Christmas gift creates new expectations for surprising holiday joys

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

It is a holiday classic story in our home.

One Christmas, someone gave our family a coffee mug that sported a cute little reindeer with a red nose that lit up and played, “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The intent, we thought, was for the cup to light up and play its tune when picked up for a drink and then stop playing when it was set back down.

But that’s not the way it worked at our house. Mr. Cup would play its tunes randomly — when picked up, when left alone, in the middle of the day, or at night — at the most unexpected times with no apparent reason.

At first, we thought we figured it out. The cup’s home was on a glass shelf that held all our coffee mugs, perched just above the coffee maker. One morning, we switched on the light over the coffee maker and Mr. Cup started playing. He stopped when we turned the light off.

The light must have activated the battery, we thought. So, my father tested the theory, slipping quietly to the coffee maker in the morning’s darkness. But Mr. Cup immediately lit up and started playing his tune, refusing to be understood or managed.

We studied and tested Mr. Cup with other theories — heat activation, motion-detectors — but to no avail. He played in season and out of season. There was no pattern, no trend and no answer for Mr. Cup’s mysterious behavior. In time, he endeared himself to our family to the point where we found ourselves talking to him, and admiring his strong will and steadfast commitment to joyful spontaneity.

We decided to accept what we couldn’t understand.

In fact, we thanked the little fellow for reminding us that Christmas is not a one-day event but an experience that sings at the most unexpected times during the year. He inspired us to remember to “kiss the joy, as it files,” as the poet once wrote.

Granted, there are some things in life that we cannot explain or understand, much like our experience with Mr. Cup. We attempt to find the reason or cause, but there is always territory that denies us access. So we struggle with questions in our minds and blank paper in our hands that we think ought to contain answers.

Maybe not.

Sometimes our obsessive pursuit of answers clouds the joy right in front to us. Our best option may be to learn to live with the questions and to seek the peace that comes with an acceptance that we may not understand everything that life presents to us.

Often, the spirit of Christmas spirit is not found in the carefully crafted holiday traditions, but in an unexpected moment when our hearts are touched by a random expression of joy. Let’s hope this holiday season, we are open to the moment, to the mysteries and to the peace that passes understanding.

And let that peace make room in our hearts for the unexpected joys that await.