Sarah, our staunchest defender of tradition, stared at us in slack-jawed amazement that we would even suggest such a thing. Joel marshaled all of his logical arguments in one long stream of reasoning against our idea. Even Nathan, who regularly takes a contrarian stance with his siblings, was uncertain about this new idea. Of our children, we could count only Joy (age 2) on our side. You'd have thought we were proposing the immediate and permanent abolition of Christmas. All we had done was suggest that we try a Christmas without a Christmas tree.
If you're thinking this is going to be a doctrinal swipe at the pagan origins of yule logs and trees and the sort, you can keep reading. It's not. In fact, we believe that God has given us great latitude for how to celebrate his Son's birth, whether we keep the familiar traditions or make new ones. In our family, though, it was spiritual and educational concerns that raised up the issue of cutting out the tree, not theological ones.
The spiritual is the most self-evident. We have sensed that the Christ-child is becoming lost amidst the glitter and tinsel, the wrapping paper and ribbons, the food, the toys and the noise. With each new Christmas, we have found ourselves at times gritting our teeth and steeling our nerves against the certain onslaught of materialism, and yet trying not to steal from our children the joy of giving and receiving, and even the fun of overindulging.
More than anything else at Christmas, though, we have always sought to ensure that our children sense the wonder and mystery of the birth of Christ. We want them to ponder the plan of God, trace the path of his prophecies, and try to understand the incomprehensible incarnation. We want to be sure that the words and meanings of the hymns and carols we love to sing with them will go into their hearts just as deeply as the melodies and harmonies. We want to say as a family at Christmas, as the wise men did, "We have come to worship Him." Considering a decade of Christmases past, we know we need to be intentional about the season to make sure all of that continues to happen.
In addition to the spiritual concerns, though, we also are concerned that an educational component to Christmas can be lost in the flood of activities and traditions that tend to crowd everything else off of our calendar pages and out of our minds. Unlike other important holidays and seasons during the year that we use as educational opportunities, the Christmas season tends to set its own agenda. We have to consciously avoid being caught up in the rush of traditional Christmas stuff, and instead create our own family agenda.
Part of our educational agenda has been to "decompress" and expand the history of the Nativity story that has been so compressed and distorted over two centuries by artists, songwriters and storytellers. Like any study of history, we want to give our children a clear and accurate understanding of the historical and biblical events leading up to, surrounding, and following the birth of Christ. If we settle for the edited, distilled, "textbook" version of Christ's birth, then that's exactly what our Christmas will be like. We want to give our children the real thing at Christmas.
Whether the Christmas tree is absent this year, or, if younger voices prevail, perhaps just relegated to a smaller stature and less prominent location, we will select the traditions that help us carry out our spiritual and educational agenda for Christmas. Some traditions will be tried and true, some updated, and some made up by and for our family. We'll share a few them with you to stimulate your own thoughts about what to do this season with your family. Just be sure to keep Christ at the center and everything else will find its place around Him.
- Advent Celebration This has been a memorable tradition for our family most of our marriage. The heart of our advent celebration is a Sunday afternoon tea and advent time for the four Sundays preceding Christmas. We use one of several resources, talk about the Scriptures, the historical settings, and the real meanings of the story. We also pray and sing. We also try to follow a corresponding daily devotion during the week. We keep our advent wreath on the dining room table throughout the season.
- Shepherd's Meal On Christmas Eve, we celebrate what we have come to call our Shepherd's Meal. We use it as a time to talk about the people of the Christmas story in Luke - the shepherds, Joseph, Mary and the people of Bethlehem. We serve a simple meal of homemade potato soup, crusty herb bread baked in a round shepherd's loaf, cheese, fruit, yogurt and other simple foods. We usually have sparkling grape or apple juice, and a light dessert. We read the nativity story from Luke, and often act it out in costume. We sing some Christmas hymns and spend a brief time in praise and thanksgiving for the "good news" and "great joy" announced by the angels.
- Creche (Manger Scene) We will display a Christmas creche this year where the tree was before (ours is a ceramic creche made and painted by Sally's grandmother). On Christmas Eve, we'll take the Christ-child out of the manger before our Shepherds' Meal, wrap it in cloth, and hide it in the house. After dinner, we'll have the children search for him, like the shepherds did. When he is found and replaced in the manger, we'll each bring three gifts for Christ, like the Magi did - a gift of sacrifice (money for a special contribution), a gift of service (individual or family service to others), and a gift of self (a personal growth commitment).
So, as you can see, trimming the part the tree plays in our Christmas doesn't mean trimming our Christmas. We hope that these few ideas help inspire you to create your own beautiful traditions that will outshine the tinsel.