shiny and I remember his excitement, when he told me he had put ‘something in the post’ for me to help make Christmas special in our new house. Dad was very ill by then but if he couldn’t arrange festive treats for himself, he could do it for others. Yesterday, my asthma was bad and my husband has done his back in, so putting those streamers up was an interesting and faintly perilous experience. But we did it. Now every time I walk through the hall, I look up and think of Dad. With sadness but also with thanks.
Earlier this week I read an article about the forthcoming, very rare ‘Christmas star’. You may have seen it. Apparently, this year for the first time since March 1226, Jupiter and Saturn will be so closely aligned in the night sky that here on earth, on the 21st December, it will appear as a single glittering light. This is often referred to as the Star of Bethlehem or the Christmas Star, so called because some astronomers think the star in the nativity story could have been a similar phenomenon – on that occasion, a conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. You can read the article here.
No one really knows where the wise men travelled from or how long they took (probably months) but this particular star would certainly not have lasted long enough to guide them for the whole journey. However, there might have been other astronomical events occurring around the same time, possibly a comet or nova (new star) which could have also been observed. There are records – from astronomers in the Far East – of a new star in the small, northern constellation of Aquila in 4BC.
Many years ago when we were living in Turkey, we were invited to a village wedding. It was an unforgettable experience – there was music, dancing, cheering and the pinning of money on the bride. We were showered with food that kept mysteriously appearing from tiny stone houses in the village square. As it got dark, the streets were lit with coloured lights. Another part of the day famed within family history was a one-off extraordinary accomplishment of mine – I locked the keys in the car. Miles from everywhere in a tiny village in the middle of the Anatolian plateau, this was an unforeseen twist on the family day out. That’s another story, but suffice to say after many hours of loud discussion, extreme gesturing and the insertion of various scary looking implements into parts of our car (Turkish men love a crisis), it was finally unlocked. It was now late at night. We thanked and hugged everyone goodbye, loaded our little family into the car, were waved off by practically the whole village and began our journey home.
As the lights of the village were swallowed in easy gulps behind us, we entered this incredible new world where there was literally no light at all. We inched our way along the narrow lane with no street lamps, no houses, no passing cars. Nothing. Frankly it was terrifying.
“Isn’t this fun? ” I said to the children, “Such an adventure!” I am a good actress.
At one point we stopped for someone to go to the loo. As I stood up after helping said child, a few metres from the car, I gasped. The sky was on fire.
“Look up!” I shouted. Everyone was out of the car by this time and we all looked up. It was incredible. With no light from nearby towns, no street lamps, no visible light at all, the stars seemed to pulse in the heavens, each one a silver heartbeat, or glitter on black velvet.
We shouted and pointed and turned, our arms straight out, wheeling beneath the stars on that summer night. It was one of those things you never forget. What we would have missed, if we’d not looked up.
Many of us have that moment at Christmas. All is not as we long for it to be. We miss loved ones. We are tired or ill. The year feels old, staggering heavily towards its end, particularly this year.
But there is still this – memories and streamers and tiny lights; Advent candles standing tall, shining brave; a star on a tree, the Christmas star. There will be turkey and cake and the reminder that we are not alone. There will be good tears too, for the gift of family (literal or Zoomy) and for presents wrapped with love by arthritic hands.
That moment, like all moments, will pass. And we’ll remember that wise travellers don’t look down for long. They may not have camels or expensive gifts or funny hats with jewels on. But they look for signs of blessing and skies full of stars. They give gifts that last – time, love, sacrifice. They pray, they give thanks.
But most of all, they look up.