An upside-down Christmas, part 4: Bringing Christmas’s true meaning into focus

No one has to tell me what Christmas is really about. I know. And I love what it is supposed to be. But, like many of you, I get caught up in the busy-ness of it and don’t seem to have much time to focus on spiritual. Much of what we fill our holidays with is good, or at least not inherently bad. But it obscures our view of the bigger picture. These are just a few ideas of ways to add a layer of meaning without totally disrupting your schedule and life. You don’t have to do it all. Frankly, you don’t have to do a single thing here. Trust your own instincts. Do what feels right. And only if it does not add stress or otherwise distract you from what is important to you.

Observe—or create—family (or friend) traditions.

As much as I like change, there’s something comforting in the familiar. I think, for many of us, keeping family traditions alive is important. It’s a way to honor the generations before us and to connect with the holidays. Sometimes they’re more about family or friends than something spiritual, but they can still be a way of creating and remembering important memories.

Open presents in your jammies. Have pumpkin pie for breakfast, or always make the same cinnamon rolls. Let the youngest kids pass out the gifts from under the tree. Hold hands before dinner and say grace, or pass around an antique cup (because our cups runneth over) and let people say what they’re thankful for. Invite a neighbor whose family lives out of town to join you in the afternoon, when you’re all drowsy and you’re gathered around a jigsaw puzzle or watching movies. Ask everyone to tell which ornament on the tree is their favorite and why. Buy a new ornament for each family member every year so that your kids have a small collection when they leave home and have their own trees. There are countless small things—most of which don’t cost money—that will give meaning, long term, to your get-togethers. And having some kind of loose structure to your celebration can create a framework that may bring comfort. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s celebration. It doesn’t have to be traditional. You don’t have to eat turkey and dressing (unless you’re at my house, where I insist on it).

If you’re grieving a loss or have some other big change in your life, maybe you should change something. When my mom had cancer, we knew that her remission was only temporary, so we decided we should move the location of our Christmas celebration. It had always been at my parents’ house, and now my sister and I (who live next door to each other) share the hosting. It didn’t fool any of us, but it did allow us to have Mom here with us for two Christmases before we lost her, so our kids have memories of her celebrating here with us.

Establish spiritual traditions.

My husband and I are elders at our church. On Christmas Eve, our church has a candlelight communion time. No service, just soft lights and soft music and a communion table in front of the altar. Getting to serve communion—passing the bread to the couple or family or group of friends next in line, and then reading the passage from the Bible, looking each of them in the eyes and watching the way each family or group huddles together in reverence—is the spiritual highlight of Christmas for me. It’s so humbling to be the one serving. It changes the ritual of communion completely for me. After they take the bread, the group moves to the other side of the table, where my husband serves the wine and reads his passage, before they go stand, kneel, or sit together and pray quietly together. It’s such a holy, beautiful thing, and it’s become my very favorite part of the whole holiday season.

Have someone (maybe one of the grandparents, or maybe one of the kids) read the Christmas story from Luke before dinner, while everyone gathers in a circle to give thanks. Maybe even set an extra place setting to remind everyone that Jesus is the One we were (and are, and always will be) expecting—and even if we can’t see Him, He’s still there with us. Participate in a community program to provide toys or coats or other needs to local families who could use the assistance. When you do, have your kids help you wrap the presents, and say prayers for each person as you do. You might want to set up a small tree, and have a basket of colorful papers and ornament hooks nearby. Ask your family to write down things for which they are thankful and hang them on the tree as a reminder of all the great gifts God gives us every day.

One year, shortly after losing Mom, I was especially grumpy about Christmas. I just didn’t want to deal with the hassle of decorating, and I wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. Part of it was simply the fact that I was hurting. But then I remembered the tree topper my sister’s family had used the year before—a cardboard scroll with the verse John 3:16 written out, by hand, by my niece Reilly. I thought that was such a beautiful idea and a way to take an oft-quoted verse and give it new meaning. I also remembered that I’d set aside some specific ornaments the year before (and like a good consumer, got online and ordered some more). Then I set out to create a different kind of Christmas tree, one centered on Christ. As I hung the hooks on my “Jesus tree,” my prayers went something like this: Yes, Jesus, you are the I AM. You are love. You are the baby in the manger and Lord of All. And on and on, as I added ornaments symbolizing many of the names and faces of God. He is peace. Freedom. The light of the world. The Day Star. The lamb, and the lion. The shepherd, the carpenter, the gardener, the creator, the fisher of men. He is hope and joy. The Alpha and Omega. The king, the church. Faithful. He is my home, the vine, the gate, the door, the Word, and my daily bread. With each ornament I placed, I found the feeling of reverence I’d been missing. Because our God is so much more than a baby in a manger. The tree reminds me to really think about who He is—about all of the things that He is. To remember that He is so much. He is everything, and He truly is the center of Christmas. Changing the focus of the decorations in my home changed the focus of my thoughts.

Allow yourself to slow down. To stop.

I put this section last, but it’s the most important advice I can offer. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself. Don’t set unrealistic expectations—better yet, let go of all expectations. Give yourself permission to stop all of the busyness and ENJOY. Close your eyes and give thanks. Read an extra bedtime story to your little one. Stay up an extra five minutes on the couch, resting your head on your spouse’s shoulder after you’ve put the kids to bed. Let dinner be 15 minutes later and just sit in the chaos of torn wrapping paper and memorize the way your family members look today. I give you permission (in case you have trouble giving it to yourself) to slow down. Give yourself grace. Forgiveness. Kindness.

Remember, Christmas is about God drawing near. We miss the point of Christmas when we forget to notice that He’s here. Right now.

Still.

And forevermore.
Amen.
**

What do you do to bring meaning back into your Christmas celebrations?

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