I'm a 40-something American Christian male with two kids in "the sweet spot," a lovely wife, and a major crush on Christmas. So I don't know much anymore, but I do know what's awesome about this holiday, and what regulations I've placed on myself and my family to ensure we, like the reborn Scrooge, know how to keep Christmas. In no particular order, here are my 25 Christmas Rules:
1. If you don’t like something about Americanized Christmas, like it anyway - YOUR way (the 'keep the Grinch away' rule). So the whole idea for this article started on Black Friday, when I arrived home about 5 p.m. and wrote the following Facebook status:
“I always loved Black Friday. But that was before it was called Black Friday, and before stores started opening at midnight, or Thursday evening. What I always loved was simply "day after Thanksgiving shopping at the mall." And with a great open-air mall right across the street from our neighborhood, it's still a great thing here. I slept in until 11:30, and the four of us went mall-ing around 12:30. Smiling kids. Hot cups of Starbucks in our hands. Salvation Army brass playing Christmas songs. Daddy saying yes to a couple small impulse buys (like a Frozen t-shirt for Lauren). The Boy weaving an RC car in and out of customer's feet in the toy store at the urging of a store clerk. Learning what Mommy looks gorgeous in (clothes from White House | Black Market). Sunny but chilly. Chasing each other around the giant Christmas tree. Washed down with a hot meatball sub from Jason's Deli. Yep, Black Friday ain't so bad...”
2. Go easy on the snacks. Nothing ruins a feast like gluttony; nothing squelches festive cheer like being overly full and weighed down. Take it from one who knows and is only now learning.
3. Every year is someone’s last Christmas. So go all out. Rent that cabin in the mountains. Make up with that long-lost friend. Pray with that parent who may not have as many years left as you think.
4. Santa rocks. And Santa stinks. If either is your position, I agree with you and support you. Because I know that if you think Santa rocks it’s because you find mystery and magic in Christmas, that you appreciate who Nicholas of Myra was as a real person, and you love the idea of a benevolent, generous person in charge, and Christmas is in these things. And because I know that if you think Santa stinks it’s because he’s mostly Madison Avenue, a distraction from the Incarnation, and a morality-based record keeper, and Christmas is not in these things.
5. One present at a time. This is non-negotiable, and always has been. If you can’t watch someone else opening his or her gift with nearly as much anticipation as you have opening your own, you need a cheer adjustment.
6. Leaving work after dark is no fun, but coming home after dark is. We've never even put lights on the outside of our house (neither did we when I was a kid), but this is still exciting. There will be little people jumping up and down, and hugs, and probably soup. Soup is very Christmas.
7. It’s not about the destination. Life hardly ever is. I estimate that 73% of my Christmases have been spent in Tucson, Arizona or Abilene, Texas. Nobody sings Christmas songs about these places. Yet I have an amalgam of Christmas memories as wide and deep as anyone’s. Why? Because while setting and experience are important, Christ and people are primary.
8. A Christmas Carol is the reset button I press to remember who I want to be as a Christian. Not because I am afraid of the doom that awaited Scrooge if he remained a miser, or because I think I can earn my way, but because there is no better depiction of what it looks like to replace greed/self with giving/others.
9. Make your Christmas movie Mount Rushmore. Mine includes the aforementioned A Christmas Carol (doesn’t really matter the version), Christmas Vacation, and two films that take place at Christmas but are more about love (but Christmas is very big on love) – The Family Man and Love, Actually. It’s not really Christmas until I’ve seen all four.
10. The older I get, the less I want. Or rather, the less I want to spend and get, and the more I want major needs to get met elsewhere. I’m not fighting this, even when relatives threaten me with pain if I don’t get a wish list to them by November 15. If you’re in that much of a rush to finish your shopping, put my name on a donation to your favorite charity. Seriously. (We all know I’m going to buy myself that pair of pants, that eBook, that piece of exercise equipment I won't use next time I need it anyway).
11. Christmas is family time, but if intolerable dysfunction is ruining your family Christmas gathering, have it out. HAVE. IT. OUT. Better out than in. I’m not kidding, Frank Costanza was on to something with the Airing of the Grievances at Festivus. It won’t be easy and it won’t be pleasant and it’s probably unfair for me to list this here when a whole article could contain my explanation, but the year my birth family locked everyone in the same room and put all the cards on the table until we understood each other was, ultimately, a time of healing, and makes that Christmas feel enriched, not ruined. (And this story gets even better when my wife tells it, as she was in the bathtub when the shootin' started, and we were so loud she assumed we were in the living area right outside her bathroom, when in fact we were downstairs. So she stayed in that tub turning into a prune for two hours, when she could have come out unseen at any time).
12. Outside is the best. Fresh, brisk, cold, invigorating. Seeing Christmas lights, smiling at neighbors, throwing snowballs (where applicable), and remembering that Christmas began outdoors, among animals and shepherds, and probably wasn’t in Winter.
13. Inside is also the best. Fires, blankets, movies, Charlie Brown, hot cocoa, and remembering that Christ came to make his home inside each of us, and give us peace.
14. Be a kid at some point. It doesn’t have to be prolonged. Ain’t nobody got time for an immature 40-something demanding presents and sneaking bites of sugar cookie dough and ruining carols with questionable lyrics for 25 days. But at some point, act like Will Ferrell in Elf about going to the mall, or making dinner, or seeing an old friend, or spending a team-building day with fellow editors traveling to the local amusement park all lit up for Christmas (we're going tomorrow! Ohmigoshohmigoshohmigosh!).
15. Let a Christmas song bring you to tears at some point. I know it’s gonna happen, I just don’t know the moment. What will probably do it is "Fall on your knees" in O Holy Night or "If only in my dreams" in I'll Be Home for Christmas or, of all things, Boy George belting out, "Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime!" in Do They Know it’s Christmas?
16. Faith has to be a part of this. Let me get preachy for a moment: if you aren’t attending church during Advent, when are you fellowshipping? If you are going to celebrate Christmas without Christ… wha? Why? If you are beyond considering, like Charlie Brown, what the whole point of it is, you’ll never know what the whole point of it was. Your faith tradition is doing something this month. Be a part of it.
And consider saying "Merry Christmas" to those who celebrate it, but not because I angrily insist upon it as some horribly self-righteous clod ready to sock you in the gut with the fruitcake of condemnation. Say it because it's not like you won't say "Happy Halloween" to someone, even though we know you don't really believe in or celebrate the religious meanings of Halloween. On the flip-side, are we srsly going to let a nice, polite, well-meaning, catch-all "Happy Holidays" tossed our way undo all our Joy to the World?
17. Create wonder. Whether you have kids of your own, or just nieces, nephews, or neighbors, do something to put stars in their eyes. Take them to the Nutcracker. Or, if that isn’t your thing (sorry, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies scares me in the same way clowns do), wake them up one night around 11 or midnight with the following items already in hand: tons of blankets, a thermos of hot chocolate, and a telescope (and maybe a Bible and a flashlight?). Come home one day with an early surprise present for the whole family (“It’s a puppy!”). Pull them in on creating a surprise gift for Mom. Or even just take them on a pajama ride for egg nog ice cream and a few neighborhoods full of Christmas lights when they thought they were bound for bed.
18. Put up an Advent calendar. Let the kids disagree over whose turn it is to open a day. Change up the things that are found there – Scripture verses, challenges, treasure hunts, baking cookies, taking cookies, stories about faith, and lessons about those who have less.
19. Adopt. This one little word is so full of meaning for the Christian. We have been adopted into the family of God through the miracle of what began at the first Christmas. And this is truly the ultimate way to give a gift – offering a sense of belonging, of family. This can be done literally, of course, by adopting orphans, and remembering families who have. Or symbolically, through charitable organizations around the world. Or you can offer to let someone far from home share in the warmth and festivities of yours. Or you can rescue a pet. Or…
20. Make money manageable. We like to let our kids in on the family finances. We wondered if, at Christmas, this might rob from the magic a bit. But it hasn’t. And I suspect it has been the same way for many of you. I have seen a lot of “proud parent” moments on Facebook in the last couple years, kids who volunteer to give up all presents so children in Africa can have mosquito nets… sons who tell their mom at bedtime one evening that one gift is plenty… daughters who urge their family to try Advent Conspiracy this year… and so on. Part of the joy of letting kids in on money is a smaller, more intimate Christmas, but one punctuated by saying yes to a few impulse surprises like dinner out or a used Wii game.
21. Let your spouse off the hook. Whatever pressure you can relieve is only going to make the whole experience better for everyone.
22. Prepare your heart. Some of us don’t like how early the Christmas decorations come out in stores, or how soon the Lite or Kiss station changes over to all-Christmas tunes. But really, this holiday season isn’t long enough. There’s only a good 3-4 weekends. Most of those get booked in September with parties, travel, and other requirements. So if you don’t wake up each morning with at least some sense of optimism or reflection, you’re going to miss it. My own strategy at this stage of life is to be the kids’ alarm clock. Every day at 6:30 I wake them with hugs and kisses and encouragement and some sense of what it means to celebrate Christmas and know Christ. I think I get more out of it than they do.
23. Load up your pockets. You know it, Ebenezer, it’s time to be prepared to fill that Salvation Army kettle with loose change from your car or couch, and hand that suspicious looking homeless guy an extra fiver or fast food gift card at the very least.
24. The best toys never go out of style. Legos, Crayolas, board games, karaoke machines. Give 'em, and break out the old ones all December long.
Candid Christmas photos (even ones taken when someone isn’t looking) are much preferable to stiffly posed pictures of twenty people in front of a fireplace, tree or church. (Okay, this is a personal bugaboo, but I love my mother-in-law anyway. And, I didn't include it as an official number in the list).
25. Finally, go with the flow, Dad. We’ve all seen what happens when Clark Griswold insists upon taking control and forcing square people into the round hole of his "fun old-fashioned family Christmas." So, sure… I liked my birth family’s Christmas morning madness and unkempt hair more than my married family’s rule that everyone showers and shaves and puts on make-up and eats a full breakfast and takes a nap and runs to the store and does a load of laundry and checks email and talks about the weather and goes to the bathroom one more time before a visit to the living room can be made, much less a present opened. But it’s all good… it’s all good…
Publication date: December 5, 2013