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.
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: “
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.