Bigger and Bigger Christmas
Kristen Welch, in her book Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World, described the growing discontent their family experienced after pursuing more and more stuff. She describes it this way with respect to Christmas:
We scraped our money together, packed up our rented 1,000-square-foot townhome, and couldn’t believe the sellers had accepted our bottom-dollar offer on our dream house. We moved in mid-December and scrambled to put up a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, mostly for our two kids, who were two and four years old at the time. There were a few gifts scattered underneath the tree, but we all knew we’d really gotten a house for Christmas…
Every year Christmas got bigger and bigger in that house. We put up the biggest tree we could find in the front bay window and the thousand white lights that adorned it could be seen from the street. I spent a lot of time and money decorating nearly every room. I’ll never forget the Christmas morning when my kids were six and four years old and there were piles of presents under the tree, dozens for each of them. I didn’t feel it was excessive because I was an organized deal shopper and had gotten most of the toys on sale months before. I was as excited as my kids, and I couldn’t wait to see their faces as they opened each gift in delight. What had once been more than enough eventually became not enough.
But it didn’t really happen that way. It was a blur of grabbing and tearing into gifts, and within minutes the room looked like a tornado had ripped through it. I watched my kids go from one gift to another, hardly taking the time to even remove all the paper. With piles of opened gifts and still more to go, they actually seemed tired from the exertion of opening so many. We took a break and cleaned up for a bit before we started round two. There were some gasps of delight here and there, but with a room full of stuff, I don’t think I’ve ever felt emptier.
Christmas carols always seem to bring out the best in people. It’s as if we can travel back in time to a place where life was less complicated and Christmas was full of joy and magic. The churches fill with people and in our villages, towns and cities people meet to stand together in the cold to sing songs.
The Christmas Gift
A preaching professor at Harvard University tells the story of the year his 5-year-old son was working on an art project in his kindergarten class. It was made of plaster, resembled nothing in particular, but with some paint, sparkle and time in a kiln, it was ready to be wrapped as a gift. He wrapped it himself, and was beside himself with excitement. It would be a gift for his father, one three months in the making.
Early in December, when the child could hardly contain the secret, the last day of school finally came. All the parents arrived for the big Christmas play, and when the students left for home, they were finally allowed to take their ceramic presents home. The professor’s son secured his gift, ran toward his parents, tripped, and fell to the floor. The gift went airborne, and when it landed on the cafeteria floor, the shattering sound stopped all conversations. It was perfectly quiet for a moment, as all involved considered the magnitude of the loss. For a 5-year-old, there had never been a more expensive gift. He crumpled down on the floor next to his broken gift and just started crying.
Both parents rushed to their son, but the father was uncomfortable with the moment. People were watching. His son was crying. He patted the boy on the head and said, “Son, it’s OK – it doesn’t matter.” His wife glared at the great professor. “Oh yes, it matters,” she said to both of her men, “Oh yes, it does matter.” She cradled her son in her arms, rocked him back and forth, and cried with him.
In a few minutes, the crying ceased. “Now,” said the mother, “let’s go home and see what can be made with what’s left.” And so with mother’s magic and a glue gun, they put together from the broken pieces a multi-colored butterfly. Amazingly, the artwork after the tragedy was actually much more beautiful than what it had been in a pre-broken state.
At Christmas, the gift was finally given, and as long as he taught at Harvard, the professor kept the butterfly on his desk. It was a constant reminder that grief is real, and that loss hurts. It was also a reminder that from great loss, great beauty can eventually emerge.
Covering the Bald Spots
Every year at the end of November, my husband, Ike, and I load the kids in the car and drive to the nearest Christmas tree lot. We are committed “real tree” people—not to be confused with “fake tree” people who keep their trees stored in a box—so the hunt for the perfect tree is one we anticipate and enjoy every year. No matter where we live or how busy we are, we set aside time to visit a farm or a store in order to make our pick. Ike, the kids, and I painstakingly inspect every single option, examine them for gaps, assess their sizes, and scan for brown spots.
Then, after we have made our choice, Ike hoists the tree on top of our car, ties it down, and drives us home. Once we get back to the house, we carefully mount the tree on the stand and carry it inside, trying to scatter as few needles as possible. For the rest of the night, the sap on our fingers attracts dirt, hair, fuzz, and other light debris. I don’t like the mess and I don’t like the hassle, but it’s a hassle we are happy to endure.
Nothing beats the smell of Fraser fir filling the air, and nothing transports Ike and me to our childhood Christmases quite like the glow of a fresh tree in our home. At least, that is how it normally goes. Several years ago our Norman Rockwell moment was not to be. Ike and I bought a discount tree at a local store. That was probably our first mistake. The tree had several bald patches and multiple brown spots. The branches were dry and the needles prickly. We should have read the signs, but I was optimistic. I thought I could hide the gaps with some faux poinsettias and no one would be the wiser. So we took the tree home. For the first few days, the tree was stunning. I loaded it with ornaments, ribbons, and pearls. It was shiny, full, and smelled like an evergreen forest. It was probably the most aromatic tree we’ve ever had.
All was well except for one niggling concern: the tree wasn’t taking any water. If you have ever purchased a real tree, you know they guzzle water, especially at first, and especially after the lights have been weighing on their branches for a while. But not this one. Every time I checked the stand, the water level had barely dropped. That’s when I suspected something wasn’t quite right. Not long after, the branches were drying out, and the needles became so thorny I flinched to brush against them.
And the smell that I loved so much? Over time the scent of evergreen was replaced with a musty, rotten odor. That was when it became clear: our tree wasn’t just a dud. Our tree was dead. That was a disappointing year in the Miller home. We decided to keep the tree for those remaining days before Christmas, but whenever I passed by it, I was reminded of something I had missed amid all the Christmases before. No matter how much you dress up a “real tree,” no matter how much you cover it in family heirlooms, silver bells, tinsel, and lights, a Christmas tree is still a dying tree. And this, I realized, was a tree-shaped sermon about my life.
…For many of us, that Christmas tree is our story. We look great, our church looks great, everything seems fine. Until the day we pull back the branches and discover the sickness hiding within. Underneath all the ministry commitments, the Christian conferences, the growing churches, the bestselling books, and the uplifting social media posts, there is fear. There is pride. There is a need to control. There is self-preservation in place of generosity. Defensiveness in place of humility. Silence in place of boldness. Shouting in place of listening. Cynicism in place of hope.
We can hide all of these things behind the ornaments of nice Christianity, which allows them to exist undetected for years. These ornaments do not simply mask the sickness, they contribute to it as well. The baubles that decorate brittle branches also weigh them down. The lights that obscure a tree’s dehydration dry it out faster.
Crafting the Perfect Christmas
Ann was a working mother in her 30’s, and one of the millions of women who saw the marshmallow castle on the December cover of a popular women’s magazine. Ann confessed, later, that she felt like a “bad mother” unless she made something from the magazines every Christmas. But the marshmallow castle was the Waterloo of her annual battle to be Super Mom at Christmas.
The directions for the castle assured her that it was a “traditional project that would add so much to a festive season,” and would provide the “focal point of your holiday decorating” as well. More than likely, the article also said the castle would be fun for the entire family to construct. Ann tackled it by herself.
The ingredients were advertised as inexpensive, but Ann spent much more than she’d anticipated, and was off to a bad start even as she left the grocery store. The editors also claimed that the project was simple enough for a child to make, but Ann spent ten frustrating hours putting it together.
The hardest part for her was the turrets that surrounded the castle. The directions told her to paste peppermint candies to four vertical cardboard tubes with marshmallow crème. When Ann went to bed, the peppermints were holding fast to the towers, but when she woke up the next morning, they had oozed away from their stately positions. The castle was sagging, the towers looked exactly like naked toilet paper rolls, and the peppermint slugs were disgusting.
Ann’s children wanted only to eat the marshmallows. Ann’s husband took one look at the white glob of goo and declared it the ugliest thing he’d ever seen. “He didn’t even want it in the house,” she said.
The next Christmas, Ann was much more selective with her Christmas energy. “This year I’m going to spend that time with my children,” she said. “That’s what they really want from me, anyway.” (Source: Unplug the Christmas Machine, Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli, New York: William Morrow, 1991, pp. 28-29)
Doubting Santa’s Existence?
It is astonishing that some people still doubt the existence of Santa Claus. Despite the vast amount of photographic evidence, the hundreds of annual reports on Father Christmas’s activities from perfectly reputable news sources, and the bulging stockings full of presents that reliably appear on Christmas morning, somehow the doubters remain unconvinced. Thankfully mathematics can help. The conspiracy theorists have already tried turning to science to demonstrate their (clearly incorrect) position.
They calculate that if Santa were to visit the 1.9 billion children in the world,* he would have to travel at 3,000 times the speed of sound while carrying more than 300,000 tons of presents (about the weight of six Titanics). Richard Dawkins, king of the skeptics, has insisted that the lack of any noticeable sonic booms from all that zipping about at supersonic speeds is more than enough evidence that Santa cannot possibly be real.
Worse still, some claim that this astonishing weight of parcels travelling at such a remarkable speed would practically vaporize the leading reindeer, who would have to withstand the full hit of air resistance. Meanwhile, sitting in the back of his sleigh, Santa would be subjected to forces tens of thousands of times stronger than gravity, making it impossible for him to breathe or to retain any of the physical structure of his bones or internal organs, thus reducing him to a liquefied mess.
Embracing the Call
So what did it mean for Joseph and Mary to accept the Word of the Lord, to say, “We embrace the call to receive this child. We will accept whatever comes with it”? What did it take for them to literally have “God with us” in their midst (Matthew 1:23)? What does it take to be with him? This text’s answer is courage. And a willingness to do his will, no matter what.
When the angel said to Joseph, “Marry her,” he was saying, “If Jesus comes into your life, you are going to be rejected. You will have to kiss your stellar reputation good-bye.” And he married her. Surely some of Joseph’s friends said, “Why in the world did you marry her? Either you did that or she was unfaithful to you.” Can you imagine Joseph trying to tell them the truth? “Oh, I can explain. She is pregnant through the Holy Spirit. We learned all about it from the angels.” The truth wasn’t something his friends would understand, and therefore he knew they would always think ill of him.
A Force of Love and Logic
The idea that there’s a force of love and logic behind the universe is overwhelming to start with, if you believe it. Actually, maybe even far-fetched to start with, but the idea that that same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in straw and poverty is genius, and brings me to my knees, literally. To me, as a poet, I am just in awe of that. It makes some sort of poetic sense. It’s the thing that makes me a believer, though it didn’t dawn on me for many years.
A Gift That Requires Swallowing your Pride
Christmas is about receiving presents, but consider how challenging it is to receive certain kinds of gifts. Some gifts by their very nature make you swallow your pride. Imagine opening a present on Christmas morning from a friend—and it’s a dieting book. Then you take off another ribbon and wrapper and you find it is another book from another friend, Overcoming Selfishness. If you say to them, “Thank you so much,” you are in a sense admitting, “For indeed I am fat and obnoxious.”
In other words, some gifts are hard to receive, because to do so is to admit you have flaws and weaknesses and you need help. Perhaps on some occasion you had a friend who figured out you were in financial trouble and came to you and offered a large sum of money to get you out of your predicament. If that has ever happened to you, you probably found that to receive the gift meant swallowing your pride. There has never been a gift offered that makes you swallow your pride to the depths that the gift of Jesus Christ requires us to do. Christmas means that we are so lost, so unable to save ourselves, that nothing less than the death of the Son of God himself could save us.
The Humanity of Jesus’ Birth
By stating that Jesus is “born of woman”—this Mary (as both St. Matthew and St. Luke attest)—St. Paul insists that Jesus is most emphatically human, the “firstborn of all creation. That this Mary is at the same time a virgin prevents the birth of Jesus from being reduced to what we know or can reproduce from our own experience.
Life that is unmistakably human life is before us here, a real baby from an actual mother’s womb; there is also miracle here, and mystery that cannot be brushed aside in our attempts to bring the operations of God, let alone our own lives, under our control.
The miracle of the virgin birth, maintained from the earliest times in the church and confessed in its creeds, is, in Karl Barth’s straightforward phrase, a “summons to reverence and worship….” Barth maintained that the one-sided views of those who questioned or denied that Jesus was “born of the virgin Mary” are “in the last resort to be understood only as coming from dread of reverence and only as invitation to comfortable encounter with an all too near or all too far-off God.”
“I’m in the Secret Service”
Jim was leaving church after Christmas services when the pastor greeted him and said, “Jim, it’s time you joined the Army of the Lord. We need to see you every Sunday.”
“I’m already in the Army of the Lord, Pastor,” Jim replied.
“Then why do we only see you on Christmas and Easter?”
Jim looked to the right and to the left, and then leaned over to whisper, “I’m in the Secret Service.”
The Message of Christmas
The message of Christianity is, instead, “Things really are this bad, and we can’t heal or save ourselves. Things really are this dark—nevertheless, there is hope.” The Christmas message is that “on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Notice that it doesn’t say from the world a light has sprung, but upon the world a light has dawned. It has come from outside. There is light outside of this world, and Jesus has brought that light to save us; indeed, he is the Light (John 8:12).
The Origin of the “J Shaped” Candy Cane
Legend has it that the choirmaster of Cologne Cathedral was the one who first bent straight white candy canes into their familiar inverted “J” shape. It wasn’t to represent the name Jesus, as is often thought, but to represent the crooks of the shepherds to whom the angel announced the first Nativity. August Imgard, a German immigrant, brought the tradition to Ohio. He is generally credited with being the first person in America to decorate a Christmas tree with candy canes.
Managing the Big Battalions of Life
A century ago, men were following with bated breath the march of Napoleon and waiting feverishly for news of the war. And all the while in their own homes, babies were being born. But who could think about babies? Everybody was thinking about battles. In one year, there stole into a world a host of heroes. Gladstone was born in Liverpool, England, and Tennyson at Somersby. Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Massachusetts.
The very same day of that same year, Charles Darwin made his debut at Shrewsbury. Abraham Lincoln drew his first breath in Old Kentucky, and music was enriched by the birth of Felix Mendelssohn in Hamburg. But nobody thought about babies. Everybody was thinking about battles.
Yet, which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies that were born in 1809? We fancy that God can only manage His world through the big battalions of life, when all the while He is doing it through the beautiful babies that are being born into the world. When a wrong wants righting, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants opening, God sends a baby into the world to do it. And where do you find God on Christmas? In a manger. A baby was born at the heart of the Roman Empire, that when the Roman Empire would crumble and fall, that baby, who would become a man,
Frank W Boreham, Mountains in the Midst, 1909.
The Origin of Santa Claus and Stockings
The man behind the unlikely tradition of Christmas stockings is usually thought to have been Nikolaos of Myra. He was a Greek Christian who became bishop of Myra, a city of Asia Minor. Nikolaos, or Saint Nicholas as he became known, was a kind man, and his faith was such that he became known as Nicholas the Wonderworker for the miracles he performed. The title “Saint Nicholas” was expressed in Dutch as Sinterklass, and this came into American English as “Santa Claus.” Nicholas’s personality and piousness was such that he is revered by both Catholic and Protestant churches…
Bishop Nicholas…was wandering through town one evening, according to legend, when he overheard a father’s lament. His three daughters all had men they wanted to marry, but he couldn’t provide them with dowries, so the weddings couldn’t go ahead. Nicholas waited until the middle of the night then slipped into the man’s house. He carried with him three bags of gold, one for each daughter. Looking around for a place to put them, he spotted the daughters’ stockings hanging over the fire to dry. He left the bags of gold in the stockings—and a Christmas tradition was born!
Seek not Courts
Seek not in courts, nor palaces,
Nor royal curtains draw;
But search the stable,
see your God, Extended on the straw.
William Billings, “Methinks I See a Heav’nly Host,” in The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778). The full text available here.
This Constant Bickering
The monks at a remote monastery deep in the woods followed a rigid vow of silence. Their vow could only be broken once a year—on Christmas—by one monk. That monk could speak only one sentence. One Christmas, Brother Thomas had his turn to speak and said, “I love the delightful mashed potatoes we have every year with the Christmas roast!” Then he sat down. Silence ensued for 365 days.
The next Christmas, Brother Michael got his turn and said, “I think the mashed potatoes are lumpy, and I truly despise them!” Once again, silence ensued for 365 days.
The following Christmas, Brother Paul rose and said, “I am fed up with this constant bickering!”
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The Twelfth Day of Christmas
In many Christian lands Epiphany is the most important feast of Christmas. Especially in Latin countries the arrival of the Wise Men, the Three Kings, looms large in the imagination. My native city, New Orleans, is heir to a European, especially French and Spanish, heritage. Twelfth Night not only concludes the Christmas season, but also inaugurates the festive days of Carnival, leading up to Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras.
…In Latin countries, Epiphany is the biggest day of the whole Christmas season, when gifts are exchanged to recall the gifts of the Magi….The twelfth day of Christmas—the Epiphany—is about God making this sovereignty known not just to Israel but also to all the peoples of the world. To understand this story, we need imagination: the eyes not of rationalism but of revelation.
The Christmas season begins with incarnation and ends with manifestation. The star that guided the Magi was governed, not by gases and gravity, but by God’s desire to convey a message to his people. It is a majestic story meant to be embroidered in tapestries shot through with gold.
Three Boys Living in this House
A little boy wrote a letter to Santa Claus that said, “Dear Santa: There are three boys living at my house. Jeffrey is two, David is four, and Norman is seven. Jeffrey is good some of the time, David is good some of the time, and Norman is good all of the time. I am Norman.”
What Do You Want for Christmas?
What do you want for Christmas this year? If you were to ask a typical little boy, he’d probably give you two words: video games. There’s a little boy I know named Brian. For weeks he bugged his parents about getting a watch for Christmas. Finally his dad told him, “Brian, if you mention that watch again, you’re not going to get it. Quit bugging us!” One night Brian’s parents asked him to lead in prayer before dinner. Brian said, “I’d like to quote a Scripture verse before I pray. Mark 13:37: ‘I say unto you what I have already told you before—watch . . .’”
Worship in Space
A little more than a year ago, three men were orbiting the moon in a space capsule. It was Christmas Eve, and they took turns reading Genesis 1, the opening chapter of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,’ a most magnificent choice of texts for Christmas Eve. The Apollo 8 spacecraft was transformed momentarily into a Jewish/Christian pulpit.
Man’s most impressive technological achievement to date was absorbed in the declaration of God’s creative act. Apollo, the most dashing of the pagan Greek gods, bowed down in worship to “God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The astronauts did what a lot of people spontaneously do when they integrate an alert mind with a reverent heart-they worshipped.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Christmas. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!