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The Story Behind this Book
 

by Lanier Ivester

I love a good origin story, particularly if it contains all the elements I love in a regular story: serendipity, friendship, history and happenstance. I want a story to be lit with a lamp of joy, and burnished to a rich glow under the pressure of some holy sorrow. Above all, I require a goodly dose—or at least a glimpse—of real redemption. I don’t want to see sadness tied up with a bow; that would be an insult to both sorrow and redemption, not to mention to my own battle-scarred heart. I just want to be assured that sadness is not meaningless, and that the ordinary matter of my ordinary life actually matters—for something and to Someone. 


I like to think that the story behind Glad & Golden Hours: A Companion for Advent and Christmastide contains all of these elements for it is, in fact, a deep slice of my story. And, like every story of which God is the author, it has seen some plot twists and taken some unexpected turns. 


When I sat down to write this book in January of 2021, after the strangest and loneliest Christmas that many of our generation had ever known, I thought I knew exactly what it was about. This was the book I had been dreaming about for over a decade, squirreling away notes and ideas in a folder on my laptop. A Christmas book, yes, but not exactly like any of the ones that already crowded the shelves of my home library. This was an invitation to revel in the light of Christ, contemplatively and experientially, and a defiant flame of joy against the gloom of the world. More than a cookbook, far from a traditional devotional, what I had seen growing in my imagination all these years was a collection of essays and reflections threaded with practical suggestions for celebrating the Incarnation in tangible ways. Like a Christmas memoir, I told myself. With recipes. 

“If I write it, will you illustrate it?” I had asked my dear friend Jennifer Trafton over breakfast one morning, scarcely three weeks previous.


We had been talking about how fraught this time of year could be and how easy it was in our consumer-driven culture to become jaded with the whole show. We had also been talking about how much I love it, from the first ruby tinge on the holly berries in late October to the last guttering candle of Epiphany, and how, rightly considered, the trappings and trimmings of the season could be translated into sincere offerings of devotion and grateful love. I had mentioned, rather wistfully, how I’d love to gather all of my zeal and experience into a book—a book, of course, thronged with beautiful pictures, for as long as a book remains in the dream stage the sky is the limit. Even so, it was a half-playful proposal, almost a dare to my own reticence. 

Like the best kind of friend and kindred spirit, however, Jennifer took me quite seriously. 


“Yes!” she said, almost before the question was out of my mouth. “Absolutely.” 

From that moment we proceeded to plan and scheme in an absolute downpour of creative energy. It was just the project we both needed, an outlet for her artwork and my ardor, and we leapt to work with an enthusiasm I had not felt in years. The more I mapped the outline, the more I wanted to write and share, for this book was not merely about celebrating Christmas so much as about celebrating God’s faithful and unwavering presence in our lives, even in the face of great sorrow and loss. I found myself mining griefs I’d once thought too personal to share, remembering that grief is a road we’re all acquainted with, and that joy is always its intended destination. And I realized how important it was to acknowledge the stumbling blocks that had, over the years, hindered my shaping—and receiving—of a Christ-centered holiday. I began, in short, to let down my defenses and to try and write this book, to the best of my ability, as an act of hospitality. 

I’ll confess, it was a challenge to conjure Christmas in the broiling heat of a Georgia July, and more than once I resorted to drawing the curtains, lighting a few red tapers, and brewing a pot of ginger-laced chai just to fool my subconscious into feeding me glimpses, memories, tastes, and sensations of December’s enchantments. But every time Jennifer sent one of her illustrations—whimsical borders, recipe-card depictions of treasured holiday dishes, full-page spreads—my excitement was kindled afresh. She not only understood what I was trying to say, she had expounded upon it in glorious, delightful color.  

By the following January I was deep in the heart of the book, with the finish line in view. I knew where it was going, and I knew what I had left to say. Everything was mapped out and the calendar cleared as much as possible. 

And then my mother died.

I was no stranger to archetypical loss—I had lost my father seven years previous and nearly lost my home to a fire shortly thereafter, both of which had unmade and remade me in the mercy of God. And there were other losses and heartaches threaded among these towering ones, some seen, some unseen. But none of these had prepared me for the loss of my mother. It was like a subterranean cavern roiling with a torrent of rushing water, and it carried me along for a while, insensible to anything but its inexorable course.  

And then it was an iron door, clamped firm between all that had come before and all that was yet to be. I stood on this side of it like a lost child, bewildered, bedraggled. Homesick.  

I don’t know how I made it through 2022. The book was shelved, first for the funeral and its aftermath and then for the heartrending process of dismantling and selling my childhood home. Every day for months I walked into that house whispering, Lord, show me what to do next, and, Help me to do it. 


He did. And he did something far more than that. In sifting through the accumulations of the story of our family, I realized that God had given me back that story in a profound and meaningful way. What’s more, he had given me my mother as I had not had her before. I had always known what a wonderful hostess she was, and how much joy she took in making a home for my father, my siblings, and me that was truly a refuge from the turbulence and darkness of the world. But I had never fully realized, as obvious as it may seem, just how much she had gone into the making of me, or how deeply my ideals of family, home, and hospitality had been shaped by her sacrificial efforts over the years. Sifting through everything that had been hers had thrown her values into stark, sweet, simple relief. Mama cared about one thing and one thing only: relationships—with her people and with her God.   


By January of this year, I was back at my desk with a new target in sight. But also with a new inspiration. For I realized, with a stab and a smile, that Mama was already all over the pages I had written, even where I had not mentioned her, and that the rest of this book and its subsequent drafts would be shaped, not so much by her loss, as by the extraordinary gift that had been given to me in being her daughter. My mother was the kind of woman who delighted in sharing her home and her table with everyone God brought into her life. Now, in the mercy of God, I could share her with everyone who happened to read this book. And we would all be the better for it. 

Keeping company with these impressions and ideas has carried me along this year, more forcibly even than the river of grief. For while grief can be one of the most clarifying forces in the world, it’s the love that remains when the storm has cleared. I keep telling people that this book is not the book it would have been had my mother not died while I was writing it, and this is absolutely true. It is also true that I am not the woman I would have been had not grief chiseled such caverns in my heart over which God’s unseen—often unfelt—presence broods with such ineffable tenderness. Nothing is wasted, those hollowed chambers have echoed, again and again. And no good thing, as our friend, Doug McKelvey reminds us, will be lost forever.  

This book is still about Christmas, of course, and the crafting of a holiday which articulates our joy in Christ’s coming. But the candle of a bright sadness burns in its windows and its rooms are crowded with the communion of saints. There have been times over the past year that I have sat down to write and have wept instead for all those I have loved and lost over the past several years. If, however, this manuscript was spattered with tears, it is also laced with a love that is as strong as death.   

We’re in the home stretch now. The book is nearly complete. And this Christmas season, I’m excited to offer this first look, or sneak peek, at what’s coming in full from Rabbit Room Press next year. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have treasured writing it.

Want a Sneak Peek?

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