Reflections . . .
How to Avoid Eileschpijjel’s Christmas
The Pennsylvania Dutch tell stories (“noodle tales”) of a beloved character known as Eileschpijejjel. He is a trickster spirit. Folktales about Eileschpijejjel are as old as German myths and legends of the 13th-century. They are rooted in north European jokes about a not-too-bright but well-meaning peasant whose habit is doing things in his own peculiar way. According to one story, Eileschpijjel needed wood one winter and went to gather it in the forest with a two-horse team. As he threw piece after piece on the wagon he said, “If the horses can pull this piece, they can pull the next one.” And so he piled the wagon high. Then he found that the horses couldn’t pull the load. Eileschpijjel’s solution was to unload, throwing piece after piece off, while saying, “If they can’t pull this piece, they can’t pull the next one.” Reasoning thus, he kept on unloading until the wagon was empty. Then he drove home with an empty wagon.
I had an Eileschpijjel-like Christmas once and have regretted it ever since. By the age of twelve or thirteen, I had long given up the notion that Santa Claus visited each child’s home on Christmas Eve with a sack full of goodies. I knew where Mother hid the wrapped gifts behind the clothes in the spare closet, and I had seen several packages with my name on them under her bed. Unable to endure the long wait until Christmas, I began to badger and cajole her to allow me to open one gift a day, beginning with those from distant uncles and aunts. I argued that this would give me plenty of time to compose thank you notes and get them out during the holidays. Mother relented and thus day-by-day I opened one gift after another.
Christmas Eve came. We all trooped over to church and then, as was the Sernett custom, returned home to distribute the treasures that had magically appeared under the Christmas tree. I have forgotten who played Santa Claus that year, but when my portion was distributed, the gifts made a very small pile. We opened gifts by going around the family circle, and after a half dozen cycles or so, I had nothing left. And so I sat there glumly looking on, as my brother and sisters, who had not badgered and cajoled, continued the rounds.
The Christmas and holiday season is soon upon us, and we shall once again busy ourselves with a thousand and one things. Like Eileschpijjel, we want more than is our capacity to carry. Many Americans will ring up huge totals on their charge cards these next few weeks, postponing payment to next year. Others rush here and there, complaining of the hassle of getting ready for the big day. Frequently our expectations of the “perfect” Christmas fail to materialize, and we move wearily into the New Year. It’s time to stop adding burden upon burden to our Christmas wagon.
I am not sure that Eileschpijjel’s method of reasoning is the answer to our dilemma. If we strip away all of those activities that make the holiday season special, we end up with Eileschpijjel’s empty wagon--days no different than the dead of winter in February. Thus I look forward to the hustle and bustle--putting up the tree, getting the decorations out of the basement, Christmas cookies, caroling, cards from friends and relatives, and, of course, the Christmas eve candlelight service. That puts everything else into perspective, balancing out the wagonload of our holiday experience. There is something beyond words in that moment when the candles are lit, we sing Silent Night, receive the Christmas benediction and walk out into the night with home as our destination.
I learned an important lesson as a result of that Christmas of the Great Disappointment when I opened most of my gifts before Christmas Eve. Part of the joy of this special season is in the anticipation and expectation of what is yet to come. This, of course, is the meaning and purpose of Advent. The Church’s liturgical calendar includes four Sundays in the Christmas Cycle prior to our celebration of the Nativity of our Lord. There was a time when I thought this too much for the young to bear. And so I secretly prayed that God would fast forward Advent. After all, I reasoned, we all knew how the Christmas story turned out. Why not jump right to the big event? What was the point of four long weeks of waiting for it?
Now much older, and, I hope, a little wiser, I think that I understand. We must wait because we must prepare. That was the message of John the Baptist who went about announcing the coming of the Redeemer King.
On Jordan’s banks the Baptist’s cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Awake and hearken, for he brings
Glad tidings of the King of kings!
Then cleansed be ev’ry life from sin;
Make straight the way for God with-in,
And let us all our hearts prepare
For Christ to come and enter there.
Dr. Milt Sernett