After years of a demanding and exhausting career climbing up the ranks, a burned out academic quits her job and moves to a charming small Midwestern town that does Christmas so well. Think sappy lights, sounds, décor, and scandalously romantic kissing by the beautiful tree in the town square—with her guy who wears the plaid flannel shirt that she so thoughtfully bought him a few Christmases ago.
No, this isn’t a Hallmark Christmas movie special, but it has many elements of it. There is true love involved—and also kids and Christmas sweaters for all. There are also decorations everywhere, “Nutcracker” performances, visits with Santa’s reindeer and elves in the town square, magical walks to see the lights in the evenings or catch a candlelight service at the college chapel down the street, savoring it all, just to come home at the end and warm up with hot cocoa (with extra marshmallows!) before giving baths to exhausted children, one of whom is increasingly more likely on evenings such as these to curl up on the couch downstairs and fall asleep before a bath.
Life doesn’t always feel book or movie perfect, but sometimes it does, and this is that moment for me. Instead of grading somewhere in the vicinity of two-hundred-fifty final exams and research papers this December, I just completed revisions on my second book—on motherhood, human flourishing, the imago Dei, and the preciousness of all human life as a radically countercultural concept in pre-Christian antiquity and post-Christian modernity alike (Mothers, Children, and the Body Politic: Ancient Christianity and the Recovery of Human Dignity–coming your way in 2024 from IVP Academic). But most of all, we are determined to enjoy this Christmas—and this means, yes, we are enjoying everything that this smalltown Christmas season has to offer. And there is a lot.
The mayor of our new(ish) home of Ashland, Ohio is apparently on a mission to make the town into a Christmas destination—a real-life Hallmark movie smalltown America. I think the town is off to a great start: decorations of the Downtown for Christmas started shortly after Thanksgiving and are truly spectacular. A magnificent parade of seventy-five floats was held at the beginning of the month and concluded with fireworks. A new Candy Cane Lane, a decorated and illuminated walking path in the park just a few blocks from our house, is open for the month as well. In addition to events at our own church, we enjoyed a candlelight community Advent service at the college chapel, where miraculously, none of the kids at attendance set things on fire. Not even my children. Still to come is a live nativity event. I don’t know if it will beat the live nativity we saw a few years ago in Georgia, which featured an alpaca and some llamas along with the more biblically predictable manger-denizens, but whatever the animals are, the kids are sure to be thrilled.
Hallmark movies are easy to make fun of. For the record, I must confess that I’ve never seen one, and the stereotypes circulating each year do not entice me to change that. These films really are, by all accounts, sappy and lacking in depth. And yet, maybe we should take some cues from their cheesy plots. Raising children and enjoying life really is easier in a small town where the cost of living is lower than in any larger city, where it is possible to walk everywhere, and where free wholesome entertainment for families abounds.
A few months ago, a journalist posted a provocative poll on social media: would you rather live in a large city that is beautiful but has a bit of crime, or a small town that has no charm and no crime? My answer then as now is: neither. I choose a small town that has all the quiet beauty and charm, low crime, and a cost of living sufficiently low to allow me to stay at home with the kids and write in my spare time—offering, in the meantime, plenty of inspiration for said writing. Now there’s a Hallmark movie plot!
It’s a well-worn cliché that writers get inspiration from grief and grit, suffering and sorrow. That is true, and I have written plenty of such essays. But there is also much beauty in rejoicing in the calm mundane—the walks in the park with over-energetic kids, climbing trees, gathering leaves, reading books with tea and cookies on cozy winter afternoons, and passing out asleep on the couch while holding a tired little girl, after clocking in 10,000 steps together by 3:00pm.
The modern industrial complex continues to push us to choose hard things—but too often they are the wrong hard things for human flourishing. Striving after the next step in the ladder, the next promotion, the next move—when we stop to consider that still small voice that God is still sending to call into our daily lives, we know the truth. There is much glory in the small things, and there is abundant joy in the present. Do you see it?