(Author Simon Camilleri reading this post)
Recently, I saw a social media post from a prominent Christian radio station here in Melbourne. They asked their morning radio listeners to vote on their “must do” Christmas traditions and then they posted the top 8, calling it their “Ultimate Christmas Traditions List”:
- Picking out a tree from the Christmas Tree farm.
- Taking the family to a Christmas movie.
- Buying one special ornament every year.
- Giving Christmas pyjamas on Christmas Eve.
- Taking a photo by the Christmas tree every year.
- Making homemade eggnog.
- Wrapping presents watching Carols by Candlelight.
- Watching Polar Express on Christmas Eve and leaving a bell by my daughter’s bed when she’s asleep.
To me this list was a little heart-breaking … not one mention of anything focused on the actual reason for the season—Christ.
Honestly, to me this list was a little heart-breaking. To think, these 8 activities were the top “must do” Christmas traditions for a radio audience that mostly identifies as Christian. Eggnog and The Polar Express, but not one mention of anything focused on the actual reason for the season—Christ. Now, I don’t point this out to critique the radio station. To their credit, they at least included this question on their Facebook post:
“Have they missed anything???”
I want to say yes, they missed something.
I began reflecting on what Christ-focused traditions Christians might consider to ensure that Jesus isn’t lost in the midst of the silly season. In my recent article on “What To Do With Santa” I noted: “So much more could and should be said about how to celebrate Christ at Christmas.” Well, here are four simple suggestions. I hope you can include them in your Christmas this year.
1. Read the Gospel Accounts
The simplest thing you can do to make sure that the true story of Christmas is front and centre in your family is to simply read it. This may sound obvious, but I suspect it is still quite neglected in many homes. If you don’t know where to look, start with the accounts of the first Christmas in Matthew 1:18-2:21 or Luke 2:1-40.
The simplest thing you can do to make sure that the true story of Christmas is front and centre in your family is to simply read it.
Christianity is, at its heart, a message of good news. It’s not primarily a philosophy, or a set of doctrines, or a religious institution, or a life improvement program. It’s news. Something has happened in history. And that history is recorded in the Gospels. Christians are a community that reads, believes, remembers and proclaims this story. As Colin Morris, the English Methodist minister and author, wrote:
Storytelling has been central to Christianity from the beginning, because the Gospel is not a body of teaching, but an account of something done.
So find time throughout December, or even just on Christmas morning, to sit with your family, open up the Bible and read the wonderful story of Christ’s birth. You will meet armies of angels, hear ancient prophesies fulfilled and discover the purpose of Jesus’ mission hidden within the meaning of his name. You may be left reflective like Mary, who “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19) and by God’s grace, your children may, like the shepherds, find themselves “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:20)
2. Get Involved at Church
Many churches use the Christmas season to make an extra effort to engage with the community and proclaim the gospel. It is indeed a great opportunity for evangelism, but never forget, the primary purpose of the local church is to equip and build-up the Body of Christ. As the writer of Hebrews instructs:
Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Christians should not simply attend church. We ARE the church. We are a family; a community; a body where each part is connected to each other and needs each other. This is just as true during the busy season of Christmas as it is at any other time of the year.
Many of us have work and family commitments in December, which can make being involved a bit more difficult if it is not a priority. So make it one. Don’t do this begrudgingly out of a sense of duty or to tick some religious box. Go to stir up one another. Go to encourage one another. Go to be reminded how to celebrate Christ at Christmas, and to help others remember as well.
Make attending the carols events and Christmas lunches and Christmas services a part of your yearly rhythm. I know it isn’t possible for everyone, but if your church has a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service and you also have big family events to get to, consider just saying to your family “We’ll be there a bit late.” Remember, not everyone has a family to run off to. At your church there may be international students, single people, people with broken families, and others for whom the Christmas services ARE their family gathering. So prioritise your spiritual family and get involved with your church’s Christmas celebrations. It will be a blessing to both you and your brothers and sisters in Christ.
3. Get the Balance Right
In my last article on Santa, I suggested that we have a bit of freedom to incorporate some traditions into our Christmas celebrations that aren’t overtly focused on Jesus. For example, the things mentioned in the radio station’s list are all fun traditions that can have their place. We just need to get the balance right. And the weight needs to be tipped in Christ’s direction.
Consider what you talk about at Christmas with your family. Is it all about events and shopping and food and decorations? Are your kids fixated on what they want to get for Christmas? Or is Jesus and what his coming means a part of your everyday conversation?
Reflect on what events you and your family are busy attending. Are you racing from Christmas shopping to the Myer Christmas Windows (a tradition in Melbourne); from a photo with Santa to driving by that street where they all go crazy decorating their houses with Christmas lights? Do you have time for Christ-focused events or even just simple reflection?
Take an inventory of what your Christmas looks like and ask if Jesus is at the centre of it all.
Also, take a look around your house. What do your Christmas decorations communicate? Do you have a nativity set and is it tucked away or displayed prominently? Are there more Santa-related ornaments on your tree than decorations relating to Christ?
What Christmas movies do you watch and what Christmas music do you play? Is it mostly Mariah Carey and Bing Crosby? Or is your home (and your mind) filled with songs praising the Saviour?
Take an inventory of what your Christmas looks like and ask if Jesus is at the centre of it all. If you find that your “Ultimate Christmas Traditions List” is filled with Christ-less activities, then it’s time to restore the balance. Cut some things from the list—not because they are necessarily bad, but in order to make room for more Christ-focused traditions.
4. Family Advent Traditions
“Advent” (meaning “coming” or “arrival”) is the season of four weeks leading up to Christmas. It is used by several Christian denominations to prepare people for the celebration of the birth of Christ. As a child growing up in the Catholic Church, I fondly recall the Advent wreath that was set up each December and how each week at Mass, a new candle was lit. Maybe your church does something similar, or maybe they don’t. There is definitely no biblical obligation to observe Advent, just as there is not even a biblical obligation to observe Christmas, but if you do want to make sure your Christmas celebrations are focused on Christ, then doing something for Advent can be useful.
Whether or not your church does anything, there are many Advent traditions that you can incorporate into your family life as Christmas approaches. I’m sure if you ask your Christian friends or search online, you’ll be able to find hundreds of ideas. Here are just a few that I know of or have tried myself.
- Advent Calendar: These you can get pretty much anywhere and they have become quite commercialised. But you can use them to read a passage of Scripture each day or just to do something that will remind you and your family of the significance of the coming of Christ.
- Jesse Tree: There are various versions of this idea, but the one I have used is a little tree that you use to go through the entire narrative of biblical history to lead up to Christ’s birth. For each of the 25 days of December, you read a bible story with your kids, do a craft activity and hang a small home-made decoration on the “Jesse Tree”, each symbolic and relevant to the passage you have read.
- Advent Wreath: This practise has been adapted and used over the last four centuries by Christians of various denominations. It often involves four candles, each being lit in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. The candles can be symbolic, representing ideas like hope, faith, joy and peace, or you can simply use them to prompt reflection and anticipation as Christmas approaches.
- Nativity Set: This is a miniature display of the Christmas story, often incorporating a stable with animals, shepherds, the magi, angels and, most importantly, Mary, Joseph and Jesus. As someone who cares about people knowing the biblical narrative, I sometimes find these scenes painfully inaccurate. For example, the magi possibly didn’t visit Jesus until he was around 2 or 3 years old! But when displayed prominently in your home and used as a complement to reading the gospel accounts, a nativity set can be a powerful visual reminder of exactly what Christmas is all about.
These are just a few of the common tools used by Christian families over the season of Advent. Feel free to use them, adapt them or create your own! Christmas traditions can be lots of fun and you can design them to suit your life circumstances and the interests and personalities of the members of your household. These visual, tactile, interactive and communal activities can engage your family and draw their attention and focus on Jesus.
On one level, all these suggestions are fairly basic Christian stuff: read the Bible, go to church, have more Jesus than Santa and use a Nativity Set and Advent Calendar. Sorry if you were hoping for something more revolutionary! But Christmas traditions are often simple. Their power is in the importance you place on them and the fact that you do them year after year. Eventually they become part of the natural rhythm of your family Christmas and over time they will help shape what you value and love about this time of year. More than that, they will define Christmas for you. And that is true, whether your Christmas traditions are watching “The Polar Express” or reading Luke chapter 2.
If you worry about your kids being distracted by superficial things during the silly season, and if you want your home to truly celebrate Christ this Christmas, consider what is on your “Ultimate Christmas Traditions List” and invest in ones that will keep Jesus as the reason for the season.
See Simon’s earlier post “What to Do With Santa?” here.