words: Jessica Sowards
Images: courtesy Mikela Sowards
There is a particular feeling that inhabits my heart this time of year. I anticipate it from the very first cool morning in September. When pumpkin spice everything explodes in the stores and restaurants, I know it’s almost here. Then October rolls in and the leaves burn crimson and gold, giving their lives for that satisfying underfoot crunch that marks a walk around the farm in the fall.
Next, comes the cold. A hint of wood smoke mingles with the air. Mornings are marked with a whistling kettle and the necessity of slippers and sweaters over thermal pajamas. As the nation speeds into the hustle and bustle of the holidays, something absolutely beautiful happens inside my little farmhouse.
When Jeremiah and I met, I was a Christmas fanatic, and he could have been aptly described as a Scrooge. He didn’t mean anything by it. Christmas was never a big deal in his family. His parents had nine kids and no money, so the festivities were generally limited. I remember when he told me they’d never had a Christmas tree and my heart just broke. He didn’t seem to mind, of course, but I couldn’t imagine, with my rich childhood memories of the holidays, what it would be like not to have a tree and gifts and traditions.
This difference actually proved to be a bit of a struggle in the early days of our relationship. My idea of giving seemed excessive to him. His idea of Christmas seemed depressing to me. The first years we were together, I was so determined to make him love Christmas, to buy all the right stuff and manufacture all the right feelings, that I almost missed the true meaning of the holiday. I would work so hard to make everything perfect, spending money I didn’t have and putting my focus on all the wrong things, that I would end up feeling deflated and spent, disappointed at the fleeting nature of what I had created.
It was on a late December night, in the quiet calm that settles on a mother after her children are sleeping, that I sat in the warm glow of the Christmas tree and cried, realizing what I was really celebrating. Jesus could have come any way He wanted.
He could have been preceded by the booming declarations of heaven, demanding all the acknowledgment He deserved. He could have stormed the earth, captivating everyone in it. But instead, He came as a whisper in the night. He came in the sweet and small cry of a newborn. He came to a mother and a father.
On the night the King was born, so was born a family. When I realized that, my heart and everything in it changed towards Christmas. I always knew we were celebrating the arrival of salvation, but something in me really shifted when I realized that God made more than one declaration in how He chose to send His son. God was speaking of His heart for the family unit in that manger. When I began to focus on that, all the wonder that had been kindled in my childhood, all the joy of gifts and the love and celebration became mingled with something much more holy.
In the years that followed that paradigm shift, our life has become unrecognizable. We bought our farm, became homeschoolers, opened our family business. We welcomed our fourth and fifth sons. We made plans and strived to live more sustainably. I began traveling more for ministry and sharing our adventures as a big family carving out our own way in the world.
We laid a foundation of faith and built on it a structure of family and worship and service. And Christmas became a reflection of the rest of our life, like the year-end flourish on all the other days spent loving Jesus. It’s always been my favorite time of year, but now it holds a special wonder. No longer is it a time of hustle and bustle and striving, but a time that we land and rest. Something like a whisper in a manger, we are surrounded by smelly animals and a family God put together, and we are thankful.
Somewhere in the midst of it all, Jeremiah came to love Christmastime. When everything changed, he started seeing the heart that went into the gifts and the food and the atmosphere, and he realized that my love for the holiday was an expression of my love for my family. He got on board. I watch him now on Christmas mornings, as he drinks tea and takes in his sons experiencing something he missed out on, and I praise God for giving us the things we don’t even know to ask for. Things like deeply rooted homes and rich memories.
And the memories are rich for sure, even though they cost very little in material things. When the pumpkin spice and the wood smoke begin flavoring the season, my kitchen wakes up and the special feeling of home that comes once a year settles in.
I used to start shopping in October; now I start cooking. Canned jams, pear preserves, and apple butters begin lining my shelves. They have stories, the apples picked by little hands at the orchard, seventy pounds of pears gifted from a friend, persimmons foraged from the woods on our ridge, all of them prepared with care. I’ve bred chickens specifically for egg color, and in December the most gorgeous cartons of eggs will be paired with the story-telling jams and home-baked bread, kneaded by calloused hands and infused with prayers. People we love will literally be fed by the life we have poured ourselves into.
It’s not just the gifts that come from my kitchen at Christmas. So much of the atmosphere of the holiday is set in that room. When the wassail punch simmers on the stove, cookies bake in the oven, and a pie cools on the counter, it’s almost like a heartbeat thumps out of that warm-tiled heart of my home. I hope and pray my sons remember Christmas in the kitchen. I hope they remember being elbow deep in dough, wrapped up in one of their momma’s floral aprons. I hope they remember how pleasing it is to create comfort and familiarity in lovingly crafted food.
We still buy some presents. We still decorate. I still start playing Christmas music earlier than most people deem sensible. But everything is intentional. My Christmases aren’t created in a shopping mall anymore but are built from the stories of two families. One that existed two thousand years ago, and the one I’m living in now on this little Arkansas farm.
Do you want to know my favorite part of it all? I love opening the door and sharing Christmas. This year our precious friends, Daniel and Kassie, are bringing their fifteen adopted children to spend a weekend at our house shortly before Christmas Day. I love seeing Jeremiah’s wheels turning, making plans to have surprises under the tree for them all. I’ve already planned the food, and though we may have air mattresses covering all the bedroom floors, there will be more than enough love to make up for the tight sleeping quarters.
We will have cookie baking marathons with my cousin Amy and her little girl. We will uphold our tradition of making popcorn strands for the tree with Grandma Jana. We will watch movies in pajamas and drink hot chocolate with the boys’ friends visiting for a sleepover. And on December twenty-sixth, when everything is said and done, the feeling of deflation won’t exist. Rather, there will simply be a satisfied sigh of having given our hearts to one another.
Christmastime is the most magical time of the year. I’ve loved it my entire life. But it’s when it took the homespun form of a manger and the hush of mother and father in awe of a Savior that Christmas transformed for me. Then, in all its simplicity and love and wonder, it surpassed any sparkling thing I could have made myself.
Merry Christmas, y’all, from my family to yours.
Follow Jessica on her blog @thehodgepodgedarling.blogspot.com