Rooting our celebration of Christ’s birth more deeply in our lives.
Relight the Way
Such a small thing: Turn on Christmas lights. Even if it’s a small church. Even if it’s a black church. Even if it’s the cold, gray winter of a Jim Crow life. Still you plug in the bulbs and light the night sky with electrified elation.
Look at our church. Look at our Christ. Look at our happy, bright season. And never mind the critics and their gripes about lights: Too expensive. Too bright. Too much. In the gloomy winters of my conflicted childhood, my family’s brightly lit church on a poor Denver street was joy and light, sanctuary and salvation rolled into one. Nothing was better.
“Hand me that strand.”
My daddy and other church trustees gathered every year—on a Saturday after Thanksgiving—to hang the holiday lights. These “Negro men,” insulted on jobs that held them back all week, showed up to untangle the snarl of electric wires and bulbs from boxes, attach the wires to hooks, string lights over doorways, twist them around the two bare catalpa trees in the small churchyard. Then, in the fellowship hall, they flung lights over the stage, above a kitchen pass-through window, through the branches of a determined pine Christmas tree purchased on sale for the season. Finally, upstairs in the modest sanctuary, near the fine shiny cross, they draped electric strands to a fare-thee-well, adorning fragrant pine wreaths and garlands.
My daddy turned on the lights. And I was in heaven. With a flick of a switch, my dark and scary world was transformed. I credit the lights. With the lights, I forgot that four little black girls were killed that September when a timed bomb exploded under the church stairs next to ...
The little-known history of Christianity’s icon of generosity.
Father Pawn Shop.
It doesn’t quite have the same ring as Father Christmas, but it’s an equal descriptor of St. Nicholas. We associate ol’ St. Nick with tinsel and chimneys, not money-lending and neon signs. We imagine him giving gold coins to hungry families, rather than purchasing gold at a fraction of its worth.
Yet St. Nicholas holds an unlikely affiliation with montes pietatis, the 14th century precursor to the modern-day pawn shop industry. At these early pawn shops, people in poverty met caring friars, there to help the poor get back on their feet. The shops were an outlet for Christian charity and Christmas generosity—hardly the kind of seedy business we think of today.
Pawn Shop History
In the Middle Ages, montes pietatius were charities similar to urban food banks. They provided low-interest loans to poor families, ensuring there was enough food on the table. Started by the Franciscans, who opened more than 150 of them, montes pietatius became widespread throughout Europe. In 1514, even Pope Julius II gave an edict endorsing these institutions, which had become the lifeblood of poor European peasants.
According to folklore, St. Nicholas generously provided a man in need dowries for his three daughters, gold coins in three purses. The symbol of gold coins in three purses became the symbol of pawn shops and fit with his title of patron saint. We celebrate St. Nick because he is a generous giver, and now, it seems incongruous the very symbol of his generosity remains the icon of modern-day pawn shops.
Dotting rundown strip malls, often in rough sections of town, pawn shops symbolize desperation rather than generosity. These are places of last resort for people fraught for cash. Unlike ...
Millionaire lawyer Mark Lanier moonlights as a Sunday school teacher.
Around Christmas, Mark Lanier becomes like the teetotaling Baptist brother of infamous party host Jay Gatsby. Every year since 1994, Lanier’s 35-acre estate in northwest Houston is opened to thousands of colleagues, political connections, family, and friends. Visitors survey the landmarks: a replica of a 6th-century Byzantine chapel, a theological library modeled after seven Oxford libraries, and a Noahide menagerie that includes lemurs and kangaroos alongside their more pedestrian counterparts like sheep and goats. Guests ride a model train among other carnival rides brought in for the event, where Sting, Bon Jovi, Rascal Flatts, and prescandal Miley Cyrus have all performed for as many as 10,000 people.
And like Gatsby, Lanier is shrouded in mystery. I first meet him at a dinner in his home, part of a weekend of events culminating in a lecture by Lanier himself. He welcomes 100 of us one by one, flashing a boyish grin and tossing his hair back into place. Virtually everyone at dinner knows only pieces and rumors. I meet college friends of Lanier’s who are visiting his estate for the first time. Dining across from me is an elderly couple who met Lanier when they accidentally pulled onto his property thinking it was a park. We are jovial, dazzled by the opulence and enjoying an unusually cool Texas evening beneath the colonnade. Everyone has heard about Lanier’s Christmas party to end all Christmas parties. But what is the meaning of all this, few can say.
Lanier, 53, is ostensibly one of the nation’s most successful trial lawyers, known for convincing judges and juries to award his clients astronomical sums. The Lanier Law Firm was behind a landmark case against pharmaceutical giant Merck ...