The Study

There’s a room in our house euphemistically known as “the study”. It is about 9 feet wide and 14 feet long — an odd room by any measure — and odd stuff collects there, things that don’t fit anywhere else in the house.

There’s an upright piano, perpetually out of tune because it is against an outside wall and suffers too many temperature changes. But it has to go here; if it is on the hardwood floor of the part of the house that lies above the crawl space, it pings annoyingly whenever anyone walks by it.

There are about a thousand vinyl records sitting in cardboard boxes on the floor against one wall, irreplaceable recordings waiting to be transferred to the more modern storage medium of CDs and DVDs. That wall is lined with bookshelves from just above the record boxes to the 11-foot cathedral ceiling, filled mostly with religion and music and our collections of Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, and Charles Williams. A built-in shelf against another wall overflows with over-sized books, and the cabinet beneath is filled with photographs waiting to be sorted and scanned. There’s a half-wall of red brick, the back side of the two-sided fireplace the study shares with the living room.

The last side is mostly window, but it is vain to expect light from it most of the year, since just outside is an enormous holly tree that blocks the southwestern exposure. Only in the late afternoons of June and July does sunlight penetrate beneath the holly for a few brief hours. Still, if lights are on in the study, it is impossible to private there. From the street, every nook is visible through the lace curtains that came with the house.

The room is always cold. It’s part of a garage conversion, you see, so the floor is slab and it doesn’t share the forced-air heating that keeps the rest of the house habitable in January and February. Oh, there are electric wall heaters, but we dare not turn them on. Those irreplaceable records and the temperamental piano are directly in front of them.

Between the cold and the darkness, we don’t use the room much as a family. Sometimes, when we have a party, company may overflow into the study. When the kids are visiting, or we have music to practice for church, someone may spend an hour or so a day playing the piano. I occasionally hunt for a book on the shelves, reconfiguring the replica Williamsburg chair into a stepstool so that I can reach as high as the next-to-the top shelf. But rarely are two of us in the room at the same time.

For eleven months of the year, I mostly just pass through the study on my way to my office from the rest of the house, ignoring the growing layers of dust on the shelves and the blast of cold air from the crack behind the cabinet, the records and photos and the work they represent, and the growing stacks of stuff for which there is no room elsewhere that will be out of the way here for “just a day or so until I find time to really put it away”.

But in the twelfth month, the study comes into its own. You see, the high-ceiling cold and dark corners and visibility through the window that make the study less attractive the rest of the year make it the perfect place for the Christmas tree.

The cold keeps the tree from drying out. Against the dark room, the lighted tree is magic. And it can be seen from the street, so the house doesn’t seem entirely devoid of Christmas decoration.

The week before Christmas, we actually do clean out all the stuff that has accumulated in the study. Then Sarah — my youngest — and I go hunting for the tree. We have done this together since Sarah was old enough to help pick out the tree, that is, since she was about three, and we do it still, although now she commutes from her apartment in the city for the event. We go to Joe’s or Bill’s or Ed’s Trees –any lot that still has trees on December 21 or so (not always easy in a culture that confuses Advent with Christmas season). We roust out the cold, bored attendant from his trailer, and we look for the right lopsided noble fir that will fit between the fireplace wall and the bookshelves. Money changes hands, usually more than I would like, and Bill or Ed or Joe saws off the bottom of the tree so it will be “freshly cut”, and ties the tree to the top of the car. We drive home, and Bruce helps us wrestle it off the car rack. Then everyone stands on the front porch and gives advice to the unlucky family member who must wiggle under the tree and seat it in the stand. When it is upright and snug in its basin, we carry it in triumphal procession to the study, where it sits, one day or three or five, naked and bare but watered, until December 24.

Then Sarah decorates it. She winds strand after strand of small white steadily burning lights more or less evenly on the branches. She puts on the ornaments that came from Grandma Emma’s boxes, which Grandma no longer uses since her health won’t let her put up and take down a tree. She adds the few that we retrieved from Grandma Kae’s house after Kae died, the bird with the long tail feathers and the Santa. There are the paper and styrofoam and glitter balls that David and Mary made in Sunday School, and the cookie ornaments Aunt Meg gave us each year. We have a lot of cookie ornaments for Mary as the eldest, fewer for David, fewer still for Sarah. There are the ornaments Judy bought me the year I was pregnant with Mary and depressed, and spent all our food money on a tree, but then didn’t have enough money to eat or decorate the tree. She gave me the red spike “tree topper”, and some green balls you have to wrap around the branches with pipe cleaner. They go on the tree every year. There are the ornaments we brought home from trips to special places, and the crystal rose and three wise men, that have to be placed so that the tree lights will glint through them. Sadly, there are no longer the Ukranian egg ornaments we laboriously blew out and covered with wax and dyed one year; an infestation of mice in the garage destroyed them. But there are no anonymous ornaments on our tree: every one has a story.

On Christmas Eve, we all go to the late night vigil service, then come home, sometimes in rain, or snow, or just biting cold. Bruce makes hot spiced wine, and then on this night, this one night, we all crowd into the study, around the tree, and sit together for the hour or two it takes to open our presents. We have done this every year since we moved into the house. It is the perfect place to be on Christmas Eve.

I was thinking about all this while I cleaned out the study for Christmas this year. I had put on a recording of Christmas Carols from St. John, and was busily restacking boxes and dusting shelves and trying to find places to really put away the oddments that collect in the room over the regular course of a year of unuse. And all the while, I was engaged in that most annoying and unavoidable activity of the Christian: theological reflection.

Here is a room, ignored by daily life in the world, but its very faults in that world are the gifts necessary to the observation of an essential spiritual experience. It is dark and cold and a hard place to be every other day, but on Christmas Eve, it is warm with love and alight with laughter and if that spills over to the stranger on the street, so much the better.

So too was the stable in Bethlehem dark and cold, of little interest to the people flowed through the inn on their way to Jerusalem. They gave it only the thought necessary to stable their animals for a night. Even the owners kept it but minimally cleaned out; they would have had no time for more. But one night, one Christmas night, it became the birthing room for the Son of God. On that holy night, it was filled with the Light of the World, a light to enlighten even the Gentiles, standing outside, looking in with confusion.

Here is a room, ignored by daily life in the world, used for a short time for celebration, then forgotten. So in our society today, Christmas is often just a series of duties and parties and observances to be gotten through, perhaps enjoyed but more likely just endured. We read articles on how to survive the stress of the holidays, how to simplify the observance others expect of us. And if we manage to get through the holiday season, we can heave a sigh of relief and go back to normal until the next year.

On the narrow mantle of the study side of the fireplace, are two tiny Christmas tree replacement light bulbs. I found them one year in the high tufts of the rug as I was vacuuming, after I had already put the ornament box and lights back in their place in the garage, and I was too tired and cold to go back out to the garage and climb the ladder to the shelf with the ornament box and put them away properly.

They are little 2 amp lights, an inch long. But in a world that is otherwise pitch black, they would be enough to guide someone home. Here they still lie, ready for use when some year we bring out the lights and find one of the bulbs has not survived its summer sojourn in the garage. Until then, I see them, even unlit, on the corner of the mantle each time I pass through the room, a constant reminder of the room’s true purpose.

The room has changed. It will never be the same. Christ has come.

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