I recently read an article called Free Christmas! that began like this:
Nothing chills the heart like seeing one's children, punch-drunk from visiting a succession of relatives over the holidays, rip into presents like lions attacking a gazelle on one of those nature-channel shows. My family is facing a holiday dilemma, which is how to disentangle ourselves from dysfunctional traditions. Like those of many young families we know, our traditions entail juggling schedules to make relatives happy, administering long greeting-card lists, buying trinkets for co-workers and neighbors, and wondering whether hell might not be housed in a shopping mall, replete with Muzak Christmas ditties and endless viewings of "The Santa Clause 3." Something is dreadfully wrong.[i]
Well, maybe. But I have to tell you, it seems to there is a lot that is beautifully right about Christmas as well. As I was preparing for this sermon, I read through a book Linda and I have had since we were first married, Christmas Memories. It starts back in 1986 with our first Christmas together as husband and wife, and it is filled with wonderful recollections from every year since.
There is a picture from our very first year of Linda and I together in our apartment. We’re sitting on the floor as we didn’t yet have any furniture. The wall behind us is completely bare. I gave Linda a pair of running shoes and she gave me a Christmas ornament she stayed up until 3AM that morning making herself. We didn’t have much, but we sure had big smiles on our faces.
The memories grow as we begin to have kids, first Christine and then Mary, to celebrate the day with. Often they include visits from family and special friends. Traditions begin to sprout and grow, such as the Christmas pageant, going out and cutting a live tree, baking cookies, and so on. Animals also join our ranks, such as bearded dragons, our cats, and Fluffy the raccoon. Our kids grow and blossom and so does our joy together.
My point is that though I don’t think any of us would argue that Christmas has come to have its problems over the years, there still remains a lot about Christmas that is good and right and beautiful and true. So here’s the question: How do we separate the two? How do weed out what’s gone wrong with Christmas so we can concentrate on what is right about it?
Well, I’d suggest we go back to the earliest Book of Christmas Memories of all, the Bible, and read the stories of Jesus’ birth such as the one we just heard from the Gospel of Luke. We’ll find some very real guidance there in identifying the kind of memories we want to create, the kind of traditions we want to pass on, the kind ideals we celebrate.
For instance, one of the things that jumps out at me from the very first Christmas story is the idea of peace on Earth. I don’t know how there can ever be peace on Earth if we can’t first find peace in our very own lives and our very own families. It’s a strange thing, isn’t it, that the holidays can bring out aggravation and frustration and anger in even the best of families.
Maybe at Christmas, no matter what has gone before, we should declare peace. Whatever wrongs have been done, we remember them no more. Whatever reasons we have to be irritated, we lay them down. We put aside our anger and chose to forgive instead. We sit extra close to one another, maybe even engaging in public displays of affection, as embarrassing to our kids as they may be.
There is, likewise, the tradition of giving. But as Luke tells the story, the greatest gifts given are gifts of presence, not presents. And of course the greatest gift of all is God giving the gift of His presence as he took upon himself flesh and blood in the baby born in Bethlehem.
Perhaps you’ve seen some of the holiday movies or TV shows where God sends an angel to tell somebody a special message. And as moving and inspirational as those movies can be, the real truth of Christmas is even better. The truth is, God did not send an angel. He did not send a prophet. He did not send His assistant. He did not send a representative. He came Himself. He came to give us the gift of His own presence to show us how much He loves us.
At Christmas time we often spend a lot of time and effort trying to find the perfect present for somebody. But the best expression of love is not our presents but our presence. People want to see our attention, our love. They want us to be there. Our presence is more important than our presents.
And then there is joy. Surely one of the essential parts of the Christmas story is “good news of great joy to the world!” That joy comes from the fact that we have been given a Savior in Jesus Christ, but it spills over into every area our life and is shared in so many ways.
I think that is why we make such a point of singing at Christmas, because it is such a beautiful expression of joy. But I also think is important that we make a place for things like sharing and creating good memories, playing games together, and lots of laughter.
There are plenty of other themes in the Christmas story, and as you read it with your family there might be other things you’ll want to emphasize and traditionalize. Whichever traditions you choose, may they be a celebration of all that is right about Christmas, a reminder of God’s deep and abiding love for us and occasion for us to share that love with one another.