Dancing Sugarplums
by Pastor George Van Alstine

We’re all familiar with the lines from the well-known Christmas poem

The children were nestled all snug in their beds
While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.

When these phrases cross my mind, I seem to go back to early memories from my childhood, flashing back to excited thoughts that ushered me into dreamland on Christmas Eves long ago. “Visions of sugarplums” seemed to “dance” in my head.

Wait a minute! I didn’t even know what sugarplums were, so how could I have visions of them? Well, the word itself seems to makes a boy’s mouth water. And when a little child sees these things “dancing” in his head, — now that’s a vision that stays with him even into old age.

Actually, sugarplums were a special confection that every Victorian child looked forward to indulging in at Christmas time. They were not literal plums, but could be made of any dried fruit—dates, figs, raisins, apricots, cherries, as well as plums. These dried fruits were finely chopped, along with almonds, honey, and spices. This paste was rolled into small, bite-size balls, and the individual confections were coated with sugar and, maybe, coconut. In short, a sugarplum was a combination of all the best sweet flavors a child could imagine.

The image of a dancing sugarplum was also included by Tchaikovsky in his ballet “The Nutcracker.” In the storyline, the Sugarplum Fairy is the ruler in the Land of Sweets, where goodies from around the world gather, Russian candy canes, Spanish chocolate, Danish Marzipan, etc. This place sounds like a kid’s heaven!

But alas, the sugary dreams of childhood must give way to the more complex realities of adulthood. Thankfully, the true Christmas story speaks to grownups even more profoundly than it does to children. The Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” puts it this way:

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Yes, life is a mixture of sugarplum hopes and paralyzing fears, and both powerful emotions are included in the account of Jesus’ birth. The Wise Men were “overwhelmed with joy” (Luke 2:10), but King Herod was “frightened” (Luke 2:3) and “infuriated” (Luke 2:16). The Elder Simon prophesied to Mary that her baby boy was “destined for the falling and the rising of many” and warned her that “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).

In referring to The hopes and fears of all the years, the hymn writer was primarily alluding to the centuries of longing for Messiah’s birth by God’s people, Israel. But The hopes and fears of all the years can also summarize your life, with its ups and downs, excitements and disappointments. It’s not an easy thing to give up dancing “visions of sugarplums” and accept the fact that life includes fears as well as hopes, fallings as well as risings. But the wonder of Christmas is that, by coming as God in human flesh, the Babe embraces all of who we are.