This year I watched my 18 month old nephew open his Christmas presents via FaceTime. It was 9.30pm on Christmas Eve and I was sitting in a friend’s guest bedroom in London. My nephew and the rest of my family were back home in Sydney having recently woken up to an already sweltering Christmas morning. I watched him rip off the wrapping paper with ever more vigour. My mum, who was pointing the phone camera towards him, kept asking if I could see him OK. My brother in law pulled faces at me each time the camera caught him. My dad complained about how hot it already was. My sister took the phone outside to show me the expansive blue Aussie sky.
I know that for some Christmas and family can be a complicated or even painful mix, whether because of grief or estrangement or any one of the other multitude of factors which can make relationships complex. At church on Christmas morning I was very thankful for the opportunity to join in praying for those for whom Christmas and family is difficult or painful.
I had not anticipated just how foreign it would feel to not spend this important day with those who are “my own”.
But for me, it was my first ever Christmas not spent celebrating, eating, fussing, laughing, reminiscing and, yes, occasionally getting frustrated with my loved ones. When I made my plans to be overseas for Christmas I knew that I would miss them. However, I’m not sure I had anticipated just how foreign it would feel to not be with them at Christmas, to not spend this important day with those who are “my own”.
And so, throughout Christmas Day I found myself preoccupied with thoughts of family. Stuffed to the gills with Christmas goose (weirdly it tastes like lamb) and pudding, I found myself mulling over two particular lessons about family that I had learnt that day.
1. Celebrating WITH Family at Christmas
I spent my Christmas Day with the good friend I was staying with and seven other people, none of whom I had ever met before.
My friend and I had been invited to share Christmas lunch with an English family who are very close to her. When we arrived on their doorstep, I felt a little trepidatious. Here I was, a stranger, about to “invade” their family’s Christmas lunch. Yet as soon as the door opened, I was greeted with warm hugs and delight. The kids excitedly showed me the presents which they had received that morning. I laughed and chatted with their parents and grandparents around the Christmas table, warmed by the heat of a log fire. And then, when it came time to open presents I was shocked, humbled and a little embarrassed when three separate gifts found their way into my lap… gifts from people to whom I had been a stranger just hours before.
As we enjoyed a post-lunch stroll through the local common (how very English of us!), I realised that these people had never really been strangers to me after all. Neither had I been a stranger to them. We were brothers and sisters in Christ. Children who had been adopted into the same spiritual family. Individuals who had been united to one another by the Saviour whose birth was the cause of celebration that day.
As we enjoyed a post-lunch stroll through the local common, I realised that these people had never really been strangers to me after all. Neither had I been a stranger to them. We were brothers and sisters in Christ.
This year I didn’t celebrate Christmas with “my” family. But I certainly celebrated it with family. I had not only been wonderfully, generously and hospitably welcomed into their family for the day, but together we all reflected on the fact that we are part of the same spiritual family. Our Christmas celebration was a demonstration of the bond we already share as family in Christ.
Which led me to a second lesson about Christmas and family.
2. Celebrating Family at Christmas
It was just a few days before Christmas and the reality was I wasn’t “feeling it”. I couldn’t quite work out why. After all, I was surrounded by Christmas lights and decorations. The streets of London were bustling with Christmas shoppers. Corny Christmas songs had been playing in every café and gastro pub that I had eaten in. I knew it was Christmas, but it just didn’t feel like it. Why?
I began to realise that, in large part, it was because my experience of the Christmas season has always meant spending lots of time with my church family at carol services, end of the year celebrations, advent series on Sunday mornings and so on. But this year I had missed all of that. I came to understand that much of the reason I wasn’t feeling particularly “Christmassy” was because my church family had been almost entirely absent from my experience of Christmas this year.
On Christmas morning I visited my friend’s church in London. It was truly a delight to be able to celebrate Jesus’ birth amongst members of my extended spiritual family. Yet I missed my own church family very much, and my yearning for them caused me to reflect on just how it is that we celebrate family at Christmas.
You see, as I had scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed that morning I had been greeted with innumerable Christmas wishes from friends, posted alongside photos of their families. It was wonderful to see how everyone was celebrating the day with their loved ones, to view the various spreads across the Christmas tables (I feel confident that none of them had goose!) and to glimpse the frustration on the faces of the kids who just wanted it to be present time already. So many of us are very good at celebrating our families at Christmas.
I couldn’t recall seeing any photos of friends celebrating their church families that morning. Do we use this season to celebrate them as our primary, and indeed, our eternal family because of Christ?
Yet it occurred to me that I couldn’t recall seeing any photos of friends celebrating their church families that morning. On the day when we all gather together to celebrate the coming of the one in whom we were predestined for adoption into the same heavenly family, I realised that we don’t very often think to celebrate THAT family at Christmas time. We might gather with them on the day, but do we use this season to celebrate them as our primary, and indeed, our eternal family because of Christ?
Christmas is now a long way off. It will be another 12 months before we all climb aboard the Yuletide roller coaster again. Yet perhaps now is the perfect time for us to do some careful thinking about the lessons Christmas has to teach us about family. Perhaps now is the right time for us to start making plans to ensure that next Christmas we both celebrate with family AND celebrate the eternal family to which we belong… and all because of that infant who was laid in a dirty stable manger.