For me, as a child in the mission, Christmas meant feeling guilty because Mom did so much and we mere mortals did so little. My childhood Yuletide 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.”
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 also found stockings on their beds, cots, and assorted sleeping bags. 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. Mom’s masterpiece involved spooning homemade tangerine sorbet into the tangerine shells that she 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 refilled 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 a pietistic missionary mother and father who indoctrinated her 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 had a different literary theme: Alice in Wonderland one year, the Flower Fairies the next, and the Pinocchio saga after that. “The original story by Carlo Collodi, darling, not some awful ‘adaptation’ by that terrible man Walt Disney.” Mom being Mom, of course everything was as authentic as could be. That year little Italian wooden Pinocchios that Mom had bought in Milan peeked 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. The Alice year we Schaeffers and the guests alike found the book or a White Rabbit doll or a Red Queen doll affixed to each stocking top. 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. 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!”
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 and took turns opening our gifts one at a time.
The wonderful yet toxic combination of Mom’s evangelical goodness, Jesus’ 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 Very Personal Happy Christmas Story: The wonderful yet toxic combination of Mom’s evangelical goodness, Jesus’ inevitable birthday