As a child, I guess you
could say I was pretty normal around Christmastime. I believed
in magic. That is like millions of other children around the world I was
deluded by the image of a robust bearded man falling down a sooty
chimney, eating my Greek Christmas cookies, and leaving behind my
Christmas dreams beneath an elaborate tree.
Well, as the years passed, I
managed somehow to leave my own Christmas dreams behind. As I ran down
the path of capitalistic materialism climbing the career ladder towards
the star of success, I lost sight of the other star. The magic of
Christmas faded into oblivion. A discolored world of childhood memories
and fantasies that I could barely revive in my cynical adulthood
replaced the excitement of Christmases past.
A dozen tragedies and major matrimonial
disappointments later, I found myself dreading the sounds and smells of
that Deck the Halls and Strip Your Pocketbook Season. Every year like
clockwork, my anxiety and panic would begin to build on November 1st.
I needed belief to give me relief.
However, rediscovering the magic
of Christmas required great courage on my part, somewhat like Dorothy’s
adventure to the Emerald City. There were many lions and tigers and
bears along the way. To regenerate my belief I had to cross the
continental United States, change my life—once again—and dig way down
deep into my Southern roots.
As I resisted the urge to free
fall back into the Bible Belt of the deep South, which I had happily
left eight years earlier for the freedom of the west coast, I suddenly
found myself taken up with the spirit and at long last, the magic of
Christmas for the first time in many years. It happened on a chilly
Sunday evening--December 15,2002 to be exact in what I had been told for
years was a forbidden place for me —the First Baptist Church of Biloxi.
Going to such a place had
remained a long-standing taboo of my Greek heritage. In fact, walking
through the doors of any institution where you had not been christened a
follower by being dunked into a tub of holy water and nearly drowned as
a sinful infant and slathered in olive oil was a big no-no for a
Greek—especially one growing up in a South that couldn’t even spell
Greek Orthodox way back when.
There I was told I would find
the land of unreality when it came to religion and spirit. No icons, no
priest decked out in golden threads, no ancient text being spoken, and
certainly very few contemporaries in the congregation. Of course,
becoming overwhelmingly inspired was in itself a complete impossibility
I was consistently informed by my ethnic elders.
Ten days before Christmas,
surely sufficient time to erase at least a percentage of my cynicism I
set out on a two-fold mission:
To cheer up my
81-year-old mother (who remains a bit morose after her recent knee
To rediscover the
true meaning of Christmas.
So I took on the great burden of
attending a Christmas service “outside our faith.” In my naïve
determination I was willing to try just about anything—even a Baptist
church. Having read about the Singing Christmas Tree in our local paper
I was even more determined to see and hear—and hopefully feel—something
I had yet to experience in several decades.
We were turned away on our first
attempt for the 2:30 afternoon production. Not because we didn’t belong,
but because, as is my norm, we were running late and the church was
filled to capacity and beyond. Were that many people as desperate to
find the magic of Christmas here in my hometown? Or, did they already
know something I didn’t know?
Still determined to get results,
Mother and I set out an hour and forty-five minutes early for the 6 pm
service. It’s a good thing. If I had done my usual Greek time routine,
we’d have been turned away again. “Alas! We are early for something,” my
mother exclaimed, elated at our primo third row seats.
Waiting with the anticipation of
any theatre audience, neither of us knew quite what to expect. To pass
the time, I picked up an available Bible and was reading the Book of
Revelation (That’s a clear indication of my holiday state of mind!) when
I heard a voice from the past. A high school chum I hadn’t seen in years
was nearly as surprised at our attendance in his church as we were.
As the sanctuary of the First
Baptist Church darkened a rush of Frank Capra magic from It’s a
Wonderful Life hit me in one fell swoop.
A gigantic magical Christmas
tree, bursting with rows of rainbow lights and ornamented with human
voices praising the Gift of a Lifetime; dancing angels pirouetting
around the Baby Jesus; the illuminating lyrics from Mary and Joseph; a
young unpretentious pastor who shared his beliefs passionately yet
sincerely; an inspired minister of music who conducted a production the
caliber of a Tony Award winning Broadway extravaganza—these were the
visible elements contributing to my Christmas transformation.
The perfection of the production
went beyond the sound of Christmas bells, inspirational music, jubilant
dancing and remarkable stage performances. The Singing Christmas Tree
was an all-inclusive creation, involving multi-generations of talent.
Young, old and in-between took on their roles with heart and spirit.
Thus, song-by-song, entrance by entrance, my holiday cynicism and
anxiety were peeled away layer by layer.
Not easily caught up in any
religious fervor of the moment, I was surprisingly awakened to the true
meaning of Christmas as a church filled with loving family members and
friends applauded each beautifully performed hymn.
Mother and I could hardly
believe our eyes or our ears. We kept looking at one another in
amazement. Tears of joy and understanding were streaming down my face.
I felt renewed. Since December 15th, Mother has been on the
phone with all of her church friends and family members telling them
about our spiritual experience at the First Baptist Church of Biloxi.
“I’ve never seen anything like
it in my life,” she keeps repeating. “Thank you, Elaine, for taking me
to see it.”
I had been waiting a long time
to feel this feeling again—it was the only Christmas gift I have ever
really wanted—and it was one that could not be purchased by anyone
anywhere in the world. I had to uncover it in my own heart—with the
help of a phenomenal Singing Christmas Tree and the dedicated members of
a very special church.
Thank you to the
First Baptist Church of Biloxi for giving me the Christmas gift of a