©Copyright 1999 by Gretchen Passantino
The pumpkin nut bread is baking, the carols are playing — it’s time once more to prepare our hearts and homes for celebrating the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Over the years, many people have asked how we celebrate Christmas and how the customs and symbols of Christmas can become a meaningful part of reminding us of the gospel. Following are just some of the ways you can celebrate a Christ-centered Christmas. The resources at the end will give you a wealth of other ideas.
Advent. This term signifies the eager anticipation of the world lost in sin for the coming of God’s provision for sin, His Son, Jesus Christ. For the four Sundays before Christmas, Christians worldwide for nearly 2000 years have focused their worship on Incarnation. Many churches add a midweek service that chronicles Old Testament messianic passages and the ministry of John the Baptist. Many families use an advent calendar. Be sure to get a biblical one, something that has a birth of Christ scene on the front, and whose tiny paper windows (numbered 1-24 for the days of December) open to reveal aspects of the birth of Christ story. We have a fabric calendar of a Christmas tree above 24 small pockets in which are 24 different decorations that symbolize the life of Christ. The accompanying Advent devotional describes each decoration (like a lamb, a cross, a crown of thorns, etc.) and its biblical significance. The star crowns the tree on Christmas Even, December 24. Even our grown children still gather for a few minutes to add the decoration of the day, read the devotion, and pray. Another Advent activity is called the Jesus Tree or Jesse Tree. Take a bare branch with many twigs. Read the human ancestry of Christ listed in Matthew and Luke. Look up some of his ancestors such as Jesse, David, etc. Design simple paper shapes to remind of his ancestors. This can help even young children understand some of the Old Testament. (There are much more complicated forms of this — see the resources). Another favorite in our house is the Advent wreath. The circle stands for Christ’s divine, eternal nature. The evergreen stands for eternal life. The four candles around the outside (one is lit each week) stand for those who looked forward to the birth of Christ (the prophets, the angels, the shepherds, and the wise men), and the red candle in the center, lit on Christmas Eve, reminds us that Christ, the light of the world, came as a child, but later shed his blood for our sins. A manger scene or creche is an important part of Advent. Whether large or small, elaborate or simple, the manger scene reminds us that Christ’s birth was an historical event in a particular place and time, not simply a subjective spiritual experience or belief. Most people and churches do not include the Christ child in the manger until Christmas Eve. That missing figure reminds us throughout the season that all of life would be meaningless without Christ.
Christmas trees, ornaments, wreaths, and garlands. The custom of bringing evergreen branches into the home during the dark days of winter predates Christianity and was a reminder that the sun would return, the snow would melt, and the vegetation cycle would begin again. Christians took these customs and gave them biblical significance. Evergreen reminds us of everlasting life, the circular wreath the eternity of God, the red holly berries the blood of Christ, the triangular shape (an ancient symbol of the Trinity) of the tree pointing toward heaven. Lights were added to symbolize that Christ is the Light of the World and that the light of the Gospel shines through us to the world. Our own tree is not a designer, color coordinated fashion statement. It is covered with hundreds of ornaments that are especially meaningful to us. The pear reminds us of Christ as the “partridge in the pear tree” (see below for resources about the Christian meaning behind what most people assume is a nonsense carol). The red apple reminds us that Christ came because we fell in Adam when he and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Our candy canes are always red and white — the shepherd’s crook reminds us of Christ our Shepherd, the white of his perfect sinlessness, and the red of his blood shed for us. The red heart reminds us of God’s love displayed through His Son’s sacrifice. The silver triangle reminds us of the trinity, the antique brass goose of God’s bountiful provisions for us in Christ, our children’s paper-plate angels of those who announced Christ’s birth and whom God has promised us will guard us in our daily lives. Some ornaments are hand made by our children, some were bought, many are from friends whom we’re reminded of and for whom we pray as we decorate the tree. Our tree is topped with a cardboard star covered in foil. The star reminds us of the star that guided the wise men to the Christ child. It was made by my father for Bob’s and my first Christmas tree, using my parent’s star as a pattern. My father had made that star for his and my mother’s first Christmas during World War II when they broke a branch from the fir tree in front of their rooming house and decorated it with the modest star and tin “icicles” from strips of tin peeled off of tinned meat cans with old fashioned “keys.”
Carols and Hymns. In our house, Christmas carols and hymns fill the house from Thanksgiving through Epiphany (January 6, the traditional date remembering the visit of the Wise Men and Jesus’ dedication in the temple). Most people know the old favorites, but next time you sing them or listen to them, pay careful attention to the words. The gospel is expressed in so many different moving, beautiful ways. The angels at Christ’s birth gave us our first hymn (Luke 2:10-14). Check the lyrics of “Good King Wenceslas” — perhaps the inspiration for the popular “Footprints in the Sand”? What a type of Christ and an admonition to us to share the blessings God has given us! Think of the profound symbolism of “The Holy and the Ivy” — the white blossom symbolizes the lily, the flower of resurrection, the red berry reminds us of Christ’s blood, the pointed leaf tips are like the crown of thorns, the bitter bark recalls the bitter gall offered to Christ on the cross. While we celebrate with joy Christ’s birth, we also are reminded of his necessary suffering and death on our behalf. And “The Twelve Days of Christmas” originated as a clandestine children’s Christian catechism during a time of persecution. Get a collection of Christmas carols and rediscover the beauty of the gospel in music. We’re all familiar with Hanel’s Messiah, a sublime musical rendition of God’s plan of redemption in human history, taken from the Old and New Testaments. However, most of us only remember the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Take time this Christmas season to listen to the entire composition, reading along the good news of the gospel.
Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas. Almost all cultures have some concept of a magical figure who brings gifts to the worthy and judgment to the unworthy. As the Christian church expanded through Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles, these pagan, mythological figures were supplanted by the Christian gospel. God alone is the Sovereign, it is from Him that all blessings ultimately flow, and it is His judgment that we should fear. He gave the greatest gift of all, the life of His Son on our behalf according to the scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1-4). But the church also took the opportunity to use the life and death of one of its early leaders as a type of Christ, as an exemplary Christian life or role model by which we are reminded of what it means to be a Christian. Nicholas, a Christian bishop in what is now Turkey, came from a wealthy family but gave up his social position and wealth to dedicate himself to preaching, teaching, and evangelizing for the Gospel. He lived in the fourth century, was a defender of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Nicea against the heretic Arius of Alexandria, and eventually was martyred for his faith. During his life he repeatedly sacrificed for the sake of others. One old story told of him is that he secretly paid the doweries of three young women whose father could not afford to dower them. Tradition tells us that late at night Nicholas went to the window of the house, from which hung the family stockings to air, and dropped the dower money through the window into the socks. Nicholas was declared a special saint long after his death, commended by the church as a fitting role model of Christian charity and dedication to the gospel. St. Nicholas, who is especially honored at the beginning of December, became associated with Christmas because his gift-giving symbolized God’s gift of salvation to us in Christ. St. Nicholas became the Santa Claus with which we are now familiar. On our coffee table each Christmas season we place a large plaster statue of Santa Claus kneeling before the Christ child in the manger, his cap off, his hands folded, worshiping His Lord and Savior. Certainly it is not historically correct, but theologically it is profound.
Christmas blessings. A our house, we fight against being overwhelmed by the materialism of Christmas by making a conscious effort to be used by the Lord to bless others. With our church we sponsor Christmas for needy families, asking them for their greatest needs and then matching the needs with those who can supply them, whether they need grocery gift certificates, a bed for their toddler, a large skillet to cook in, business clothes for job interviews, etc. We also go through the neighborhood around our church singing Christmas carols and inviting our neighbors to church. We visit those who are homebound in our congregation, and carol through the halls of our local convalescent hospital. Many of the people are forgotten during the holidays, and our visit can be the highlight of their day. Each year I am overcome with love and gratitude for the Lord as I watch patients cry with joy watching the littlest children dance as we sing, as I listen to ancient cracked voices echo “Joy to the World!,” as I hug someone in a hospital bed who whispers to me, “God bless you!”
Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning. Many churches have special services on Christmas Eve. Especially meaningful is lighting the church only with candles and celebrating the Lord’s Supper. What a wonder that the child born in an obscure village would later sacrifice his life for all sinners, and the resurrect from the dead to prove his supremacy over all! In our home we have a simple dinner of soup and homemade bread, a welcome respite from the overindulgence of most holiday meals. Christmas Eve is also the time for us to complete our Christmas gifts for Jesus. All during Advent we have been praying about what to give Jesus in honor of his birth. Now we write our “gift” on colored construction paper, decorate it with symbols of the holiday, roll it like a scroll, tie it with colored ribbon, and place it in the Christmas tree. Christmas morning we have a birthday cake for Jesus with a large white candle in the center. We sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus and then share our “gifts” with our family. A gift might be a promise to not be disrespectful to parents, a dedication to attend church more regularly, sorrow and repentance for neglecting the poor, intentions to avoid picking on a little brother or sister, etc. Each “gift” also includes thanks to Jesus for specific blessings in our lives over the last year. After we pray together as a family, then we can open our own presents, reminded now that the gift with eternal significance is God’s gift to us in Christ. An added blessing to our Christmas dinner is that we always include those who don’t have the opportunity to be with their own families for Christmas. We remember that God called us to join his family even though we were alienated from him by our sin, and we became his children because Christ died for us and by God’s grace we believe in Him.
However your family prepares your hearts and homes for celebrating Christ’s birth, look on this time as an opportunity to highlight the gospel and put Jesus first. Christmas should not be surrendered to crass commercialism or non-Christian indulgence.
For Further Reading
Anderson, Raymond and Georgene. The Jesse Tree: Stories and Symbols of Advent. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.
Barth, Edna. Holly, Reindeer, and Colored Lights: The Story of Christmas Symbols. New York: Clarion Books, 1971.
Bell, Jim and Sue Wavre, compilers. The Joy of Christmas. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.
Church, E. Forrester and Terrence J. Mulry. The Macmillan Book of Earliest Christian Hymns. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988.
Emurian, Ernest K. Stories of Christmas Carols. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1967.
Haidle, Helen. The Real 12 Days of Christmas. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1997.
Hibbard, Ann. Family Celebrations for Christmas. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993.
Horn, Edward T., The Christian Year: Days and Seasons of the Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957.
Jones, Charles W. Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Lambert, David. Celebrating Christmas As If It Really Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.
Logan, Anna and Ed Koehler. The Jesus Tree and The Jesus Tree Activity Book. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.
Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1912, 1976.
Myra, Harold. Santa: Are You for Real? Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1977.
Passantino, Gretchen. “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Santa Clause and the Gospel,” and “Is God Against Christmas.” Costa Mesa, CA: Answers In Action, also available on the Internet at www.answers.org.
Payne, Donna W. The Handel’s Messiah Family Advent Reader. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.
Royale, Duncan. History of Santa: from 2000 BC to the 20th Century. 1141 S. Acacia Ave., Fullerton, CA: M. E. Duncan Company, Inc., 1987.
Thomson, Ronald W. Who’s Who of Hymn Writers. London: Epworth Press, 1967.
Willcocks, David. Carols for Christmas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983.
Winkler, Rev. Jude. Celebrating Advent with the Jesse Tree. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1991.