by Gretchen Passantino
Copyright 1986 by Gretchen Passantino.
An earlier version of this appeared in Discipleship Journal, Issue 36. Colorado Springs, CO: The Navigators, 1986, pp. 44-46.
Musty pine smell, glittering balls, and smooth, softly faded creche figures: Christmas packed in an old yellow trunk at the back of the children’s closet. Outside the sun is bright, the children’s voices are raised in a boisterous game of tag through the lawn sprinklers. But just smelling the pine and gently fingering the familiar plaster figure of the Christ Child awakens a sense of awe and anticipation for another season of special praise in honor of the birth of my Lord.
Over the years we have learned and adapted many Christmas traditions that help us to focus on the birth of our Lord and Savior, sometimes even giving a Christian emphasis to the “commercialized” aspects of Christmas. We have found many ways to make Christmas a special celebration of Christ’s birthday.
When our oldest daughter was not quite three, we told her about a special Christian who lived a long time ago. “His name was Nicholas, and we call him St. Nicholas, because saint means someone who belongs to God, just like we do. In St. Nicholas’ town there were many poor children. They didn’t have enough food, clothes, or toys. St. Nicholas used his money to buy food, clothes, and toys for the poor children. He didn’t want them to be embarrassed by his gifts, so he gave secretly.
“St. Nicholas also told everyone about Jesus and how much God loved them. Many people became Christians because of what St. Nicholas said. Then some mean people who hated Jesus put St. Nicholas in jail to keep him from telling people about Jesus and from helping people. St. Nicholas kept on telling people about Jesus until the mean people had him killed.
“Because of how much St. Nicholas loved Jesus, and because of the many gifts he gave the poor children of his town, we still remember St. Nicholas at Christmas time. All of the gifts he gave, and all of the Christmas presents we give, are to remind us of the very best gift anyone ever gave: when God the Father gave His only Son, Jesus Christ, to us for our salvation.
“Today there are many people who don’t know the truth about St. Nicholas. They call him ‘Santa Claus,’ and they tell children pretend stories about him living at the North Pole and having elves and reindeer. But we know the truth, and when we see a department store Santa Claus or a picture of Santa Claus in a magazine, we remember the real Santa Claus, who loved Jesus so much and whose life and death remind us about God’s gift of Jesus Christ to us.”
By learning this true story, our children are able to enjoy Santa Claus while being reminded of the gospel and the true meaning of Christmas. We even have a small figure of Santa Claus kneeling at the manger, praying to baby Jesus, reinforcing the truth that everyone, even St. Nicholas, must kneel before the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Christmas is an ancient Christian word that comes from Latin and signifies “to send Christ” or “Christ is sent”–an entirely appropriate label!
We don’t know the exact date of Christ’s birth. The early Christian church chose December 25 as the common date upon which all Christians throughout the world would commemorate the birth of Christ. Part of the reason this date was chosen was that it was already a popular pagan holiday. Centuries ago Christian converts were under intense pressure to maintain their pagan religious ties because of cultural and social traditions. The Church understood this pressure and sought to supersede pagan traditions with ones that gave glory to the true Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
We tell our children, “Before Jesus was born, many people who did not know about the true God worshiped false gods, idols. They had holidays for their idols. After Jesus came, the Church wanted all Christians to have a special day to remember and celebrate Jesus’ birthday. They chose the same day as one of the pagan festivals as a way to show that Jesus Christ is the only true God and that His birthday is more important than anything having to do with an idol. Choosing that day for Christmas is sort of like a picture of how God deals with people. When people don’t believe in God, they are like the pagans and nothing they do pleases God. When they become Christians and love Jesus, the Holy Spirit transforms them into people who please God.”
We anticipate Christmas long before December 25. Our church has special “advent” (Christ’s coming) services each Wednesday for four weeks before Christmas. The special services ready our hearts for Christmas and turn our eyes away from crass commercialization and hectic holiday schedules and toward the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Sometimes we get so busy we are tempted to skip a week; but, as our pastor reminds us, if we spent as much time preparing our hearts for Christmas as we did our homes, we would be in great shape spiritually!
Our family also has an advent calendar, made by someone in our church. The felt Christmas tree has enough spots for 24 little felt ornaments–one for each day of December. Each ornament represents a Christian symbol (an angel, a purple cross, etc.). Each day we put the next ornament on the tree, and read the short devotional which explains the symbol and gives a short portion of the nativity scripture. Even our youngest child can help put the ornament on, and it helps him to see Christmas coming closer and closer–within a spiritual context.
Through the weeks approaching Christmas, I get out special Christmas objects that remind us of Christ’s coming. Our advent wreath marks the four Sundays before Christmas with the ring of evergreen signifying God’s everlasting love, the sprigs of holly with green leaves signifying eternal life and red berries signifying Christ’s blood, shed for us. The candles remind us that Christ is the light of the world.
The first week we light the gold candle, reminding us of the prophets who announced Christ’s coming. The second week we light the gold and white candles, the white signifying the angels who announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds. The third week we light the gold, white, and green candles, the green signifying the shepherds, who told about the angels’ message. On the Sunday before Christmas, we light four candles, the purple one reminding us of the royal wise men who came to worship Jesus.
Each week we read appropriate parts of the nativity story during our candle lighting, and each week the light from the wreath gets brighter. On Christmas Eve we light a large red candle in the center of the wreath. This signifies the coming of Jesus Christ, who was born a baby, but who later shed His blood so that we can have eternal life.
Our creche or nativity scene is also very important to us. We bought large plaster figures at a craft shop and painted them together as a family. The younger children painted the easier pieces, and Dad and Mom painted the difficult details. Even with the splotches and nicks each piece has earned over the years, the children’s faces still light up with warm recognition as each piece is unwrapped and set on the hearth. We leave the figure of baby Jesus wrapped up carefully until Christmas Eve. Our youngest child has the special honor of unwrapping it and placing it carefully in the manger.
Some of the ornaments on our Christmas tree copy ancient Christian symbols and reflect important Christian teaching. Crosses remind us that Christ died for us. Triangles represent the trinity. Circles symbolize that Jesus, even though he was born as a baby, is eternal. Shepherds’ crooks (including candy canes) remind us that Jesus is our great Shepherd.
Many of our ornaments have been given to us over the years by friends and family members. As we unpack them each year and hang them on our tree, we talk about the people who gave them to us. The ornaments remind us to pray for those we may not see regularly anymore.
At our house we begin anticipating Christmas in October, when we buy inexpensive pumpkins, bake them, and use the pulp for pumpkin bread, which we freeze for Christmas presents. We have a good family time mixing, measuring, cooking, and talking about the special friends who will receive our gifts. We have a foolproof recipe that survives cooks who can’t read, attacks of the giggles, and Mom’s forgetfulness. We start looking forward to Jesus’ birthday, when God sent His only Son to us as the best present of all. Our pumpkin bread represents our love for our friends, but most important, it should represent God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ.
Our family keeps gift-giving to a minimum of special, meaningful gifts. Each gift, eagerly anticipated by our children, is another reminder of the One Gift.
Each member of our family prepares a special gift for Jesus each year. Weeks of discussion, prayer and thought go into selecting a promise for the next year that will please Jesus. It may take a positive form (“My gift to Jesus is to promise to spend more time playing with my little brother”), or a negative form (“My gift to Jesus is to promise not to call my sister names anymore”). The promise is printed on a scroll and decorated for Jesus. On Christmas morning we have a birthday cake for Jesus, sing “Happy Birthday” to Him, and share our Jesus gifts, praying together as a family that we will be able to fulfill our promises. In addition to helping us commit our ways to the Lord each year, we can still learn from previous years. As we look through the scrolls from other years, we are alternately encouraged when we see that we’ve really kept some of our promises; and we are challenged to work harder to keep those we’ve neglected.
The repetition, the anticipation, the repeated telling of the gospel in different ways through presents, traditions, and family times, combine as a powerful reinforcement of Christian truth. Although Christmas has been secularized and commercialized by many people, Christians can use Christmas as a vehicle for the gospel. Let us approach this Christmas echoing the glory expressed by the angel: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10, 11).
For Further Reading
For adults: Clement A. Miles. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Dover Publications, 1976, from the original 1912 edition.
For children: Annetta E. Dellinger. The Jesus Tree. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1991 (also the companion activity book by Anna Logan and Ed Koehler, also Concordia, 1991). Harold Myra. Santa, Are You for Real? Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1977.