By Allen Stare
In “The Office” episode called “Niagra” Jim and Pam were getting married. Pam told Jim about a little trick she’d been told by one of her relatives. They were supposed to take “mental snapshots” of the day so they didn’t forget the important things. It all goes by pretty fast. They started miming a camera click whenever something funny or endearing would happen. I’d normally find an exchange like that sappy and cloying…but, come on, it was Jim and Pam!
I also liked it because I could relate. I’ve always been a “mental snapshot” kind of guy. I tend to prefer them over actual snapshots. They’re easier to catalog and you won’t lose them if your hard drive crashes. Some of my favorite mental snaps were taken inadvertently. Like the one I have looking over the handlebars of my black and white Hawthorne bicycle on the morning of my fifth birthday. I’m looking down the sidewalk in front of the house where I grew up. It was on Clay Street in Taylorville, IL. It’s an image in my mind as clear as if I was holding a picture in my hand. No one is in the shot. It’s just the sidewalk where I would always ride my bike…and before that, my trike. To the left, in our front yard, is the Paper Birch my dad spent so many hours trying to save from tree rot. Past the Birch is Frank Reimer’s house. He was kind of “Mr. Wilson” to my “Dennis the Menace” as I was growing up. I can even see my buddy Tim Walrod’s house down there on the corner. The image has nothing specific to do with my birthday, but I’m very sure it was taken on my birthday. I don’t know why I took it or how it has stayed stuck in my head all these years, but I do enjoy pulling it out occasionally and looking it over.
As we rush towards another Christmas, I’m reminded of a mental snap I took on Christmas Eve of 1977. That was a big Eve for me. It was the first year my family went to “Midnight Services”. At the United Methodist Church in Taylorville it was tradition to start the “Candlelight Christmas Eve Service” at 11pm. When it all wrapped up with the singing of “Silent Night” standing in a sanctuary lit with nothing but the candles held by every parishioner, it would be midnight…the start of Christmas Day!
Prior to that year our family had always gone to the “Kid’s Service.” They didn’t really call it that, but everyone knew it was the service for families with young(er) children. It started at 7:30p, ended at 8:30p, kids home and in bed with sugar plums in heads easily before ten. The early service didn’t have candles, or a darkened sanctuary or the thrill of staying up late. I had just turned 13 that November. I think mom and dad could sense my impending manliness. It must have swayed their decision. I don’t know how my younger brother was able to sneak in…riding my mature coattails, I guess.
Not only did we get to go to the late service, but mom also told us we could open one gift that night when we got home. Wow! Staying up late, going to the “adult” service AND we get gifts?!? What a night!
The service wasn’t much different from the early one. It had the same great reading of the Christmas Story from the Gospel of Luke…the same hymns in the early parts. There was no Children’s Sermon, of course. The homily may have been a little longer than the earlier version. It was towards the end when things really kicked in. Lights started going off in the sanctuary. The acolytes lit the candles of the folks down front. We launched into the first verse of “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” then two verses of “O, Come All Ye Faithful!” More lights were turned off and the candle glow in the sanctuary intensified as the light was shared from one worshipper to another.
As we finished the second verse of “O, Come All Ye Faithful!” the entire congregation was holding a lit candle. It wasn’t until many years later I realized what an incredible showman we had in that pastor. His sense of timing was impeccable. From out of the candlelit glow, quietly and gently, came the opening strains of “Silent Night”. We sang the first three verses…the John Young verses from 1859…”Glories Stream…”, “Radiant Beams…” I had tears in my eyes. I admit I’m welling up right now as I remember it.
The final “Jesus, Lord at thy Birth” faded to silence. From the front of the sanctuary, Pastor raised his arms and said, “Our Savior is born…go now into the world in peace.” Candles were extinguished and we headed for the doors. The front doors of that church were pretty impressive. At least they are in my 13 year old mind’s eye. They opened out onto a wide set of concrete steps. The railings down each side of those steps were wrapped in lighted garland.
As I emerged from those doors and saw the lighted railings, I noticed a few flakes of snow swirling in the breeze. The bell in the courthouse in the town square was tolling midnight (I’m telling you, IMPECCABLE timing!). People were shaking hands, laughing and hugging, wishing each other “Merry Christmas” and “Peace on Earth.” And…snap!
Standing at the top of those stairs, my awakening to the true meaning of Christmas coalesced in a mental snapshot.
When we got home, opening a present didn’t seem like such a big deal. I opened a cassette of the “Saturday Night Fever” Soundtrack and was happy to have it…but the gift getting ceased to be a big deal the instant I took that mental picture. Ever since, I don’t look forward to Christmas for the gifts. I really don’t want them. What I truly crave is time with family, the warmth of the rituals that accompany the Season and that renewed search for Peace on Earth.
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