Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (8/19) — Chapter Eight, Wreath (3/3)

THE TRADITIONAL ADVENT WREATH, like this one at First United Methodist Church in Morganton, represents God’s love, as well as hope, peace, joy and love. We like love.


BOONE, N.C. (Dec. 18, 2019) – The holidays are a season of symbols, whatever the belief system. So take a couple of minutes and measure your holiday IQ. What is the main symbol of Christmas—not one of the many symbols but the main symbol? How about Hanukkah? Kwanzaa? Diwali? Winter solstice?

That’s a quiz of five questions at 20 points each. So if your answers were 1) Light, 2) Light, 3) Light, 4) Light, and 5) Light, then you scored a perfect 100 percent. On the Cracker Barrel Curve, you’re a genius!

On the other hand, if you answered 1) Santa Claus, 2) Eight straight days of presents, 3) No idea, 4) Di-what? and 5) Stonehenge, then you missed all five questions, and you’re just a plain “eg-no-ra-moose.” Ho-ho-ho!

Remember, I asked about the main symbol, not “the reason for the season” or what should be left in or taken out of the holiday’s name or how it’s spelled. Symbols are significant, as they help us understand complex concepts. But often the symbols become the focus in and of themselves, and that’s a problem.

MY VIEW FROM THE SOUND BOOTH during First Methodist’s traditional Christmas Eve candlelight service a few years ago.

While we respect our neighbors’ rights to observe other traditions, Timberley and I are Christians who celebrate Christmas every year on December 25th. Again, I think Christmas is best symbolized by light, whether the co-referent is a star, a candle, a twinkling bulb, or a baby who was “the light of the world.”

This past Dec. 15th was the third Sunday of Advent, the four-week period leading up to Christmas Day. As we participated in our church’s Christmas cantata—Timberley in the choir, me in the orchestra—we sat up front where we could easily see our most comprehensive Christmas symbol, the Advent wreath.

In our Methodist church, the Advent wreath consists of a horizontal, evergreen wreath encircling five candles—three violet-colored candles, one rose-colored candle and one larger white candle with gold trim. One colored corner candle is lit each Sunday leading up to Christmas Eve or Day when the white center candle is lit. Scripture readings and commentary accompany the lightings to explain their meanings to us: The circular evergreen wreath represents God’s eternal love; the violet candles represent hope, peace, and love; the rose candle represents joy; and the big white candle at the center represents Jesus Christ.

As I’ve said before, I grew up in my father’s Bible and Baptist churches, and I don’t remember Advent wreaths in any of them—neither in North Carolina nor in Illinois—as part of their celebrations of Jesus’ birth. I don’t even remember those churches observing Advent as a season of the Christian year, just as they also didn’t formally observe Lent in the 40 weekdays leading up to Good Friday and Easter. That’s okay, though, because symbols themselves—like Advent wreaths, Chrismon trees, ashes, crosses, short emphases on hope, peace, joy and love, or even penitence—shouldn’t be any religion’s principle focus.

The ultimate focus should be on what any person, place or thing ultimately represents, including when one particular symbol leads us to another different one. Also, meanings of symbols change with time and context. So what does Christmas ultimately symbolize now—to us, to the groups that define us, to Americans as a people? In the heat of summer, on a flag-waving, rockets-red-glaring Fourth of July, if we were to hear the word “Christmas,” what image, what symbol, would pop into our heads first? We can be honest. Whatever initially comes to mind in that situation is what the holiday truly means to us.

My parents both graduated from Bob Jones University, which was arguably the most conservative and dogmatically fundamentalist Christian college in America. Founded in 1927 by evangelist Bob Jones Sr., and later run by son Bob Jones Jr., grandson Bob Jones III, and great-grandson Stephen Jones, the college has operated in Panama City, Fla., Cleveland, Tenn., and, since 1947, Greenville, S.C., where Mom and Dad met around 1950. I attended BJU for six weeks in the fall of 1977 before dropping out, so I do know what life there was like—but, honestly, it wasn’t that much different from my home life. I was used to living “separate from the world” under the Fundamentalist Christian Code of Conduct, just not alone, with no old friends to console me, less than a year after my baby brother had died of cancer.

As far as Christmas was concerned—whether it was the first one I remember as a toddler in Towanda, Ill., or our last one with Dad before his death at home in Morganton—my father insisted that we cleave to the biblical Christmas story, whether in the services he led at church or before exchanging presents from under our family tree. He felt that secular Christmas symbols had no place in the church or in his Christian home.

POINSETTIAS ON THE ALTAR of First United Methodist Church on the third Sunday of Advent.

So what image pops into my head when I hear the word “Christmas” out of season? It isn’t Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty, or even little Linus reciting the nativity story on stage in A Charlie Brown Christmas. In my mind, I don’t see the Sugar Plum Fairy or a happily weeping Jimmy Stewart or an enlightened Ebenezer Scrooge or that Mean One, Mr. Grinch. Not red-and-white-striped candy canes, not Coke-swilling polar bears, not even Christmas trees, large or small, nor green wreaths with bright red bows.

What does Christmas mean to me? What symbol do I see?

I see an innocent child, one who suffered and died.

And what does he symbolize? What does he represent to me?

Enlightenment? Never-ending love? Life itself?

Indeed, to me he means all three.