Saloma Miller Furlong
Author and Speaker

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Christmas Thoughts

The other day while I was grocery shopping, I encountered a woman in a parking lot outside the store. She was walking with a cane and she asked if I would like for her to take my cart back. She said it would help her. I turned the cart around in the right direction, thanked her, smiled, and wished her a joyful Christmas. She returned the good wishes.

As I was driving to Trader Joes to do more shopping, I was thinking about whether I should have wished her joyful holidays instead of Christmas. I had said what first came to mind, but I realized that it was making an assumption — that she celebrates Christmas.

Then I walked into Trader Joes and the commercial song, “You better watch out!” was playing loudly on the indoor/outdoor speakers. And I wondered: Why is it considered politically incorrect to wish someone a “Merry Christmas” and yet stores play the commercial, yucky songs, designed to get you and me to buy more goods. What makes this politically correct?

I am keenly aware how much of our economy is devoted to tracking our buying habits and bombarding us with ads to buy, buy, and buy: things we need and things we don’t need — it doesn’t matter, so long as we keep buying. We have to keep that capitalist machine running. It becomes the religion of the day. And it becomes incredibly distracting to what I consider important in my life.

Sometimes I need to pull back from all this and really center on what I am grateful for in my life. Money cannot buy most of the things I find myself being grateful for. Sure, having a warm house to live in and food to eat are essentials that money can buy. But the feeling of sitting next to David on the sofa on a wintery night, with nothing but the Christmas lights on, talking about this and that, or just feeling and hearing his and my heartbeat synchronize in a quiet moment — this is Christmas bliss. I would not trade David’s presence in my life for all the commercial presents in the world.

In my Amish days, we celebrated Christmas with gifts and large extended family gatherings and so much food, we were guilty of gluttony. The gifts provided anticipation and fun, but when I think back, the real gift was that of community. This strong sense of community is not found in the mainstream culture — we have way too many electronic devices distracting us from having meaningful interaction with those around us.

One of the things I always wanted while I was growing up, was a Christmas tree. In the Amish way of thinking, they are too fancy. When I left, I began decorating and enjoyed a Christmas tree each year. I find it a joyful celebration of light in the darkest time of the year. And the ornaments that I unwrap to hang on the tree are such great reminders of Christmases past: the homemade ones from Paul’s and Tim’s grade school years; the ones we bought at craft shows; the wooden ones David made; the ones we received as gifts from friends; the ones we had given to David’s parents and then later inherited; and the garlands of popcorn and cranberries that I string each year.

Two weeks ago, when I was stringing the popcorn and cranberries, my thoughts went to Anna, who was with us a year ago. She and I did this together last year and it was the first Christmas tree she was ever able to help cut, put up, decorate, and enjoy. As I was stringing the garlands and listening to Handel’s Messiah, I wondered how it is for Anna to celebrate a Plain Christmas after enjoying a “fancy” one last year. I remembered how much she enjoyed music, and now she is no longer allowed to listen to any. When she returned to her community, she lost her personal freedom to make such choices.

Anna a year ago

Then I realized what Anna has gained by returning. She has community. She is surrounded by her brothers and sisters and their families, including her forty (or more) nieces and nephews, all of whom she loves very much. Most of all, this is where she felt she belonged and living the only life in which she feels she has a chance of gaining her place in heaven someday.

For all of those who leave the Amish, we have to come to terms with the question of our salvation. We were taught that to leave the community was the same as giving up our chance of achieving salvation. Before we can thrive, we have to change this belief. The fear of the consequences otherwise is just too debilitating.

Anna could not reconcile this. She still held a firm belief that if she died while “out in the world” she would miss her chance of making it into heaven. She had to return to regain the hope that she could.

I had to question this belief before I could leave even the first time. Now I no longer believe this. Even my concept of heaven has changed over the years. I don’t imagine when I die I will go to a place with gold streets and where milk and honey flow. But I do believe my spirit will live on and find its true home. And I believe my sojourn on this earth will determine my place on that other shore and beyond the sunset.

I had time to think about all this when I was stringing popcorn and cranberries. I cannot judge which choice would have been better for Anna — to stay out of her community or to go back. I could only make that choice for myself. But I am keenly aware of the differences in our two worlds. I sacrificed my community for my freedom. Anna sacrificed her freedom for her community. I am constantly bombarded with commercials to get me to buy more material goods. Anna’s world is insulated from this because she is not allowed to buy devices that bombards her with these messages.

When I sit in my place of contemplation this time of the year — in the light of my Christmas tree — I hope and pray that Anna finds peace and joy in the life path she choses for herself.

Yes, sure, I have the choice of whether I buy into the commercialism or focus on the simple gifts this season. But that still does not make up for the sense of community that I miss from the Plain Christmases of my Amish past. A closely-knit community is a gift that money cannot buy. I hope this is one of the gifts Anna enjoys this season.

I would extend warm holiday wishes to everyone reading this post. However you celebrate, I hope you experience love, peace, joy, warmth, and light.

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