Christmas Eve

Tree Lot on December 23

German ornament copy

Maybe one of the saddest things you can do, the evening of December 23rd, is to stand on a sidewalk and look at a Christmas tree lot. It’s like peering into the fairy-tale ballroom after Cinderella and the Prince have left. You see the evidence of something magical. But no actual magic. And no people. There are tags strewn about, needles stamped into the earth, bits of twine here and there from the wrapping machine, placards wired onto the fence advertising the prices– scotch pines, ten dollars a foot. A Big “Merry Christmas-Joyeux Noel” still stencilled on the entrance. But the party’s over. All that’s left is garbage.

Which is why it’s doubly hard to see a tree, on such a lot, hours before Christmas. A tree that apparently, no one wanted. I empathize with those trees. On the lot by the church in my neighbourhood last night, it was dark. The speakers on the lightposts in Verdun were still playing Christmas music: Jingle Bell Rock and Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas. But on the lot, the lights had been put out. A half-dozen trees leaned forlornly against slat fencing. No one even bothered to guard them– the gate was wide open. You want a tree? Go on in and take one, someone would have said. If someone had bothered to be there.

The trees, so valuable just a few days ago – are now for the asking. The problem is, no one’s asking. The bubble of Christmas tree speculation – if we can call it that – bursts somewhere during the evening of, probably, December 21st. A Christmas tree alone on Christmas Eve is as unwanted as a turkey after Thanksgiving. Worse, actually. Because at least a turkey can stay frozen. People get hungry again. No one gets the urge for a Christmas tree in January. Not even a beautiful ten-foot balsam fir. And because they’re cut, the tragedy is, no one can replant them. These living creatures have been sacrificed for absolutely nothing. Actually, less than nothing. They’re a liability.

So there I was, my hands full with last-minute groceries, looking into the lot, hearing the carols, and thinking about Christmas. And abandonment. I was remembering all the times in my life I’ve felt like one of those trees. The times I’ve been at some conference and realized that all the important people around me were being taken up, disappearing one by one into conversations, lunch-plans, networking, wanted for their value. And I was left behind. The times, so many years ago, when I was a teenager, when I sat at home alone, my social capital less than nothing. Times have changed, in my life. That’s not true anymore. But my memories still remind me what that’s like.

And then I thought about my students. All those young people, on the day they start CEGEP or college, trying so desperately to figure out what might get them a job five years down the road. It’s such a crap shoot. The stakes are high. Some of them will get it right. They’ll be the ones snapped up like the premium Christmas trees at the beginning of December. Many of them will get it partially wrong. But they’ll get picked up just the same, like the tree that’s a bit quirky but just right for that family in the small apartment, or the one that’s sold for a few dollars less. But after that, a few students will see the promise, feel the action so close but so far, and for any number of reasons, they will be passed over. They’ll wind up like these trees. Those are the people I said a prayer for, standing there.

Then I thought about Luther. Because doesn’t a person automatically think about Luther, looking into a Christmas tree lot?  Luther LOVED the Nativity. But he said, and I quote: the birth was pitiful. There was no one –those were his words: no one – to take pity on this young wife who was for the first time to give birth to a child; no one to take to heart her condition. She, a stranger, did not have the least thing a mother needs in a birth-night. There she is without any preparation, without either light or fire, alone in the darkness, no one offering her service. Luke says, in describing Jesus’ birth, that the family was painfully unwanted. Desperate.

And then I thought about my tree, in my apartment. With its lights it glows in the dark and makes me feel warm just looking at it. On its branches I’ve placed the memories of so many beautiful places and people and encounters. G’s friend came for a visit yesterday and said it smelled great. These trees, I thought, looking at the ones scattered and alone in the dark lot – they will never have that moment of beauty.

As I was standing there, a young man who had been loitering across the street from me, under the awning of the metro, sauntered across, hands in his pockets. He looked in at the trees, like I was doing. I thought at first that he had come to ask me for change. But he ignored me. To my surprise, he stepped right past me, into the lot, and up to the abandoned tree I was looking at. And suddenly there was an old truck there, pulling up to the curb, and other young people, two bearded fellows and a woman, gloves on. As I watched they began to load the trees onto the back of the pick-up.

Wait a minute, Hey, wait! I called out to the first kid. What are you doing with these trees?

We’re rescuing them, he answered, with a smile.

What do you mean?

If we leave them they’ll just go into some landfill. The City has a recycling program, but they don’t come here. So we’re taking them. Why? Do you want one?


He shrugged, Okay. Better for us. We can use them. These ones are the best. They’re not plugged up with tinsel and all that other crap (actually, he didn’t use the word crap).

What do you do with them?

The young man evaluated me, but only for a second. With my hands full of shopping bags, and my Anglophone accent, it was pretty clear I wasn’t some sort of city authority.

We take them to our farm, and we grind them up, he answered. Well, not all of them. The really misshapen ones we use as bird-feeders. They’re perfect, like this guy here – he indicated one particularly straggly, ugly tree. We’ll hang bags of suet from his branches and the birds will just love to make a home in him.

The other ones – he nodded to the rest – well. He hoisted one in his hands. They’ll give their wood to mulch and their needles to the strawberries. They don’t make good Christmas trees. But they’re far more valuable for us. They’ll help new life grow, by sheltering the berries under their needles.

And then the fellow jumped in, and the truck took off, and I was left alone again. And I stood there, on that sidewalk, in the dark, and I thought about Christmas again, and about the angels above the hills of Bethlehem, and what it was they were actually singing to the shepherds. About a God who picks out – and picks up – ESPECIALLY the unwanted and the abandoned. The ones left behind. Who uses even that, even loneliness, and death, and injustice and oppression and the stripping away of beauty, as a way of bringing new life to the world. Who has never stopped, as it turns out, being the Creator. And I realized that there is more than one way to be noble. And many ways to be of service. And that the true message of Christmas is in a refugee child, leaning against a fence, forgotten but not alone, whose life means hope and whose death shelters new life, again and again, always Christmas. Always, evergreen.

candles in the snow

A Pointe St-Charles Nativity

(with thanks to Alice Zorn, )

From the south shore of Montreal, if you were to drive over the Victoria Bridge and then, just past Costco, turn left on Wellington, you’d pass the train yards toward my house. If you did that, you’d go right through Pointe-St-Charles.

We all know the Pointe. The Pointe will always be the Pointe. But it’s changed. Property values have gone up. Gentrification has set in. Lots of it is still a tough neighbourhood, but it’s mixed now – there are plenty of upscale places sharing space with some of those old, hard-times homes. And they really know how to do up Christmas in the Pointe. In particular, if you were paying close attention as you drove down Wellington, you’d see a very special Nativity scene set up outside a clinic.

Nothing special about a Nativity scene. Right? There are hundreds of them in that neighbourhood. But if you were to slow down and look more closely at this particular one, you’d be surprised. My friend Alice Zorn, a writer who lives in the Pointe, alerted me to this. The centre, when you read the sign, is actually a Birthing Clinic. A place where young women go to have their babies. Nowhere more perfect for a Christmas nativity scene.

Except that, despite how it looks, the Crèche out front of this Centre turns out to be NOT very traditional. There’s a roof, and what looks like a stable. But when you get up close and look at the little figures, the manger is actually a bed. And while there’s a Mary, sort of – a young woman, anyway – she’s not wearing a blue robe and staring peacefully at a baby Jesus. She’s on her back. Shouting. And there’s no Joseph, standing in a bathrobe doing not much of anything. There’s a midwife, in action, helping the baby to be born. And there are no angels. Instead, there are a whole bunch of other pregnant women figures, standing around watching and helping as the young woman gives birth.

The first time I saw this, I felt tricked. From a distance, it LOOKS like a manger scene. But where’s Jesus? Where are the cattle and sheep and oxen (even though the Bible doesn’t actually mention any animals except sheep)? Where’s the little drummer boy? (And Rudolph?!!!) And where are the shepherds and the angels?

This isn’t a REAL nativity scene! Or is it?

Well, that depends, maybe, on what the nativity really means.

In the eyes of many people, tonight and tomorrow are the highest pressure times of the year: Christmas. And in our usual way of seeing the world, Christmas is supposed to be about love and happiness and warm feelings and family and forgiveness. If we’re religious, as we are, then it’s about the birth of Jesus, which is remembered as a sort of lovely historical event that means something nice, but not always very defined, for us now.

If we’re being honest, we have to admit that part of the charm of the traditional Christian Christmas is that it’s set so firmly in an imagined, highly-stylized past. During the reign of Caesar Augustus a decree went out that all the world should be enrolled. And Joseph went with Mary, his betrothed, who was heavy with child, to the town of Bethlehem… and she gave birth in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn.

It’s lovely. The problem is, the past we celebrate is also wrong. I grew up thinking about Jesus being born in a stable, with straw and hay and cold puffs of air coming out of animal’s nostrils and the smells of a barn. I LOVED that image, the traditional image of the crèche, and the manger.

But in fact, as I learned when I was in the Holy Land in 2009, the place most people kept their animals in Biblical times, in Palestine, was in caves. So if there was no room in the Inn, Jesus would have been born in a cave. Not some quaint medieval European barn.

Our manger scenes are beautiful. But absolutely inaccurate. Which goes to show that maybe history isn’t the most important thing going on here, and that the Birthing Clinic in the Pointe may not have everything wrong after all.

So what ARE the basics, then?

There’s a birth. The most human of beginnings. The birth takes place in a marginal place, an uncomfortable, makeshift place, because of society’s indifference. There’s a young woman. A scared man. An oppressive political system. A baby. Witnesses who are used to living outside in the cold and dark. And God is present, being born into the darkest time of the year and the darkest places of our world.

On second thought, it sounds to me like the people in the Pointe may have the essence of the Christmas story exactly RIGHT.

Do not be afraid, said the angel to the shepherds. To you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

Why? Why these people? Maybe Luke’s Nativity is a way of saying two things: firstly, it’s the poor and outcast and outsiders whom God is paying attention to. And secondly, it is what is poor and outcast and an outsider in US, and in our lives, where our Lord is being born in us. When we are stripped of all the fancy clothes, the bells and whistles and the pretensions we load on ourselves, maybe that’s when Christmas really comes.

Luther said, again and again, that the fact that Jesus was born in a rough and rude stable means that the Gospel can go, and BE, anywhere. In the most desperate of situations, hope can be born. This also means something very important for us: if and when we fail, and we find ourselves marginalized, or feeling like we don’t belong, or knowing we’ve messed up, or simply cast aside by a success that passes us by, then our place with God is not worse. It’s just as strong, or stronger. Do not be afraid, said the angels. This good news is for you. And this will be a sign, for YOU.

Above the unusual Nativity scene I was talking about is a sign in French that reads: Pointe St-Charles birthing centre. On ne peut plus attendre. Ca pousse! Which might be translated as: we can’t wait any longer! It’s coming!

That, also, is the essence of the story from Luke. Ca pousse! It’s coming! Once Jesus is born, there’s no turning back. Once Messiah has come, and come in a way that surprises and shocks and upsets the normal order, then nothing normal should ever be normal again.

For it is only when we are outsiders ourselves, and realize that we are so, that we can stand with the Shepherds, watching in wonder as rank on rank of angels fill our skies, singing their hope and love and promise into our lives.

“For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord.” What a promise. What a wonderful blessing. And in faith, and from faith, our answer is clear: Glory to God in the highest, we can respond. And on earth: peace and goodwill!

An Ice-Storm Christmas

snow removal Santa

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen, snow on snow. Snow on snow on snow. In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

I remember the church service we had here in Montreal in the middle of the ice storm – the other ice storm, the one back in 1998. No one was sure there was even going to BE worship. But in the end the people of Christ the Redeemer decided to try. All the bridges were closed because of falling guillotines of ice off of the signs, so I decided to risk the metro (which actually shut down completely about two hours after my return trip). Then eventually I caught a ride. When finally I got to the building, it was cold. There were only a few others, but all present seemed happy to be participating. We sang the hymns heartily and accapella; the organ couldn’t make a sound. Everyone wore their coats in the sanctuary, and some people held the worship books with gloves. After church, Ivar Traa, a big booming Norwegian who has since passed from us, brought his gas camp stove, and – making sure we had fresh oxygen supply – made tea and coffee and hot chocolate for everyone and reminisced about Christmases back in Norway where they had no power.

It’s odd – that day, almost none of the things that we normally associate with a good worship gathering were there – there was no majestic organ, no warm lights, no crowded pews. But, of that year, that is the one service that I remember clearly. I’ve often wondered why. Maybe because that hard experience connected in a whole NEW way with the message that we preach and teach and share and sing.

Everyone knows that the first Christmas, whatever it was, was not comfortable. We can argue over whether Jesus was born in a cowshed or a cave, in Nazareth or in Bethlehem, in the year 6 BC or 0 or some other time, in the winter or spring or summer. But one thing is clear. Whatever else it was, when the Word became flesh it was an unexpected birth, marked by difficulty, scandal and trouble, in the middle of a tough situation.

Which makes it all the more amazing that every year we spend so much time and energy and money trying to do the opposite, to find the “sweet spot” in marking an event that had no sweet spot. Completely unlike the few things we can assume about the first Christmas, in our time we want to find the deepest, most comfortable rut that runs through our memories, and crawl in there to hibernate in sugar, real and metaphorical, for a few, hopefully magical, weeks. The smell of baking. The hot chocolate or eggnog. The candles and smell of evergreen in our houses. The fires, the puula, the stollen, the songs. The wreaths, the gifts, the carols, the smell of cinnamon. We ALL do it, instinctively. I almost never eat herring throughout the year. But every Christmas I buy a jar and eat herring. Why? It’s a childhood memory from growing up in a Scandinavian home. It’s a sweet spot urge. We’re like children who want to put our stuffed animals (that is, our memories) in a very specific order around us as we cuddle into the long cold night that is winter.

That’s not always a bad thing. We NEED comfort, of course. Especially in winter. Nothing is more wonderful than holding someone precious, surrounded by lovely smells and warmth and love. But maybe, nice as that is, we shouldn’t mistake it for the only kind of holiness there is. Especially we shouldn’t do that when we have a faith that somehow always leads us back to the foot of a grave. There is more of ice storms from our God than we usually care to admit, and the spirit that spoke to the Baptist and called to Mary is often a cold wind that leaves us shivering and uncomfortable.

Ice storms, like the storm that has left so many tens of thousands in the dark right now all over central and eastern Canada, are a reminder of the fragility of all of our comforts. And they’re a reminder of the fragility of our security and safety in an environment that seems to be kicking back at us so-called “masters of creation” for our idolatrous beliefs that somehow we’re in charge.  I remember – as some of you must too – lying in bed in the quiet darkness and listening to the alarming sounds of tree limbs hitting the roof as they snapped and broke. There are lots of people living that right now, even though this time, here in Montreal, we’ve been spared.

A good friend of mine in a part of Ontario without power, posting on FaceBook, wrote “I’m not having fun yet” about her Christmas. She’s not the only one. So what can we learn from an not-fun, ice-storm, Christmas?

We can learn that there’s more growth in hardship than in comfort, almost always. None of us like them, but the hard times of life are often the most memorable. And instructive. If we survive, we come out stronger, despite our wounds. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

We can also learn, deeper to that, what theologians and mystics call “the theology of the cross”, and the mystery of celebrating Jesus’ birth so close to the longest night of the year. It is when things are at their darkest, as Luther said, that the hidden God is closest. It is when there is no room in the Inn that the wondrous birth takes place among the animals and outcasts. It is when the darkness is deepest that we learn patience and hope, what to grasp onto and what we should let go, what is real and what is shadow. It is on the coldest of nights that we might hear angels singing strange and terrible songs that make us afraid and yet move us seek the child of promise in unusual places.

The good thing about sweet spots is, ironically, also the bad thing: they’re so good they keep us immobilized. When I gave a talk a few weeks ago about the annunciation and asked the gathering how a thirteen or fourteen year old Mary might react these days to the angel Gabriel’s annunciation, a jaded father in the back row pretended he was texting and had no time for the angel. We are a comfortable people, and that is a huge problem. The light came into the world, and the world came into being through that light, but the world did not recognize it. When you re-tune a guitar to play in a different string configuration, there is always a period of awkwardness and disharmony, before the new tones are established. Ice storms, of all sorts, are those awkward, disharmonius times, that we pray God will use to play in us a song the world would otherwise never have heard.

It’s easy for me to talk about these things this year. When I wrote this, I had fruitcake at hand, and I’d put some water with cinnamon sticks on the stove to give the apartment some more humidity. I actually managed to get a tree up, despite everything.

But I know, from experience, that this is not the only Christmas, or perhaps the best. Certainly not the most memorable. Christ was – and IS – born far from the sweet spots of life. We pray for those who are suffering hardship because of cold and lack of power right now. When heaven and nature sing “Joy to the World”, it will be a challenge to go out, into the cold, where they are, and where the restless, birthing God awaits.

The Don Valley Christmas Eve Riots (a story)

garbage walk Nov 2013

The Don Valley Christmas Eve Riot

Matthew Anderson

I heard a story once – I don’t know if it’s true – about a Toronto bank president and the famous Don Valley Christmas Eve Riot. I’m sure you remember reading about that riot in the papers. It happened…when?….in the late 90’s sometime. A while ago now. The story is about the president of one of the big banks, but don’t ask me which one. I couldn’t tell you.

Apparently, this man was some major Chief-Executive-Officer-type. He was pulling down millions, sitting on more corporate boards than you or I own pairs of shoes. Connected to everybody. A real player. Fingers in everything – politics, business, you name it. When he wasn’t in a limo he drove a Porsche SUV, because his bank figured he needed to be one step up on his neighbours, who all had BMW SUV’s. Perfect car, perfect holidays, perfect clothes, perfect life. His house was in Rosedale, looking, during the holidays, like something from the front of a greeting card.

This guy didn’t have to worry about the Hydro bill. Look at it that way.

But late one night near Christmas when he couldn’t sleep – insomnia was a side-effect of his high-octane life –  this CEO happened to be flipping channels when he saw a news special, one of those topical pieces they always come out with in mid-December. This one was called “A Squatters’ Christmas” and it was on the plight of the squatters near the Don Valley Parkway. There were a bunch of them back then, encamped on that patch of land you see when you take the Don Valley south, right between the highway and the bluffs. A TV reporter had gone out with a camera and taken some footage. Those folks had a real little village set up, out of the way, not bothering anyone.

Somehow, by some miracle, that one little program changed this bank president’s life. He saw people he’d never really thought much about before – people without running water, people who had addictions to alcohol or crack or something else, prostitutes and pushers and folks with mental-health problems. People whom the world had forgotten. What was worse, the city was threatening to bring the bulldozers in and smash up the few things they DID have.

So this bank president, whose heart had been touched, decided to check it out for himself. He sent his assistant to Value Village to buy the rattiest clothes the assistant could find. He let his beard grow until he had two days’ worth of stubble. Then he parked his Porsche at the top of the hill, and clambered down through the trees, just a couple of days before Christmas, with a Canadian Tire tent on his back and a few cans of tuna. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going, because he really wanted to make this HIS thing. He didn’t want half the company showing up to save him, or worse yet, showing up to try to help. This was his thing. So, apart from his wallet, he left EVERYTHING – even his Blackberry – in the Porsche.

Oddly enough, when the CEO found the squatters’ settlement, there was no place for him. What he hadn’t realized was, the squatters were a community, with a sense of who they liked and who they didn’t. He might have been dressed down, but he was still a stranger. What’s more, he was still himself. Used to taking charge. So he tried ordering them around, but who was he, to them? Just another pushy outsider. And anyway, it was like herding cats.

“You can protect yourselves,” he told them, “It’s not that hard! I know what’s coming! Organize like this.” But they didn’t listen. “You don’t need your addictions,” he told them. “There’s a better way”. Of course, that made him an outsider in another way. “You know what? I can help you,” he told them. At THAT they just laughed. After all, what did he look like to them? Some white bread would-be squatter. And with his tent and tuna, not even a particularly smart squatter. Some folks listened to him. Some thought had no street sense. Most just ignored him. One more crazy.

The bulldozers had been lined up and parked by the city right outside the squatters’ settlement, a big yellow line of destruction waiting for the go-ahead. Construction crews had come through and put eviction notices on the trees. The squatters had decorated one tree like a Christmas tree, and there was even an eviction notice on that one. The CEO, who knew the mayor personally, knew that the mayor was just waiting for a time when the public was distracted by the holidays, to move in and break up the illegal settlement. So as the hours ticked by, the CEO got more and more frustrated.

“Why won’t you just listen to me?” he cried out in frustration. There was a small group of squatters that did – but only a dozen or so. “Who do you think I am?” he asked them. “A loonie” said one of the group, “but a nice one.” “A social worker,” said another. And you? he asked the leader of his group. “You really are a bank president,” came the answer. “Then follow me,” the man said “We’ll go up the hill to my Porsche and I’ll call the mayor and he’ll meet you and we’ll settle this whole thing.” So the little group – half of them laughing –  all trudged up the hill after the CEO, and when they got to the spot where he’d parked his Porsche, there was nothing there.

“We KNEW it!” they told him, “you’re just one of us.” The bank president thought about his assistant, and about how he could recover his stolen car. That was when they heard the diesel motors on the bulldozers starting up. Everyone went running, pell-mell, back down the hill.

At the camp it was mayhem. The police were shouting through loudspeakers to clear out. In the falling darkness people were running everywhere through the trees, trying to grab their things, or just get out of the way. The CEO tried to keep his little band together…maybe he could find the chief of police, he thought. Explain everything.

And that’s when the first canisters of pepper spray hit. The squatters began coughing and wheezing, choking and tearing up. The CEO couldn’t see a thing. Some of the squatters picked up tree branches to try and protect themselves. All of a sudden the riot police were everywhere, and in all the yelling and screaming and crying, someone hit the CEO, hard. He went down.

When he came to, there was a very large man in a uniform above him holding a riot club. He couldn’t see very well, so he wiped his eye. It came away all bloody. “Get up, ya friggin drunk!” yelled the cop. The CEO tried to get up, but was having trouble, and put his hand on the cop’s leg. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” said the big man, and the CEO felt the truncheon hit him on the side of his face again.

And then what happened? Well, witnesses say the CEO reached into his pocket for his wallet, to prove who he really is. And that’s when the story gets strange.

Because I’ve heard two very different versions of the ending of the Don Valley Christmas Riot story.

The first is this: when the CEO reached into his pocket, the cop standing there thought he was dealing with a man who was going for a gun. And the first version of the story ends, more or less, there. Terribly. According to this version the CEO died, that day. On Christmas Eve.

But the second version of the story – the one I like better – is that the cop’s second blow hit the CEO so hard he lost his memory. And eventually, in all the confusion of the riot, the CEO just up and drifted away, like so many of the other squatters, back into the darkest blocks of downtown.

According to this version of the story, the next day the city crews found the wallet. So now they knew there’d actually been a bank president among the squatters that night in the Don Valley Riot. But they didn’t know which bum he was. Or more to the point: which bum he IS.

Because he’s still out there somewhere. So ever since that one Christmas Eve, the police – and not just the police – have had to treat every drunk they meet, every half-crazy person with mental health problems, every bum and panhandler and street-person, as if they just might turn out to be Mr. Connected…someone with rights. Someone with very good friends in high places.

And so, to everyone’s surprise, what the CEO couldn’t do by teaching the squatters, he did anyway. Just by still being out there. What I heard is that the authorities are trying to find him. But in the meantime, one can never be certain. And since even homeless people move around from city to city, every street person you or I meet has this – what would you call it? Consequence. All because of that one Christmas Eve not long ago, and the Don Valley Christmas Eve Riot.

That’s what I heard, anyway. Mind you, some people say it’s just a story.

Could be. But I like it.