Christmas The Way it Was Meant to Be (Sep-Dec 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Nancy Twigg
September – December, 2005

Imagine for a moment that you are invited to a birthday party for a good friend named Tom. When you arrive at the party, you find a room full of people enjoying themselves heartily. Throughout the room there is plenty of tasty food, festive decorations, and upbeat music. You also see birthday cards, gifts, and a brightly decorated cake.

The party seems to have everything it needs to be a success. However, after an hour or so you realize something is missing: Where is Tom? You look around but he is nowhere to be found. You can’t imagine why the guest of honor would not be present at his own birthday party. When you ask the host and hostess of the party about this, you are stunned by their casual reply: “We forgot to invite him.”

This story may sound absurd, but the same thing happens in many Christian households each Christmas season. We prepare lavishly for the festivities. We decorate, write cards, shop for gifts, and prepare a wonderful assortment of foods. Our Christmas celebrations seem to have all the right ingredients, except for one thing. Where is the Guest of Honor? Did we forget to invite Jesus to His own birthday party?

Intellectually, we all know the reason for the Christmas season. Ironically, little evidence of spiritual significance can be found in the way many of us celebrate at home. Often Santa Claus plays a bigger role in the festivities than Jesus. Sadly, the Good News of Christ’s birth is given only a cursory nod before moving on to what has become the real reason for Christmas—receiving a windfall of goodies from the jolly fellow in the red suit.

I make this assertion from firsthand experience. I grew up in a Christian home, yet Christmas was not celebrated as a spiritual holiday either at church or at home. In the weeks prior to December 25th, our church usually sang a few Christmas hymns and the preacher always delivered some sort of Christmas sermon. At home, we decorated our tree, opened presents on Christmas Eve and enjoyed a large meal on Christmas Day. That was the extent of Christmas as I knew it. Although we didn’t talk too much about Santa, we didn’t talk about Jesus, either.

When my husband, Michael, and I were married, we brought into our marriage similar backgrounds of Christmas celebrations. Because neither of us grew up celebrating Christmas as a spiritual holiday, we didn’t know how to begin doing so as we started our own family traditions. Our celebrations quickly became focused on the material aspects of the celebration: gifts, food and decorating. Consequently our celebrations always fell short of our expectations of what Christmas should be.

Each year after the last ornament was packed away and all the leftovers were gone, I felt empty. “Where was all the meaning? Where was all the magic,” I thought. “And why did I feel so blah when I was supposed to be brimming with Christmas joy?” For years I knew something wasn’t right about the way we celebrated Christmas. Finally it dawned on me why our holidays always left me so unfulfilled. We left Jesus out of His own birthday celebration!

Once Michael and I realized this, we began exploring ways to make Christ the center of our celebrations. We began bringing the spiritual aspects of Christmas into our home so that they played just as much, if not more, of a role in our celebration than the material aspects. As we made changes in the way we celebrated, we were pleased with how much more satisfying the holidays became. Rather than feeling blah, we felt gratified by our celebrations.

Through the years since we began focusing our Christmas celebration on Jesus, we’ve learned many things. But probably the most important thing we’ve learned is that simply trying to give more attention to the spiritual side of Christmas is not enough. The problem goes deeper than that. Many times rather than being left out of our celebrations, Jesus is crowded out by the chronic busyness and blatant consumerism of how Christmas is often celebrated.

We found that trying to put more of Jesus in our family celebration won’t work unless we take out some of the other things that compete for our family’s attention. If we are overworked and overstressed throughout December because of all the things to do and places to go, we simply cannot focus on celebrating Christmas as Christ’s birthday. Likewise, if we are caught up in the material aspects of the holiday—the shopping, buying, gift lists and gift exchanges—we won’t be able to focus on Christ, either. So in reality, the challenge of making Christmas more spiritual is really the challenge of making Christmas more simple. As we simplify the celebration of Christ’s birth, we have more time and energy for focusing on the Guest of Honor.

I like to think of simplifying Christmas in terms of a three-legged stool. The top of the stool is our goal: a memorable, meaningful Christmas celebration for our family. The top is supported by three legs—keeping spending and consumerism under control; keeping stress and busyness under control; and keeping Christ at the center of the celebration. If any one of these is out of whack, the stool will fall over. All three must be in balance or we will not reach our goal of having a Christmas celebration that is both satisfying and spiritually significant for our family.

Controlling Spending and Consumerism
So how do we keep the stool in balance? How do we control these three vital aspects of a gratifying holiday season? First, let’s talk about how to make Christmas more than just one big “rip and tear” fest. One of the major steps our family took in simplifying this aspect of Christmas was to change our attitude about gift giving. Unfortunately, gifts can easily become the entire focus of the celebration. Holidays quickly lose their meaning when gift giving usurps its rightful place and becomes the most prominent aspect of the celebration.

Instead of Christmas being the time to receive a windfall, we choose to make it a time when family members receive those special treats we don’t normally get during the year. We set a budget for each family member and then shop frugally to get the most bang for our buck. Our daughter typically receives one or two “big” presents from her wish list (items costing $15-20 each). The rest of her gifts are inexpensive surprises including items from the dollar store and like-new items found at yard sales. The same goes for my husband and myself. My daughter is only four years old now. We realize that as she gets older, the items on her gift list may become more expensive. However, we will continue to have a casual attitude toward gift giving so she never expects a deluge of expensive gifts.
Another change we made was to let go of trying to impress friends and relatives with costly gifts. Unfortunately because our culture puts so much emphasis on gifts, many gifts are given not out of genuine affection and goodwill, but rather out of a sense of obligation or desire to keep up appearances. We realized early on that we could never afford to outspend or outdo others in our gift giving. Now we make liberal use of our local discount chain for buying gifts. Even the dollar store comes in handy when putting together gift baskets. We also stretch our budget by giving homemade gifts. Instead of trying to wow friends with how much we spend, we focus on using our time, talents, and creativity to come up with memorable gifts that make a big impression without straining our budget.

Controlling Stress and Busyness
Next let’s look at putting limits on what I call “Christmas craziness.” The holiday months are busy for everyone. So much shopping, cooking and decorating to do; so many parties and family gatherings to attend. Although everyone is busy during Christmas, Christians are even busier. In addition to all the activities the rest of the world is doing, Christians also have church pageants, Sunday School parties, benevolence projects, special choir practices, etc., to participate in or attend.

The fact that we do have so many activities and obligations during the holiday months makes it vitally important for us to budget our time carefully. Just as we are frugal with our money, we want to be frugal with our time to make sure we get the best value for the amount of time invested. Quality time with family and friends is a precious commodity. We don’t want to consume valuable time and energy doing things that do not contribute significantly to our overall goal of having a memorable, meaningful celebration.

Michael and I have learned that it is okay to have a holiday “To Do” list and “Not to Do” list. Often out of habit or a sense of obligation, people find themselves participating in activities that they don’t really enjoy or that only add to their stress level. Families run from this party to that volunteer activity to yet another practice for the special Christmas program. Instead of relaxing and enjoying the season together, family members are like gerbils on an exercise wheel—running at full speed but not covering any ground. To avoid this in our own family, we have a policy of discussing our options before making commitments. Instead of mindlessly saying, “Yes,” to everything that comes down the pike, we pick and choose our holiday activities carefully.

The truth is that even good and honorable activities can get in the way of focusing the celebration on Jesus. As Christians, we feel compelled to be involved in all sorts of worthwhile endeavors during the holiday season. While these things can add significance to our celebration, we must know when to say when. Remember what Jesus said to Martha in Luke chapter 10? “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…” (verse 41) Martha was so busy doing things for Jesus that she couldn’t spend time with Jesus. In the same way, we can be so involved in doing good things around the holidays that we don’t have time for the best thing: giving our attention to One whose birth we celebrate.

Keeping Christ at the Center
The final leg of the stool is actually the most important even though I have saved it for last. Despite its magnitude, this area cannot be adequately addressed until imbalances in the other two areas have been rectified. Think of it this way: only so many objects can occupy a space at one time. Until we remove the consumerism and the frenzy of activity from our celebrations, there is no room for Jesus.

One of the best ways we’ve found to help keep Christ at the center of our Christmas holidays is to extend our family’s celebration to include Advent and Epiphany. The Advent season includes the four weeks prior to Christmas Day; it is a time to prepare our hearts and minds for the celebration of Christ’s birth. Epiphany occurs 12 days after Christmas and commemorates the arrival of the Wise Men to worship the Christ child.
Celebrating Advent is a wonderful way to counteract the rampant commercialism that permeates the month of December. Each Advent activity offers an opportunity to redirect the focus of the season to spiritual matters and make Christmas more than just a one-day gift and food orgy. Often both children and adults experience letdown after the presents are opened because it seems there is nothing left to celebrate. Because Epiphany occurs a few weeks after Christmas, this observance gives family members something else to which they can look forward.

When you think about it, how can something as monumental as the birth of Jesus truly receive the recognition it deserves in only one day? Celebrating the days of Advent offers a way to spread out the festivities and disperse the excitement throughout the month of December. Likewise, something so exceptional shouldn’t end abruptly at 11:59 p.m. on December 25th. Extending the holidays to include Epiphany reminds us that the joy of Christ’s birth is something we should carry with us all year long.

In starting to implement these new traditions into our family celebration, we began by substituting a Chrismon tree for our traditional Christmas tree one year. The word “Chrismon” is a combination of the two words: Christ and monogram. Thus, a Chrismon tree is a Christmas tree decorated entirely with Christian symbols˜symbols that each tell us something different about the Christian faith. Chrismon trees are typically found in churches, but we enjoyed bringing this practice into our home. The following year we continued this new tradition and added an Advent wreath and Advent calendar. Not only have these traditions helped us keep our spiritual focus during the busy season; they have also been useful as we teach our daughter what Christmas is all about. She doesn‚t understand it all yet, but she loves to help light the Advent candles and put the Chrismons on the tree. What a joy it is to see her get excited about spiritual aspects of Christmas rather than just the presents.

Our family is living proof of what can happen when Jesus is excluded from the Christmas celebration. Thankfully, we can also testify how much better Christmas can be when He is invited to take the seat of honor. This season I challenge you to take a look at the legs of your family’s stool. Are they out of balance? Is the stool dangerously close to tipping over? If so, ask God to show you what changes your family needs to make. May it be your goal to never host a birthday party without the Guest of Honor again!New Wineskins

Nancy TwiggNancy Twigg is the author of Celebrate Simply, a book about Christ-centered holiday celebrations, and editor of Counting the Cost, a newsletter on simple and abundant living. She speaks frequently to church groups and women’s ministry groups around the country. Nancy and her family reside in Knoxville, TN. To learn more about Nancy’s speaking and writing ministry, visit her online at www.countingthecost.com

 

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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