I Loved Christmas but Hated God for Screwing It Up

Edith and Francis Schaeffer AKA Mom and Dad

Christmas for me will always be toxic and a time when memory drifts back to my missionary kid childhood.  I loved Christmas but hated God for screwing it up. You see, the problem was that every year Jesus made Mom into his Christmas slave. Let me explain. My childhood Christmastime question was: “Mom, who’s going to be in our house for Christmas?” The answer never varied. “The guests God brought to us this year my dear.” The guests were the people that my parents believed God had called to their mission of L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. That’s were I grew up.

Mom stayed up all night wrapping gifts and making everything wonderfully and terrifyingly perfect. That’s why every Christmas morning I found the four-foot-long bulging wool stocking stuffed with individually wrapped gifts on the foot of my bed. The horror was that all the strangers my parents invited to stay in our house in order to save their souls found stockings on their beds, cots and assorted sleeping bags too.

It took Mom all night to wrap the presents, a dozen or more for each stocking not to mention the bigger gifts for under the tree. There was also the decorating and cooking to be done before The Day including spooning homemade tangerine sorbet into the tangerine shells that Mom had spent hours laboriously scooping out through an opening made by slicing a one inch cap off the top. Her “never too sweet” exquisitely tart creamily textured sorbet was served as the first course presented inside the hollowed out then re-filled and solidly frozen tangerines. Each one was garnished with a carefully hand cut dainty tinfoil leaf. Mom took the tangerines out of the freezer ten minutes before serving, “So each frozen leaf frosts in the warm air.”

The guests always exclaimed that the frosted leaves looked lovely. Sometimes they enthused “They’re sparkling like diamonds, Mrs. Schaeffer!” But what Mom was really waiting for was someone to gush, “This is the best Christmas of my life and the first time I’ve understood the real meaning of Christmas!” If a guest said that, she would earn Mom’s most radiant heart-stopping smile, the triumphant smile reserved for those few chosen of the “elect” whose “discerning hearts” were “really open to the things of the Lord.”

Whether a guest was spiritually discerning or not, Mom laid out a meal that would soften any atheist’s heart and put him or her into a mellow mood. If Mom had been raised by secular parents instead of by a pietistic missionary mother and father who indoctrinated their daughter into copying their religious zeal, Mom’s sorbet tangerines might have earned her a job offer from someone like Ferran Adrià, founder of el Bulli, the Michelin three-star Spanish restaurant. Then Mom could have become the artist she was born to be and used gold leaf to garnish her tangerines.

Each year the stocking tops had a different literary theme: Alice in Wonderland one year, the Pinocchio saga — “The original story by Carlo Collodi, darling, not some awful ‘adaptation’ by that terrible man Walt Disney” — with little Italian wooden Pinocchios Mom had bought in Milan peaking over the top of the stockings. Mom bought the Pinocchios when she traveled to Italy with Dad by train from our home in Switzerland to teach a monthly Bible study.

Another year we had the Flower Fairies books – everyone got one — and so forth. The Alice year we Schaeffers and the guests alike, found the book, or a White Rabbit doll, or a Red Queen doll affixed to our stocking tops. Mom bought these at Blackwell’s in Oxford, her favorite bookstore, on Dad’s and her most recent speaking trip. That’s when I was given the copy of Alice in Wonderland that I read to you, Lucy. Mom inscribed it to me and drew the little picture of mountains (on the title page) that you always asked to see. And on the Alice Christmas morning, Mom read your favorite poem out loud that begins:

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

And ends with…

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”

Christmas meant feeling guilty because Mom did so much and we mere mortals did so little. Mom never simplified any part of our ritual as our family Christmas’ grew each year along with the size of The Work, as my parents called L’Abri. My mother interpreted the growing flood of guests as “evidence of God’s blessing” and just stayed up later and later until finally she was staying up for seventy-two hours straight and had turned the entire Christmas season into a cheerful martyrdom. By the time I was seven or eight, our Christmas guests included fifteen or so people besides my family. The stocking opening ritual in my parents’ small chalet bedroom — with everyone in their pajamas since this was a “family time” – evolved into a crowded and awkward marathon. As the number of guests grew, we nevertheless kept our family tradition taking turns opening our gifts one at a time.

The wonderful yet toxic combination of Mom’s evangelical goodness, Jesus’s inevitable birthday and my rage at having to share The Day with strangers is probably why even these many decades later I have to force myself to string lights and hang decorations while threatening to “not have Christmas at all this year!” Yet perversely I have always insisted on carrying on Mom’s complex Schaeffer Advent rituals so that our Christmases’ would be “just like they used to be.” Nostalgia and horror seem to combine in an oddly appealing mix.

My granddaughter Amanda’s long post high school visit in 2012 lasted until a few days before Christmas. She’s grown up in Europe and we’ve seen lots of each other but she’d never lived with us before. Amanda and my wife Genie took pity on me and decorated the tree when I was out of town. I’d been complaining to Amanda since mid-November about how much I love/hate Christmas. I was also teasing Amanda about how thoroughly they celebrate Christmas in Finland with their so-called Little Christmas and their Saint Lucia Day and all the rest that spreads the holiday out over weeks and weeks.

“You do so much Christmas stuff because you live in the dark for six months of the year instead of moving here like sane people would. I mean, who were the first humans to wander up to the Arctic Circle spend a first winter there and say, ‘This is great! It’s freezing and dark. Let’s stay!’” Amanda teased me back about “Your anti-Christmas attitude Grandpa!” I told her that I was much better behaved than I’d once been at Christmastime. Genie and I had traditionally had our worst fights during the holiday season.

After Amanda decorated the tree, Genie and I had a lovely week winding up her four-month visit while I read The Hobbit out loud to them, thus reviving part of Genie’s and my Christmas season tradition of reading various works by Tolkien out loud to our children Jessica, Francis and John. When Amanda left two days before Christmas to rejoin her family in Finland, Genie and I were very sorry to see her go. She had also become my personal yuletide therapist and put me in my happiest ever pre-Christmas mood.

Our son Francis arrived on Christmas Eve relaxed and happy, having been assured by Genie that, “Dad’s almost cheerful this year, Amanda worked wonders.” Francis lives only a forty-five minute drive away at the Waring School where he is the academic dean but his Christmas Eve arrival is always an occasion. He brings us a case of expensive assorted red wines that we’d never buy for ourselves. Genie and I parse it out over the year to break up the monotony of the table wine we drink most evenings. We only drink “Francis’s good wine” when we have something to celebrate.

Christmas 2012 also meant soaking up the sight of our son John. Nine Christmases had passed since John came home from his last wartime deployment, was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, went to the University of Chicago, married Becky, graduated with honors and then moved home and had our granddaughter Lucy and then our grandson Jack. I spent so many sleepless nights imagining the worst when John was fighting in Afghanistan that I still feast my eyes on John any time I see him as if it’s the first day he came home.

I get the return home scene in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The closest I come to peace filled contentment is when John calls me at five AM to ask for a ride to the train station. This is on the mornings it’s too cold or snowing or raining too hard for him to walk or bike to the station to catch the train to Boston where he works. I normally hate when anything interrupts my early morning writing routine but when John calls, I love it. He’s the only reason I leave my cell phone on when I write.

Sometimes I say, “How about I drive you all the way in today?” Then we drive to Boston and have a coffee together near where he works. We sit across from each other and drink cappuccinos and I soak in the sight of my former Marine, married, happy and excelling at his job managing a team of software engineers. And sometimes I ruefully remember my dire predictions to Genie when John was fourteen and not doing homework, sneaking out to smoke, drinking with his friends, and how I’d scream at Genie that she’d spoiled him, that the mess he was in was all her fault, how he’d “never do anything!”

Between the one hour drive and the hour in the coffee shop I get a luxuriously uninterrupted report on how John’s job is going, the details about a bonus or pay raise, and I hear how he feels about his boss and the people he manages, about trying to balance work and family and his frustration at how long the daily commute is. We never talk about his wartime experiences. Though I do hear his wry dry jokes once in a while and I’m tempted to urge him to write because he’s a good writer and the funniest person I know. Once in a while he chooses to give me a glimpse of his sardonic post-combat humor. For instance one day I said something offhand related to some news item about the war in Afghanistan. John came back in a split-second with: “That war was always lost; we just didn’t know it then.”

On Christmas day John was smiling and lying on the couch by the fireplace with his head propped on pillows, watching Lucy and Jack careening from gift to gift. Becky was enthusiastically handing out the presents. I don’t know anyone who enjoys our family get-together with more gusto than John’s wife Becky. Sometimes she’ll snatch back a book she’s just given one of us to “just read you this one passage that you have to hear!” and then she gets carried away and reads the whole chapter (and once) even the whole book out loud to us. Becky did this one year just after she married John.

Becky had given us Bill Bryson’s hilarious The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. She reads out loud beautifully and she hijacked the entire day. It was one of the first (but not last) times I realized that the next generation was really taking over.

The life force of my daughter-in-law surged into the room as proof that life was going to move on with or without me. I felt like a happy ghost given the chance to look in on some future Christmas when I’m gone and “the kids” are running the world. It came as a shock to realize that they’d be doing just fine without me! They would do things their own way, just like Becky was doing that Christmas her way by picking up a book and thereby stopping my sacrosanct ritual. She was also zapping my Christmas depression. Before I knew it I was actually having a good time. And the sky did not fall.

The day Becky hit the pause button on my traditional Christmas and read to us was the real beginning of the warm relationship with my (then new) daughter-in-law. It was one of the first times of many when she introduced Genie and me to the most wonderful books and authors, music recordings and other “stuff we don’t do.”

Genie, still in her bathrobe, sat across from me on our big old brown leather couch with Francis leaning against her. The grandchildren had finally settled down to play with their gifts, Lucy was wearing the Singer Sargent Carnation Lily, Lily Rose replica pinafore Genie  made for her and had just given her. I marveled at how stunningly beautiful Lucy looked and how like the children in that great painting.

I also marveled at how try as I would; I couldn’t prevent myself from feeling happy– even on Christmas.

Note: This post is the result of a suggestion made by Sheryl Abbott Hopfer for me to write on “What does it mean to keep Christ in Christmas?”

I’d put this question on my Facebook page: “Want to help write my next article on the @PatheosProgXn blog? In the comment section below, suggest an idea/issue/subject you think is worthy to write about. I’ll pick my favorite one on Monday and mention you in the article I write.”

Over 80 people posted suggestions on my page. They were all good. I’ll be doing some more posts as a result. Thank you all! Please follow me on Facebook HERE

Follow Frank Schaeffer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/frank_schaeffer 

Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book — And God Said, “Billy! exploring the roots of American religious delusion, and offering another way to approach true spirituality, is on Kindle, iBook and NOOK for $3.99, and in paperback.

About Frank Schaeffer

Frank Schaeffer is an American author, film director, screenwriter and public speaker. He is the son of the late theologian and author Francis Schaeffer. He became a Hollywood film director and author, writing several internationally acclaimed novels including And God Said, "Billy!" as well as the Calvin Becker Trilogy depicting life in a fundamentalist mission home-- Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com/ SC

    I found this quite sad. I’ve said many times that the most cynical people I’ve met are MKs and PKs, second only to pastors wives. It saddens me deeply. I am grateful that my wife and children do not resent God or the Church after 30 years of pastoral work. But I do see my faults and often think of how I could have done better. If anything, I fear that I may have worked too hard not to allow then to be hurt by having a pastor for a husband/father. My adult children have all chosen to attend the Church they grew up in — even though I am still the pastor. I knew of stories about many who went before me who had this strange kind of “sacrifice everything including wife and children to do the Lord’s work” mentality. I was intentional about avoiding this mistake. I pray that you will be able to find more grace each day.

    • frankschaeffer

      Hi SC no resentment there… you’re reading things into my writing, check out Jerry’s take above, Best, Frank

      • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com/ SC

        Perhaps I read into a tone that sounded very familiar to me. Those I’ve encountered (as described) tend to default easily to tones of sarcasm and cynicism with subtle strokes of moral outrage. Again, it just saddens me to see anyone hurt by the misguided zeal of those who served God in a way they thought to be correct.

        • Guest

          Those of us who have been hurt by the misguided zeal of those who served God in a way they thought to be correct? That’s real. I know that was not their intention but when do I stop making excuses for them? Raised in the church and being a good church lady for 45 years I find that I AM sarcastic, cynical, and morally outraged (inside… I try not to be unpleasant to others). Maybe I’m oversensitive, but to me the hurt is real… and I’m trying so dang hard to be the best person I can be, given how God created me. Thank you, Frank, for the honesty in your writings.

    • Owen Vine

      SC – in my view Frank shows us his true humanity – of childish selfishness, of cynacism but moves beyond those to reveal an adult who can hold things in tension for which they are. It’s being truly human. It’s being free. I too thought – not a tirad against his mother, how could he so soon after her death? But no this opening part in particular needs to be read together with Franks thoughts in Goodbye Mom, Edith Schaeffer 1914 – 2013 RIP. (SC it’s a shame someone gave a down arrow to your comments).

      Frank – can you share some favourite books read and shared at Christmas time for this Christmas or do you know what is going to be purchased in your family (other than your own book….)

  • http://www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog jerrywaxler

    This is a great deceptively simple story. How did you get me to read such a long post all the way through? It is so personal and yet flows so powerfully. Is it because of a greatness in your sentence structure? The flow of ease and personality in your connection with the reader? The universality of your scenes? Or some mysterious combination? If this was inspired by a search for Jesus in Christmas, it must be revealed within the joy of life. From reading your memoir I already admire your faith in the sacredness of all things.

    Jerry Waxler
    Memory Writers Network

    • frankschaeffer

      Jerry, that makes my day. I write, toss the note over the wall and hope for the best. I’m grateful! Best, Frank

  • 3:10

    Dammit, Frank. Every time I try to write you off, you write something beautiful like this. “Merry Christmas, Schaeffer Clan!” . . . ghosts and all.

    • frankschaeffer

      Hi 3:10 thanks! I’ll keep trying to surprise you. Best, Frank

  • Dave

    Frank. I would submit a simple word- HOPE. I don’t believe anymore in the Jesus of the Bible, and I have lived through the hell (and am still living in it) of evangelical madness and what it does to families. My two grown daughters (and their husbands) and by association, my four little granddaughters- though they are too young to make that decision for themselves; have nothing to do with me- since I have “turned away from Christ”. So Christmas is always the absolute worst time of the year for me. But I can always hope.

    • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

      Ancient Greek writers were scribbling Christ, χρ, in the margins of their books, hundreds of years before Jesus was claimed to exist, to mark a passage as “good.” Jesus Christ simply means Joshua the Good. You, my friend, have not turned away from Good.

      • Y. A. Warren

        I submit that much of what is called “Christianity” is not in keeping with the overarching theme of the life (or myth) of the Joyful Jewish Jesus.

        • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

          I concur!

          I’m Jeffersonian (not atheist) in my perception of Jesus. The Joyful Jewish Jesus (I love your term!), in my opinion, was a reformer of morals, who then had a magical dying-rising solar deity belief system attached to his teachings. Which is why I most often read the Jefferson Bible, with all the “magic show” removed.

          “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.” ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Benjamin Rush, May 21, 1803

          “…I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel, and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what it’s Author never said nor saw. they have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man…” ~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Charles Thomson, January 9, 1816

          • Y. A. Warren

            I am expecting my own copy of the Jefferson Bible in the mail, any day now. i have written may blog posts about my journey back to studying Jesus at OneFamilyManyFaiths.blogspot.com. I have also recently released a book with several of these post pertinent to the metamorphosis process we so in-eloquently call “death” called “We’re Already Eternal” which is available directly through me and on Amazon.com.

          • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

            Outstanding, Ms. Warren! Enjoy that Jefferson Bible. I’ll check out your blog and books too.

            You’re not on my mailing list, but I made a screen grab of the card I designed for this year, with a “cattle are lowing” (I almost used that for the text) landscape looking onto the back of our house, quite a bit warmer than a stable’s manger. :) So, Merry Christmas!

      • Yossi

        Jesus Christ means Jesus (or Y’shua in Hebrew), the Anointed One. Y’shua (Jesus in Greek) means Salvation.

    • Y. A. Warren

      I know how that feels, so we often ask random neighbors to join us for a meal. On Thanksgiving we took a bunch to a Chinese buffet, as a spoof on A Christmas Story Christmas meal. Fa-Ra-Ra-Ra-Ra, Ra-Ra-Ra-Ra!

  • Owen Vine

    Frank I suffer the same complex feelings that you have described here. My mother in law sounds just like Edith and bless her, now in her 80s will still be spending all nighters getting food prepared or washing dishes. And don’t let anyone stop her! Ours is not a particularly Christ filled Christmas because our Reformed church believed that Christmas was purely a pagan festival brought into the church and so would have nothing to do with it (nor Easter). Ours is a ‘family day’, not a Christian day (leave that to the Lord’s Day thankyou..) However we did not have that deep love of books that your parents gave to you. Our Christmas’ are pretty empty becuase of that. Now I can watch grandchildren open all sorts of trinkety things on Christmas Day and be enthralled for a while but I don’t see that longing of children to hear the stories read and reread. The worst thing about Christmas for me, in my family is that we spend too much time eating – I’d rather go for a swim (Austalian summer) or a bushwalk or a ride on my bike. I don’t want to spend time with all my over indulged nephews children or hear my father bragging about his life once again. Still, I have thought how empty life would be without these family times of Christmas. What I thought started out very cynically in your reflections actually opened up what blessing Christmas has been to you despite your (and everyone elses) failings. Try living without it and see what happens……

  • http://godhatesshrimp.com/ Dick Hertzer

    Jesus loves you so very much. and if you don’t raise your hand in church, he will torture you in hell forever and ever. Yep, makes sense to any person with an IQ under 100.

  • Y. A. Warren

    The longer I live, the less I enjoy any of the holy days turned into holidays. They seem simply another reminder to the poor and disenfranchised that they don’t measure up in the eyes of “God,” the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or any other mystical gift givers.

    I remember the agony in my mother’s eyes when she had to settle for second hand gifts for all of her nine children.

    My mother, who had no time for her own children or our father, then became so zealous about taking care of the old and infirm in her church parish that she often gave over her marriage bed to strangers so that our father was left without his bed when he returned home from his many business trips. She was also great at inviting people into our home who were busy promoting their particular perversions to her many children.

    Time together is the greatest gift any of us can give. I prefer to make everyday a holiday in my heart for any I encounter. When my grandchildren used to ask what I brought them, my answer was, “I brought you me.”

  • disqus_pjFQc7myhp

    As a woman raised and remaining within the evangelical tradition, I can tell you it is very tempting to fall into the trap of creating the “perfect Christmas.” This is just a logical offshoot of the tendency within evangelical Christianity to worship the concept of the “perfect family.” As we often bring friends and family members who may not be “saved”, to our homes during these times, women are taught that this is a way to demonstrate our faith in action. And it can be a labor of love. Or it can be frustrating and exhausting. At any rate, after trying to create the “perfect Christmas” myself for several years, I realized that I would rather spend Christmas talking to my family and friends, instead of cooking and cleaning. So we have scaled back, and Christmas is now a lot more fun.

  • Esther McDonald Nelson

    I’m a MK and “held on to the faith” into my young adult years. The church I last attended revered Francis Schaeffer’s book, HOW SHALL WE THEN LIVE? I slogged through the tome out of duty and a certain amount of hope that somehow something in there (and other boring tomes I read) would spark whatever it was that I seemed to be missing. Edith Schaeffer’s book, HIDDEN ART (I believe this was the title), was a book held up “to the ladies of the congregation,” so we could emulate the perfection with which Edith apparently carried out her household duties. HIDDEN ART made me feel woefully inadequate. The description of “the hollowed out and refilled tangerines” took me right back there. I don’t “do” Xmas these days, nor Easter, nor any other holiday I remember from my youth where my parents (and others) spread a spiritual veneer over it all. I’m much happier these days having shed much of the stilted ways and jargonized speech I’d grown accustomed to. Thanks, Frank, for sharing this article.

  • Yossi

    You talk too much, and you’re not a very good writer.