I've always loved the Christmas season. When I was a kid, my parents always made the season great. Our traditions were simple, but wonderful.
I especially enjoyed the two weeks off of school. Usually we chilled out at home or would go to a Christmas party or two at friends' homes. When I was in high school, I'd join with some other friends and go caroling in our neighborhood. Then we had to take care of our last-minute Christmas shopping. My parents gave each of us some allowance and let us choose gifts for the family.
On Christmas Eve, we typically chilled out at home, then, after some cajoling from all of us kids and my mom, my father would relent and let us open our gifts that night, before we went to the Christmas Eve service at church. My dad enjoyed being the position of deciding when the gifts would be open and enjoyed keep us in suspense. I suspect his plan was for a Christmas Eve "open" all along, but he liked the back-and-forth.
We enjoyed the Christmas Eve candle light service at our church. I remember it being very late, perhaps 11 p.m. There was just something special and warm about gathering at church, singing a few carols, seeing friends, hearing a short message and exchanging gifts.
On Christmas we'd usually go to my grandparents house for a terrific feast. My grandmother and grandfather were Jewish, but would put on a huge Christmas spread in their condo. They've both since passed but I miss them every Christmas. I think I can still smell the Christmas smells of Grandma and Grandpa's wonderful house.
Then we'd go to my father's family and have another wonderful feast of food and gifts. I had many cousins on that side and it was always cool to catch up with them.
I love the way my parents "handled" Christmas. They raised us in the church, so we knew the real meaning of Christmas. Dad read Luke 2 every Christmas Eve. And yet, they weren't at all scared by Santa Claus, shopping, gifts, and all the other parts of the season that Christians often lament. We weren't stressed on Christmas, but we also weren't grinches out to make sure everyone understood that Santa was a fake fat guy in a red suit. I guess they felt we were secure enough in our faith in Christ that we didn't have to shoot down everyone's Christmas joy.
Now that I'm a parent I hope to model my parent's approach to Christmas -- to simply let Christmas be what it is. The truth is that if we truly believe that what happened on Christmas is true, that the baby, the son of Mary was God in the flesh -- then all the other stuff won't bother us. In fact, the gift-giving, the food, the fun, everything -- this is the overflow of the joy in the manger.
The idea that God could come to earth and become a baby is so wonderful and so out-of-this-world, it should be celebrated. Sure, sometimes the story of the Incarnation becomes obscured by the celebration, but that doesn't mean we should consider the celebration wrong. Rather those of us who have been transformed by the baby in the manger might radiate with extra joy this season, to know that we give gifts, we feast, we listen to music, we gather with loved ones because we have been made right with God, our eternal destiny is secure, and we have a relationship with God through Jesus.
That's why we can freely revel in the celebration that is a part of our regular Christmas celebration. We can give and receive gifts without guilt, realizing generosity and giving is a natural outgrowth of gospel joy. We can enjoy friendships with friends, cherish memories, eat cookies, love the music, and watch our favorite Christmas movies. Because at the heart of Christmas, the spring from which the celebration flows, is the gospel story, God's good gift of Jesus the Son, sent to redeem us of our sins and offer us hope and eternal life.
Nobody is taking Christmas away. No fat guy in a red suit can rob us of Christmas. No signs bearing "Happy Holidays" can erase our joy. We don't have to berate corporations to express Christmas how we think they should. Because our joy doesn't come from someone's forced expression of a faith they don't understand, but from the knowledge that "unto us is a born a child, a Son is given."