The Rev. Maggi Dawn

If you're reading this on or about the first of December, you may well already have had a Christmas card or two fall through your letter box. I love receiving Christmas cards, from the first ones that arrive on the first of December and those that arrive with a slightly panicked message of lateness on Christmas Eve, to those that come with a sheepish apology around the third of January. Whenever they arrive, early or late, I'm always cheered up by this annual reminder of how many good friends I have.

I have to admit that I find it slightly depressing that Christmas always seems to begin way ahead of schedule, when shop displays and Christmas lights go up in November or even earlier. So when the very first cards arrive in the first few days of December, I'm usually still feeling a bit 'bah-humbuggy' about it all! Certainly Christmas can sometimes feel less like a feast to be celebrated and more like a deadline to be reached.

In devotional terms following the seasons of the Church year can leave us with this feeling that things never happen at the right time. The realities of life rarely match up with the mood of the Church year: they always come too early or too late.

If, as we travel through Lent or Advent, life is delivering abundant joys and happiness, the sombre tone of the season never quite hits home. But it's even harder to deal with if you are feeling down or low when Christmas or Easter arrives.

All too often we have this dislocated feeling of being out of time, out of step, and Christmas is a particularly difficult season to negotiate if you don't feel like celebrating. It's not only the Church but the whole culture that feeds us an exaggerated image of happiness and celebration, which sets us up to feel very low if we are not in a party mood. Most of our life is lived in this in-between place where things come early or late, but never on time.

When I was a child, we had a maiden aunt, a remarkable and wonderful woman, who always, absolutely dependably, forgot all our birthdays. But at some random time of year-May or July or November-a big parcel would arrive full of presents. They might say 'Happy Birthday' or 'Happy Christmas', regardless of the time of year. It seemed madly exciting to us to get a completely unexpected present just when life was going through a tedious moment. It was always books (she taught English literature, and was bang up to date on the latest releases) and they were always wonderful.

Whenever I forget a Christmas card, a birthday card or whatever, I think of Auntie Margaret. Please, God, let me be like her. I hope I never become the kind of person who demands diamonds and perfume on the right date. I hope I do become the kind of person who remembers to send gifts that someone will love, instead of gifts to satisfy a deadline.

Whenever God's gifts elude me-when there is no joy at Easter, no wonder at Christmas, or simply no sense of God's presence in between times-again I think of Auntie Margaret. The gift will arrive at the right moment, even if not on the 'right' date. Joy on demand is joyless indeed, but Christmas presents in July, I can seriously live with.

The Rev. Maggi Dawn is Chaplain and Fellow of Robinson College in the , where she teaches theology. This is from her new book, Beginnings and Endings (and What Happens in Between): Daily Bible Readings from Advent to Epiphany. (ISBN-13: 978-1841015668). She also writes for The Christian Century magazine. This is abridged from the first chapter and is reprinted by permission.