It was almost the end of August, almost the end of summer.
The tourists were all heading home. There was a good chance the national park would close in the next week until the following May. Snow was on its way. Summer's end was near.
But for the park staff, it was a party. Maybe it should have been a goodbye party. Most of the staff would not see each other for nine months. They jokingly called it their city deployment. Or their pregnancy leave. So it should have been a time of tears and farewells, blended with vague promises to see you next season.
But it was not what it should have been. We had a Christmas party in August. We had a Christmas tree. No one knew where it came from, and we knew we shouldn't ask. We had all the trimmings: ornaments, feasts, carols, presents, and even Christmas cookies.
It was the end of things, and we sang carols in church at midnight. It was August, winter was almost here, and in the darkness we created a moment so bright it would last beyond winter, even beyond the next summer. It was Christmas on Aug. 25, and it was one of the best ever Christmases ever.
We were not calendar challenged. We were not shamelessly taking advantage of a holiday. We were family, and we would not be together on Christmas. We would scatter across the county and across the globe. So we had our family gathering for Christmas earlier than planned, earlier than expected. We had a real Christmas.
This real Christmas is soul renewing and Earth shattering. Nothing about our life will ever be the same again. The Magi discovered that one brief moment with the Holy Infant was not only enough to make all their journey's troubles worthwhile, but changed their future as well.
This is the Christmas we all look for — even the Grinches and Scrooges among us.
We all know Christmas is more than a date on a calendar, more than the smell of Christmas cookies or the ripping of wrapping paper. So in trying to discover the real Christmas, we will often try to scale back the gift giving, reduce the holiday extras, let go of a few traditions. If we are less busy, we will have more time to make Christmas real.
But it never works that way.
And, frankly, sometimes Christmas traditions are just too painful.
We can't be home for Christmas. Someone we love will never ever share Christmas with us again. We have lost our way and Christmas reminds us of what we have lost. Our family is too broken up or broken down to ever make Christmas more than an obligation.
So we keep Christmas as controlled and as simple as we can. But still we long for something deeper, something so profoundly real, we can proclaim it from the rooftops.
What I learned from Christmas in August was that all the trimmings and traditions of Christmas are essential. The rituals, stories and traditions of Christmas make Christmas happen — even if it's the wrong calendar date!
Every ornament tells a story.
Every carol evokes a memory.
Every ritual brings us home.
Every cookie takes us on a journey back to another time.
Every gift says more than the name tag implies.
Every act of kindness changes the giver and the receiver.
Anything good done for someone else binds us in love deeper to that person — even if they never acknowledge what it cost us to do it.
The trimmings of Christmas are the doorways we walk through to discover the joy behind the shadows, the light that is stronger than darkness, the hope that carries through our worst winter seasons.
And sometimes, it's the door through which that Holy Child comes to us.
MARK WILEY is the pastor at Mesa Verde United Methodist Church in Costa Mesa.