beauty, community, reflecting

Christmas to Me

On the Saturday evening of the weekend before Christmas, my husband and I spend the evening with a group of people together in the sanctuary of a small, aging church building in Albany, California, north of Berkeley. In an area of the country where more folks are “unchurched” than in areas where hundreds of people – young and old – gather in large auditoriums to hear loud, drum-backed music while strobe lights flash overhead – we sit together for two hours in old wooden pews, taking in Christmas.

A Tongan woman dances to a song from her people as a two year old, born in the United States to parents whose native language is Tamil, born and raised in the South of India, runs behind the dancing woman, up the stairs to the chancel, where a Christmas tree stands at the center, its lights changing from white to multi-colored, and the little one dances in front of the tree as the rest of us smile and giggle at her antics.

A line of Filipinos, the women all wearing the same plaid winter shirt, sing a song from their country. A Korean choir proudly sings “He is Everything to Me,” standing in a line. A five year old girl – the oldest in the group of children who stand before us – sings all the verses of “Feliz Navidad,” the smaller children fidgeting, not sure where to look, as the mother of a two year old walks her little girl up to sit with the other children, all dressed in their Christmas best. A Tamil couple who spent most of the past year in India with family sing a song in their native language.

All the while during the concert unfolding before us, toddlers meet in the center aisle of the church, looking into each others’ faces, holding hands and swaying to the music they hear. Their parents smile as they watch their children, at the same time, their heads nodding to the Christmas music, the other entertainment of the evening.

A well dressed, handsome young man – accustomed to being in the spotlight – walks to the front of the sanctuary, where he reads “Mood of Christmas” by Howard Thurman, (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981; American author, philosopher, theologian, mystic, educator, and civil rights leader). The young man graces us with the African American Gospel song, “Jesus, What a Wonderful Child,” and as he leaves the front of the sanctuary, he is followed by a couple from India, singing the Malayalam Song, “Christmas Raavananja Neram.” Their daughter, 2 months old – a child they had waited many years to welcome into their lives – sleeps in the infant seat her mother had carried with her to the front of the church.

We are grateful when the Pastor, a native of Korea and a professor of preaching, uses his time at the pulpit to offer a few words of Christmas blessing, and then sits again among the rest of us in the pews. Not much needs to said when we see Christmas unfolding here, right before our eyes.

Over the course of the evening, we hear Christmas songs and carols in 10 languages.

And then – as the music quiets – Korean women, all dressed in red for the occasion, pass out little white candles, and we sing, “Silent Night, Holy Night…” The lights are darkened as the candles are held high, sparkling.

Soon, we crowd into the center aisle of the small sanctuary, greeting one another, many with elbow-bumps – in honor of Covid – and we are filled with joy, gratitude, for being together to bring Christmas to one another, a gift.

Christmas Lights on View Place, December, 2022, photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert

reflecting, remembering

Longing for Cozy

I left Wisconsin to live in California on December 26, 1981. I had moved out of my own apartment to stay with my parents at the beginning of December as I made the transition from full time work to full time student, at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. At the time, I didn’t know that I would be moving “forever,” to not return to the place that had been my homeland, the land of my people, for several generations.

For a few years after I made the move to Northern California, I did not return to Wisconsin at holiday time. I stayed in Berkeley and later, in the parsonage at Pleasanton with my new husband, Jeff. I recall vividly the first winter I spent in Pleasanton, as I stood in the driveway in my blazer, preparing to drive to my first parish, in San Jose. I was surprised – here I was a blazer as my top layer in January – no boots, no wool cap and gloves!

My Dad died in April of 1986, and I was able to be with my parents for a few days over the holiday season after Christmas the year before. One day during my visit, Milwaukee had a wonderful snow-fall, a snow-fall without wind, when the large flakes fell straight from the sky to the sidewalks and streets below. I walked over to a coffee shop not far from my parents’ apartment on Appleton Avenue, taking in the white stuff as it landed on me, looking at the falling snow with wonder. That’s the best kind of snow – gentle,calm, falling silently to the streets of the city. And I didn’t have to shovel! I enjoyed the coziness of the coffee shop and set out to walk again to my parents’ place.

For a few years after I moved to Northern California, I tried – without any success – to bring on the feeling of “cozy,” during the holidays. As I write today, Oakland is getting a much needed, and never-enough rain, after many years of draught. This is as close to cozy as I’ll get, I’m sure, the sound of tires driving in the rain, the tree lights lit, heat from the furnace warming the house. One holiday season, a few days before Christmas, after my father had passed and my mother made the trip to spend the holiday season with Jeff and me in the Bay Area, she and I stopped on Christmas Eve to have a lunch together at a cafe. Inside the cafe, Christmas music played on the sound system, and we enjoyed our quiet time together. And that day, as I sat with Mom in a cafe, longing for cozy, I realized that I could never bring on Christmas the way it had been, in my memory. Those days were gone. My life had changed, and with the changes I had lost something I’d never have again, as happy as I was in my new home, in my new life.

I suppose that as I grow older, I will be longing for Christmas every year, longing for a bit of cold, for a snow – silent, lovely – and of course, for the people who lived those Christmases with me, gone now, for a long, long time.

Christmas tree, 2022. Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert



Magic seems to permeate this season of the year, the time when the darkness descends upon us – literally – and we are full into the darkness. In my life and spiritual practice, it is certain that when I descend into the darkest place, the light, the new emerges. The promise of those who have gone before is that there will be light, there will be another day. And another day arrives, new – Magic.

When I was a child, my sense of wonder provided a kind of Magic. On Christmas Eve, my non-churched family attended a church to be present for the children’s program. I was among the children who stood to recite the Christmas story, verse by verse, for the gathered adults, the sanctuary filled with lights, the light of candles, the smells and sounds of a place with a cold winter: cold hands and faces, warm wool outerwear. What I remember about those Christmas Eve times is the sense of Magic I held as a child – that Magic itself something holy, something that would pass away, away from me as I entered puberty and young adulthood. Nothing can replace the Magic of that time and place, still clear in my memory.

A few days ago, as the light of the day was ending, Jeff finished his work on the strip of land we call, “the Panhandle,” where he has lately installed a neighborhood library – a beautiful wooden box complete with a glass door that a friend crafted to suit the vision Jeff and I had. As soon as the library was installed, a few books appeared. One day, I watched as a woman I did not know stopped her car and delivered several books to the library. Our vision has come to life! Our vision is useful! Our vision is beautiful!

That day, as the sun set over San Francisco Bay, barely visible from our windows on View Place, Jeff stepped into the kitchen and looked out to the West as the sun was setting. He had cut the branches of a tree in our yard that had hid the site we were seeing. Jeff called me over to stand with him at the window. And there – there! – as if the moment was for us alone – our own screen on the sun setting over the Bay – the outline of downtown San Francisco, coated in grey fog and lit by the lights of the City – shone before us. Magic! I named our view, “The City of God,” and we stood for a few moments as the vision faded, as the sun sank lower into the Pacific beyond the City. Then – gone.

The simple gifts of light, of a tree with golden leaves about to fall, of my cat who comes to sit close to me on the couch to receive a good petting, of an old recipe for borscht that gives us a week of meals. These simple gifts are Magic to me.

“The City of God,” photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, Oakland, 12/2022



I lead a weekly group at a center for disabled adults, here in the Bay Area. Each week, we open with a prayer and we talk about something in our lives – our memories, our worries, the people we love who are no longer with us. We close with prayer.

The week before Thanksgiving, we talked about the upcoming holiday season. We remembered what the season was like for us, some of us recalling events that happened decades ago. We talked about what was hard for us during the holiday season. Each of these memories brought back the images, the laughter, and sometimes the sadness, of these times, remembered.

I always wait until everyone else has spoken to share my own answers to the questions. I remembered the yearly outing to buy the Christmas tree, years ago, when my father – he was “Dad” in our family – and one of us, or the rest of us would go to pick the Christmas tree. Winter can start early in Southeastern Wisconsin, and that fact is important to my memories. Dad was real fussy about the tree that we would choose to bring home. So we’d walk down the rows of trees, smelling the pine that was a harbinger of the season to come. Dad would stop, pull a tree that leaned against the others from the row, and hold it up – so we could get an idea of how tall it stood. When I was little, the trees were really tall – clear to the ceiling of our old Milwaukee flat. As my siblings and I left home and Mom and Dad were alone in the apartment on Appleton Avenue, the trees seemed to grow shorter. Or maybe it was me…

Finally, as we endured the cold, the smell of the fir trees, the sound of bells – always – and the darkening sky – sometimes flurries of an early snow – we’d find the right – the perfect – tree. Dad would secure it in the trunk of his Chevy BelAir, and we’d drive home.

When Suzie and I were really little, Mom and Dad decorated the tree after we went to bed on Christmas Eve – in the old-fashioned, European way – so that we awoke on Christmas morning to the beautiful tree, decorated, icicles hanging, thick and luscious, standing tall in the corner of the living room. The smell of the pine needles we’d smelled in the tree lot now filled the room. Mom was careful about the icicles on the tree. Every evening during the season, she’d get up from her chair and arrange the hanging silver strings so that they were perfect, not resting on the branch below, but hanging in the air, like the huge icicles that hung from the edge of the roofs. Late at night during winter, from time to time I would hear an icicle fall, flying past the window to the snow covered ground that wound around the side of the house.

As we grew older, Suzie and I helped decorate the tree, and over the years, the tree began to appear in the front window earlier and earlier in December.

Every year, the same ornaments were hung on the tree. When some of the ornaments were taken from their careful packing and placed on the tree, even when silver trees and flocked trees were popular, our house boasted an “old fashioned tree”. We never tired of it. I never tire of a green tree, recently cut, even now.

The tree stayed up, decorations and all, until Epiphany – Mom called it “Russian Christmas.” Epiphany marks the celebration of the birth of the Christ in the Orthodox tradition of the Christian Church, Epiphany the event when the Child was presented to the world, visited by the Three Wise Men. After the holiday, the pain-staking work of removing the ornaments, the oval lights of many colors, and the icicles began, each item carefully packed in the boxes that had been around since before I was born, and set aside in the attic until next year.

Next year doesn’t come anymore, at least in that old way. I still like a real tree, and the ornaments that Jeff and I remove from the boxes each come with a story, like the days when they hung on my mother’s tree. We remember who gave us the ornaments, we guess the time in our own history when they were added to the family’s tree, and we note the newer ornaments, too, those given to us by friends or the people in our parishes. Some lie in the box, wrapped in the same paper Mom had wrapped them in, years ago. Like my parents’ ornaments, each one comes out of the box with a story, and with the story, a memory. A bit of sadness comes along with the decorating of the tree, as the people we love are remembered, along with funny stories that probably weren’t funny at the time. Now, we laugh often as we remember. We feel sadness, too.

This year, Jeff will hang lights on one of the trees that stand at the side of our house. We want to bring a bit of holiday light to the neighborhood, to the neighbors who pass our house every day, and to their guests. We know now that the season of the Coming of the Light is honored by many traditions, not just ours, and knowing of the festivals of others enriches our own. Here in the Bay Area, we respect these differences by saying, “Happy Holidays” to one another. Our youngest niece honors the season with her mother as they light the candles for Hanukkah on the menorah, standing next to their Christmas tree. Some of the old traditions remain; new traditions are made. On Christmas Eve, when we go to bed, I’ll leave a local radio station playing on the radio in the living room, the empty room – empty except for the beautiful tree – filled with the sound of holiday music as we sleep.

Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, December 10, 2020 – COVID Christmas Tree

reflecting, Uncategorized

Season of Holidays

In the Mediterranean climate in the Bay Area, we know the weather, the sky, the light is changing, heralding the coming holiday time. The changes are subtle here, but the leaves fall from some of the trees, and the color is changing – the color not only of the trees, but the light in the sky, the early darkness. It’s winter now. The Season of Holidays has arrived.

The Bay Area is a diverse area of the country, and here we respect many traditions and the holidays they honor. Many of them reflect this time of darkness, this season. In my own faith tradition, we enter the liturgical season of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, four Sundays filled with stories of those ancient, ancient people who longed for a Messiah – waited for the Coming of the Messiah. In the darkest time of year, we honor the Coming of the Light, the Holy One. In the darkest times of our lives, we long for someone to save us, for someone to come to us who will fulfill our longing.

I have always loved the time of Advent, those four Sundays before Christmas. As a pastor, I worked as hard as I could to have the good church folks “stay put” in the season of Advent, to have them hear the stories of the faith as if the Light had not come, to sing the songs that tell the story of the people who wait. As the autumn gives way to winter, we watch the days grow shorter. The sun falls earlier each day into the west. The last rays of each day come earlier, day by day, until we know the longest night. We are fully in the darkest time, then, we exist within it. Although we know the Light will come – as it has before – we still must live within this darkest time.

Advent is a time of darkness. In our lives, we know Advent well. A marriage ends. A depression has its hold on us – longer than we can bear, it seems. A relationship that is floundering goes on and on until its participants are exhausted with the ending. An illness has us in its grip, and though we long for it to end, it does not. The times of emptiness go on and on, without subsiding. We know so well these times of Advent, before we come to a time when we will breathe again.

And we are in that season, now. Of course the churches will begin to sing the Christmas Carols – soon. Too soon, for me. I want to honor, to respect this time of waiting, of preparation, of darkness. And there will be time for the lights to be hung on the tree, to be lit each evening as soon as the sky becomes dark. There will be a time for the Light. Are we afraid of the darkness? I want to write: of course we are. Who doesn’t want the times of sorrow, the grief, the depression, so hard to bear, to end? Who doesn’t want the light to come on so that we can see our way down the hall? But there is that moment of darkness, there is that season of darkness – when the promise is held before us – waiting in the wings – but not given.

Early Sunset, Autumn. Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, November 17, 2022.