Windows are funny things. Usually designed to blend into a structure, they are nevertheless most apparent when they are missing. Their strength lies in their invisibility. If we walk into a room that has no windows, we notice immediately. What we actually notice first is that the quality of the light is such that we feel "off." The light may feel artificial, forced, or just not strong enough. We look around for the windows and wonder why they are not there.
And windows give us a glimpse into the "beyond." Into what exists outside of us - that's outside of our own house, our own dimension.
Windows let in the light. And although we don't actually see the light itself, we see because of and with the light. Windows also let in the air, like those sweet spring breezes that flow into a room and brush away the stale winter corners. Or the sunny summertime winds that offer relief from high temperatures.
Windows are also terrific spiritual symbols for glimpsing "beyond the veil." For reminding us that there is another world around the corner and over the next hill, as C.S. Lewis was fond of saying. But this new world is not just "out there." It's also "in here," inside, deeper, further in. Has an arrangement in a window ever caught your eye? Stopped you in your tracks as it whispered to you of new possibilities and adventures? In my life, there have been 3 windows that were momentous to me. They spoke volumes silently while they thundered visually.
The first window I encountered was a small shop window in a little town in the south island of New Zealand. I was only about 12 or so. I was at the top of a hill that ran down to meet the sea, and I happened to glance into this store window as I was walking by. It was overwhelming. What I saw was an ode to strawberries. Strawberries as far as the eye could see, in every detail and cranny in the small space. Falling in bunches from the ceiling, overflowing out of raised pedestal china dishes, interacting with pink and yellow roses. It was an overwhelming tribute to the fullness of life and fruitfulness and creativity. Two cookie tins in particular caught my attention. They were quite simple - just two black cylinders of different sizes, decorated with strawberry vines. But as I stood there, breathing in the salty sea air, mixed with that curious freshness peculiar to New Zealand, I knew I had to take those tins with me. I wanted to be part of the song in that window, in the life in the sea air. To create a life as full and overflowing as what I saw in that window. I dashed in and bought those tins. They are still sitting in my kitchen today, reminding me of that day, that vision and my inspiration.
The second window, coincidentally enough, was a Hallmark window. I worked at a Hallmark store during High School, and happened to pass the same store again in the mall a few years later when I was home from college. Perhaps it was the freedom of summertime and being finished with classes and papers and finals that made this window speak to me. It was a picnic scene displaying a new line of plastic picnic cutlery. Even though the window was located in a dim and dreary mall (that was torn down a couple of years later), that window display bespoke times of freshness, freedom and sweetness. It was an expression of time well and richly spent. A sabbath mentality where one plans for and enjoys time away but time together. Together with family and friends and together with nature, being plopped down in the middle of it, in fact. It represented a harmony of life that was just lovely. I recall that window frequently when I am explaining our need for the Sabbath Day to the families in my program.
And the final window I discovered in Downtown Disney, Orlando. I was there for a Family Faith Formation conference, so my mind was full of plenty of inspirational talks, powerful Liturgies and wonderful, practical speakers who offered ideas and statistics on "where we are and the needs of right now." If you have never experienced Disney as a physical place, then you should know that no one captures visual imagery as well as they do. The imagination and over-the-top, life-size displays have to be seen to be believed. Since the conference was in early January, Downtown Disney was still decorated for Christmas, which in itself lent meaning to the displays. But in every store this particular January, there was a single theme. Each window displayed an oversized mannequin of one of the princesses, from the torso up she was one doll. But each of the skirts of the princesses were made up of small, individual sized princess dolls. So for example, from the waist up it was one Cinderella, but the waist down were hundreds of smaller Cinderellas. all arranged in expanding concentric circles to form a skirt shape. It was simply fascinating - there in front of me visually expressed was what we had been discussing at the conference. The needs of the body of Christ, here in the windows expressed as both a unity, a oneness, and yet also made of individuals. Further, here was an apt symbol of the feminine face of the Church - the bride. Old fairy tales like Cinderella existed long before Disney made them into movies, and they were always intended to be symbolic and instructional to the listeners.
So naturally, Hallmark's ornament series "Christmas Windows" has aways been of particular meaning to me, both because of the symbolic meaning of windows themselves as well as my own personal experiences. What about you? Have you ever encountered any special windows that opened to new vistas?
4. The Toy Shop
Artist: Nina Auberge
#4 in series
Here is perhaps the classic vision of a secular Christmas, a child gazing longingly into a shop full of toys. Nowhere, it seems, is Christ in Christmas. There are two kinds of reactions to this: first, to condemn it. I can't tell you how often I've heard a grandparent exhort little Sally or Sammy to ignore the gifts and just focus on the babe. It is my belief that turning from the beauty, festivity and joy of Christmas shows a lack of understanding of the human condition. I would even speculate that the grandparent who is not moved by the sights and sounds of Christmas is likely at a different spiritual stage, specifically one I which they are in the process of withdrawing from the world and preparing for the drawing in of their days. That's not being morbid - that's a mature adult who has developed spiritually. But that is not the way to communicate to a young child.
There is also another reaction possible. Couldn't we also say that many gifts God gives us come in physical form? The first, of course, being Christ. And as parents, surely we try to imitate the Great Giver by giving good things to our children? An art set to a child with artistic abilities is a huge blessing. A guitar and music lessons to a child struggling to find her voice is an open door to healthy growth. It's a great opportunity to model thinking of others, especially in choosing gifts for children in poor countries or your own community. And then some gifts are just to show love, much like the myriad of flowers on earth. There is no particular reason for such a wide variety - God just likes to show his love. Of course, there are those children who seem to get so much for Christmas that the gifts get lost and all that is remembered is just the "getting." Yes, certainly we are all called to practice true love by giving what is good for the other, including not too many gifts.
The point here is to refrain from instantly pronouncing Christmas gifts are evidence of a consumer culture, and teaching children that God is stingy and unjoyful. A more balanced approach calls for restraint and reflection on the part of the giver, but also a smile and participation in the joy God himself must feel at our happiness in celebrating the birth of his son, as well as genuine joy in our own hearts. Additionally, one of the great things about Christmas is that even those who do not claim to be followers of Christ still get to benefit from the general festivities, sort of like a pre-evangelization.
This ornament shows us that time of being a child, when anything, any gift, any blessing, is possible. This hopeful attitude is much harder to maintain as you grow older and become more familiar with the world. Disappointment has a way of squashing hope. Yet, those who can still look for a surprise under the tree, those who will still stop and gaze into a toy store, who are still dreaming of what could be, are the same ones who can finally say "despite everything, I still believe that God has good things planned for me."
5. Whistlestop Train Shop
#5 in series
Trains are one of those powerful iconic symbols that speak to people the world over. Even though the great era of train travel may be over, there is still a terrific emotional attachment to trains, as shown in this ornament.
Let's take a moment to list how prevalent trains remain in Western culture in the imagination:
the Polar Express
Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends
Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Starlight Express"
the train scenes in "A White Christmas"
The Little Engine That Could storybook
Paddington (the bear who is named for the station)
as well as in reality:
the London Underground
the New York Subway system, with infamous Grand Central Station
the Grand Canyon Railway
Texas Transportation Museum, featuring Santa's Railroad Wonderland
the Hill Country Flyer, with renovated historic cars
personal toy trains that circle our Christmas Trees
This list could really go on and on, and shows how important and pervasive trains remain today, even if they are not our primary method of transportation (unless you are one of those lucky people who live in a city with a major train system). So why this attachment to trains? Perhaps for a couple of reasons.
First of all, when the railroad was being laid out across the country back in the 1800s, being on the rail line literally meant life or death to a town. There are plenty of historic examples of towns that died out because they missed being on the rail line by a few miles, while others sprang up around the railway. Recall, also, the great day in Promotory, Utah, May 10, 1869 when the Transcontinental Railroad was complete. East and West USA were joined. Www.eyewitnesstihistory.com records that "the impact was immediate and dramatic. Travel time between America's east and west coasts was reduced from months to less than a week.. . the telegraph operators had fixed their instruments so that the last tap was reported in all the offices east and west, and set bells to tapping in hundreds of towns and cities." We can all deeply resonate with that feeling of freedom and exultation - the way ahead is open! The path moves forward!
Another reason is the form of trains themselves. They remain great movers, able to carry large amounts of population and goods with ease over great distances, repeatedly and regularly. Their large, open windows give inspiring views to the landscape and towns outside, but most importantly, there is TIME aboard a train! Time to read, time to think, time to rest, time to just sit. The actual movement of the train is in the hands of the engineers, who are hardly ever seen. All we have to do is get aboard.
In the early days of the church, a symbol often used to represent the church was a boat. This made sense, largely due to the prevalence of fishermen and sea activities of the area. It also was a metaphor for crossing the sea of life and being safe during life's storms, and as a reference to Jesus' miraculous calming of the sea. The Church is still referred to as "the bark of Peter." In the same vein, trains could be a symbol of the church for us. Just as trains united the US, the church is full of members from every culture and country. Just as trains ultimately have an end destination, so does the Church. We can learn, meet new people or just rest on a train, just as in the Church. Finally, we remember the whistle of the trains, calling everyone to get on board. The church issues the same call. "Don't get left behind! Get on board, now while there's still time!" I wonder if that call is really what keeps us attracted to trains?
Special Edition. The Little Window Shoppers
Several different Hallmark Keepsake artists contributed to this Special Edition Christmas Windows ornament, which portrays a young girl and boy peering into a Hallmark store. Hallmark frequently does these kind of projects, where many artists work together to create a unified statement, and within that vision they make references to the past, usually through miniature versions of past works or bits of Hallmark history.
In this ornament, for example, the long running ornament series Nostalgic Houses and Shops (currently on #32!) is portrayed on the shelf over the door, done by artist Don Palmiter, who also creates the ornaments for the series. The penguin ornament on the tree could easily be one of the popular Penguin Pals ornaments, and of course, everyone recognizes the iconic purple Hallmark shopping bag, outside the window.
This ornament displays a sense of community, of everyone doing a little bit, doing their part, to complete a bigger picture. St. Paul writes about this in the First Letter to the Corinthians. He says, "There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord, there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone." (1 Cor 12:4-6) Everyone is given a specific bit of the overall job, and then also equipped with the talents and skills to do it. As Mother Teresa famously said, we have to realize that if we do not do the one specific job that is ours alone to do, it will not be done. No one else is going to pick it up and do it for us, it will just forever remain an unfilled potential. In other words, there will simply be no houses on the shelf over the door, no penguin on the tree, and no purple shopping bag. Yes, it is likely that something else will step in and take its place, since nature abhors a vaccum, but that's not really the point.
The point instead, is that our participation in God's plan is formative. We become different people as a result of our efforts, especially over time. Our work is supposed to form and transform us, and ultimately the world around us. There is a dignity inherent in work, and it is a necessary part of the human condition, despite our inclination to the opposite.
So that makes us ask the question: What is the work you feel called to do? And are you doing it?
6. Kringle's Korner
#6 in series
This ornament shows a representation of the local village bookshop. Books are the symbol, par excellence, of wisdom, with the primary source for wisdom being, of course, the Holy Bible. In fact, within the Bible there is a collection of books that we refer to as "the Wisdom Literature." These are the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Wisdom, Sirach and sometimes Psalms. These books introduce and explain to us God's wisdom.
In the window of this shop there is a little Santa, reading the book "The Night Before Christmas." It's interesting to see Santa reading about himself, and his actions on Christmas Eve. Certainly, we could say that God reveals his wisdom on Christmas Eve, with the birth of Jesus. This is a deep wisdom that requires effort to begin to understand. All those paradoxes - the infinite God who becomes a finite human, the God who creates all being born of a created mother, the all-powerful God who yet is killed and dies, and the death that results in birth and new life. This is not our typical, scientific-method, linear logic. Yet, it is God's wisdom and reveals God ways. The good news is that Jesus also knew this type of wisdom is not where humans usually reside, so he explains God's wisdom openly and clearly, first of all by identifying himself as the incarnation of the wisdom of God. In Luke 11:31, Jesus compares himself to the great King Solomon, who was given the gift of being the wisest man to ever live. But Jesus says "a greater than Solomon is here, but you will not listen." He continues to talk about being the light to the world, and especially warns us to be careful that the "light within you is not actually darkness." Pretty strong words from Jesus, more like a roar than a purr, so to speak (recalling C.S. Lewis's famous statement that "Jesus is not a TAME lion.")
How fitting, then, that instead of the usual Christmas tree outside the window in this ornament, instead there is a toy soldier, recalling all those aspects of self-discipline (go HERE for the symbolism of soldiers). And the young girl in the ornament seems to understand this message, as her eyes are fixed on the face of Santa, and she is wearing a backpack, ready to become a student of true wisdom.
(Side note: there also seems to be a nod to Scotland here - the girl is wearing a red and blue kilt and the dog is a little scottie. Perhaps that was a tribute by the artist?)
7. The chocolate shop
#7 in series
One of my favorite things about this ornament is that instead of the little Christmas tree outside the shop reflecting the window display, it is the young boy outside who carries the mark. By that I just mean that he has a box of chocolates behind his back, showing that he has already been inside for a visit. Not only that, but the box is sealed, with a tag that reads "For Mom." So, we also know that the box is not for him, but that he has purchased it for his mother. That he is nevertheless still standing outside the shop and gazing longingly inside, despite having already made his purchase, shows that he is likely not intending to go back for more. Rather, his purchase was a fairly Herculean effort in self-control and self-sacrifice, especially for one so young. He has already done what he came to do, and he's sticking to it.
But seeing a young child standing outside a chocolate shop also reminds me of the movie "The Dark Side of Chocolate." This documentary reveals how the lovely chocolates that arrive in our stores are often made on the backs of children in cocoa plantations. The movie is a troubling reminder of how some people's lives are worth more than others, and for no apparent reason. Here's a link to the movie on you tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Vfbv6hNeng and the website of the movie itself: www.thedarksideofchocolate.org. The good news is that there are Fair Trade options for chocolate available, and it's some of the best chocolate you'll eat! Here are two wonderful options: www.divinechocolateusa.com and www.equalexchangecoop.com We sell Divine Chocolate in our Gift Shop at church, and we can't keep it in stock! More good news is that many of the large chocolate suppliers have pledged to purchase only Fair Trade cocoa, or at least move towards it. As consumers, we can directly impact the buying decisions of these companies by our purchases.
It's been my experience that once people are educated about Fair Trade, they are almost always willing to support it. As Christians, we are called to implement the Kingdom and one of the most basic, fundamental rights every person has in God's view is the right to be treated with dignity and respect. And something as small as an intentional chocolate purchase can make a huge difference.
Never heard of Fair Trade? Go here to find out! www.fairtradeusa.org
8. LE patisserie
#8 in series
One of my favorite aspects of the Christmas Windows series is the little Christmas tree outside the window. It's as though the magic of the vision in the window jumps through the glass and becomes real on the outside as well. And of course that is just what happens in the spiritual life. What is inside will always manifest on the outside. In this case, the 2009 ornament features a delightful window display of a French pastry shop - Le Patisserie. In keeping with the sweet shop theme, the little Christmas tree outside the window is in the shape of a 3-tiered cupcake, complete with frosting and a cherry on top. A side note here - the French Patisserie is distinct from the bread shop. Bread and rolls are at the bakers, the boulangerie, usually nearby. The Patisserie shop specializes in pastries and sweets. This is the realm of the sugar plum fairy, so to speak.
A Patisserie is also required to employ a maître pâtissier, a master pastry chef. This is a person who has completed a specialized training process, usually as an apprentice and has passed examinations as well. So, all this tells us that the delectable treats that appear in the windows get there through a lot of hard work. We might wander by and be struck by the amazing sights and smells, but it is good for us to realize that no one waved a magic wand and made the treats somehow jump into existence. Behind the scenes, there's been a lot of work in training to create these morsels on the part of the master pastry chef, as well as the work of the others employed in the pastry shop. After all, the shop doesn't just keep itself clean. Supplies don't just keep magically appearing each day. People have to be working each day to make all this happen.
And this situation can be applied to holiness as well. Holiness, contrary to popular belief, is inviting and attracting. People see it and want to draw near. It reminds us of sunbeams and light and sparkling sugar, but in a real, sustaining way, not in a fake or superficial way. We want to be close to holy people. Certainly we see this in Jesus' ability to constantly draw large crowds. We also see this ability to attract in holy men and women. Take Mother Teresa, for example. Just look at the worldwide following she instigated. Or St. John Paul II, who drew massive crowds in every country he visited. Holiness is not so much about drudgery and boredom, though it certainly requires tenacity, discipline, even suffering to achieve. In the end, holiness is about the vision in the Patisserie's window, arriving at something so good we can hardly believe it.
9. the sporting goods store
#9 in series
This 2011 ornament is all about sports. Now, if you're talking about sports, you're also talking about movement. You're talking about the physical. A big, red shiny bicycle is showcased in the window. This is really an archetypal symbol, especially to a young boy. This bike represents much more than just something to sit on and pedal. It could be compared to a teen's longing for a new car, for example. At certain times in our lives, the things that move us from one place to another take on a meaning beyond that of just a transportation machine. That's certainly the case in this ornament. This boy is thinking of freedom. Of being unencumbered by the restrictions implied by depending on his own two feet, or of depending on another person, like mom or dad. Of being able to move in a way from one place to another that is beyond what he can do on his own.
The idea of movement is seen in just this light throughout Scripture. Whenever there is an encounter with God, there is change. That change results in a physical movement. We see this, for example, in the Hebrew's exodus from Egypt, in Abrahams's travels, and also in the New Testament. When Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Christ, he instructs her not to cling to him (which would have been the natural thing to do in the circumstance) but to instead go to tell the others about the resurrection. Finally, we see this at every Mass. Very shortly after receiving the Eucharist, our own personal encounter with Jesus the Christ, we are also essentially told "Do not cling to me, but go and tell the others." Specifically, we hear the words "Go, and announce the gospel of the Lord." Or "Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life."
This deep desire for movement kies in the heart of each of us. We all have different chains. Yet we all long for to move. Historically and Scripturally, that true freedom can only be found in an encounter with God, who moves us, albeit slowly, from the place of slavery and despair to the place of liberation and new life.
"True freedom can only be found in an encounter
10.Jangles' Department Store
#10 in series
Ok, I'll admit it. Every time I go into a department store, I daydream about sleeping in one of their display beds. Don't they look about 50 times more comfortable than your bed at home? And from there I usually branch out into how I could live in the store itself, ala From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the classic story of two siblings who live in a museum for a few days. Think about it. You have an endless supply of clothes, all the kitchen utensils and gadgets you could ever need, beds to sleep in, plenty of bathrooms, even sofas and big screen tvs for lounging! And a myriad of food choices a few yards away in the food court. Of course, in the really well done department stores, there is an absolute abundance of imaginative displays, so plenty of food for the imagination as well. In fact, check out this link to the Best Holiday Windows of New York Department Stores in 2014:
And who can think of department stores without recalling the brilliant BBC show "Are You Being Served?" But take a look at the prices and reality kicks in. I'm just not convinced that some of the prices on designer bags are really worth. it. Ok, yes, they are higher quality and will last longer, but at the end of the day do they carry your stuff any better than the less expensive purses? Then there's that uncomfortable prickly feeling I get thinking about just where and how the clothes were made. And to be frank, I like to avoid the makeup department. Too many stony faced people behind the counters.
So I'm conflicted about department stores. Its that classic question about stewardship of money. Matthew 26 recalls the story that "a woman came up to [Jesus] with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked. This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor." But Jesus defends the actions of the woman, saying that what she did showed great generosity of spirit on her part, as well as a true understanding of him and his mission. Sometimes, then, the appropriate use of costly things is better even than charity. The secret here must be about love, since that is the only thing greater.
In the end, I think that department stores show us a glimpse into the greatness of the kingdom. Everyone can enter. There's no admission price and the doors are wide open. The things of beauty inside can act as distractions or as a manifestation of the creative ability given to artists. But how do we use the gifts inside? If the expensive items within are purchased only for vanity and show, the purchase is worthless. That is a type of unhelpful self-love. But if a purchase has a greater purpose, like a gift or something saved and waited for, then it has great value. If self-sacrificing love is involved, as is evident from Matthew 26, then that changes everything. Regardless, I still prefer to experience these huge stores as signs of hope, of a time when there will be plenty for everyone and everything will be beautiful. Until then, I mostly window shop, enjoy the displays, and wait for the sales.
11. the five and dime store
#11 in series
Have you ever had the chance to visit a real Five & Dime store? It is a treat! When I was growing up, Winn's and Woolworth's were still around. For just a few pennies, you really could find some unusual candy, toys, journals or pencils. They always smelled good, too. I don't know what it was, but they had a scent unique to them. It was always a happy day when we got to stop in at Winn's or Woolworth's.
That same happy feeling is evident on the face of the boy in this ornament. An unusual feature of this year's Christmas Window is that the child outside the window is not looking in. Instead, he is focusing on playing with his YoYo and dog. A small sign in the window reads "Visit Santa and get a free YoYo!" So, we know this young fellow has already been to see the man in the red suit, and is captivated by his new toy. Really, in those sweet days of childhood innocence, it takes so little to be happy. The memories of sitting on Santa's lap, telling him what he hopes and dreams for, and then leaving with a little toy are more than enough to overflow the child's cup of happiness.
It makes me think about what really makes us happy. A bit of attention from someone we respect. Wishes and dreams for ourselves, some simple and attainable, others lofty and grand. And a little bit of hope that the future will work out well for us, because someone who knows us and loves us has heard our whispers and is able to make them come true.
"Someone who knows us and loves us has
artist: Nina Aube
#12 in series
The 2014 ornament portrays the front window of a craft shop called "Nina's Nook." As anyone who is crafty knows, there is a particular thrill associated with craft stores - endless possibilities presented with the raw materials to create, create, create! One thing to note in this ornament is the little cardinal perched on the roof, watching the girl outside the shop. Although the dove is the usual symbol for the Holy Spirit, I've always thought cardinals are a close second, when it comes to bird symbols. They look like fiery little flames bouncing around in the snow. And as all crafters know, every project starts with a dose of inspiration and requires large amounts of persistence and guidance to see it through to completion, hence the need for the Holy Spirit.
So much is wrapped into crafting. It first begins with an idea, a form in the mind of the artist. Then there's the choice of materials. Wool? Clay? Wood? Which medium best expresses and conveys the nature of the original idea? Then we have to take into account the person who will be receiving or using the craft. What is it's end purpose? What is the very best for the recipient? Human crafting certainly imitates the Original Artist, God, who considered all the same questions when creating the world. There are big differences, of course, such as we always begin with "stuff" (whether that's paper, thread or paint) but he began with nothing and not only thought all of the raw materials up, he also called them into existence.
And then there's the finished outcome. All of God's creations are "good," even "very good," but we don't always pronounce the same judgement on our finished works. So ultimately, crafting reminds us that we ourselves are the project God is bringing to completion, and we participate in it through our own response to his continuing invitation. Although our participation is never perfect, at the end of the day, several slipped stitches, colors threaded in the wrong place, or bushes painted over mistakes are infinitely better than nothing at all. The point is not really about perfection, but formation. And crafting shows us that it's only through repetition and mistakes that we are shaped into that final good work.