In the Appalachian hills of West Virginia, where I grew up, people commonly hang up wreaths made of dried, twisted grapevines during the Christmas season. One year my mother found the ambition to construct one herself. In fulfillment of my responsibility to the project, I took in hand an old machete from the garage and climbed the frozen hill behind our house toward the forest. Standing in the crisp December air at dusk I chopped long, wild vines and tugged at them until they let loose. They looked dead like everything else around me this time of year, but they clung to the trees and each other like little children determined not to let go. When I had pulled them all free, I dragged them down the hill toward the warm house with glowing windows, my home.
In the kitchen, Mom rolled the rugged vines into a perfect circle and made the dead wood beautiful with Christmas-red ribbon and little bells linked together on a golden chain. She hung the finished wreath, like a royal crown, on the wall for all to see.
We were all watching TV that night when my Dad let out a good laugh. What was so funny? Looking at the wreath he said, “That’s not a grapevine. That’s poison oak.” Dad not only correctly identified the substance of the wreath, but he managed to diagnose the cause of the strange skin rash that afflicted my hands. The doctors at the emergency center I visited a few hours earlier seemed baffled. I didn’t realize one could be poisoned by dormant vines in the winter. Now I know.
A wreath made of poison oak can look like one made of grapevines, but they are not the same. (One might think that a boy who grew up along Grapevine Creek would know the difference). One is genuine, but the other can cause pain. It’s wise to know the difference.
The Feast of the Nativity is almost here. (I won’t be making a wreath this year). Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birth, a remembrance of the time when the eternal God who fills the whole universe and created all things became human like us. This is the Christmas of Orthodox Christians. Unfortunately, another Christmas exists in America, a secular Christmas focused on consumerism. All the Christmas decorations displayed in early November probably have much more to do with enticing us to spend money in businesses than drawing our attention to the birth of Christ in a cave. If they religiously follow the secular holiday, Americans will be drawn by sparkling lights that lead, not to the real Light of the World, but to worldly merchandise nobody really needs. The genuine Christmas is not about the gifts we give or receive, but a celebration of the One we have been given, the Son of God, who took upon Himself human flesh about 2000 years ago, and who visits us and gives Himself to us every week through the mystery of Holy Communion.
The giving of gifts this time of year is a great tradition, but if we spend more time, effort, and worry dealing in gifts than worshipping the living Christ, we may be more faithfully following the tenets of a secular holiday than observing the Feast of the Nativity as our ancestors have taught us. Keeping the secular holiday may not cause physical pain, like handling poison oak, but it’s not nearly as fulfilling, inspiring, calming, and good for us as experiencing the real thing.
Copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees. Printed in The Messenger, published by St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, Houston, TX. Photo Copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees.
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