Note: I debated with myself waiting for December to republish this, but decided instead to preserve the original publication order instead. So it’s a tad out-of-season, appearing here in August. Well, stores have “Christmas in July,” so why not? If nothing else, it’s something to thing about before the holidays come this year.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve had mixed feelings about the Christmas holiday season. When I was very small, it was a wondrous time. My brothers and I would be excited beyond all reason about what presents we were going to get, but it wasn’t just that … the entire atmosphere of the season captivated me. I loved the music, the colored lights and decorations; I could spend hours staring at the Christmas tree, pretending I was a three-inch tall elf living in the branches. Even at school, there were special programs and a pervading sense of anticipation. There were also all the TV specials … in all, it was a great time for me. But something changed as I got older. Most likely, I only became more perceptive, but I began to realize that in my family, form was more important than function. Certain things had to be done a certain way for Christmas to be done “properly,” and there was an air of anxious urgency to every tradition. Christmas day itself was the worst; dinner was a big, fancy affair … the good china came out, the silver had to be polished, and every detail had to be perfect. But actually enjoying the holiday was not necessary, and the amount of yelling and screaming that seemed to be required to put all the details in order was somehow expected to be set aside at the last moment so we could be a “happy family” enjoying the day. We were living out a fantasy of how things ought to be, and woe to anyone who disrupted it.
Christmas Day eventually got to be so miserable for me, that as soon as I was old enough, I found ways to not spend it at home. I begged friends to invite me over for the day. I usually let my parents believe I was pursuing some young lady, which seemed to be enough to let me off the hook for staying at home, but the truth was I was only escaping. I usually told the young ladies involved exactly what was going on; they were conspirators with me to get me out of the house, but there were no romances, just friends helping me out. And that went on until I was a young adult and finally able to get my own place and make my own holiday traditions.
I thought I had escaped at that point. But Christmas had lost it’s wonder for me. It didn’t help that although my parents never completely left Christ out of the holiday, their celebrations were mostly secular in nature. And I discovered that I had not only taken that attitude with me when forming my own holiday patterns, but I had taken the anxious urgency of getting it all “just so,” as well. Setting aside the secular outlook took years, but the anxiety I still struggle with. It’s been muted and tempered over the decades, but my tendency remains to rush about so much preparing, that I have difficulty enjoying the celebration itself of Christ’s birth.
And I am not alone in this. For many Christians, the holiday season is the busiest time of the year. There are special functions and church services, there are community events and entertainment specials. There is the home decorating, and the workplace decorating, and for some, the church decorating. There is gift shopping, the family affairs, the visiting of relatives you never otherwise see, and them visiting you. For families with children, there’s juggling timetables and “Mom’s Taxi Service” for all the various school events and extracurricular activities. There are expectations to be met, and the holidays must be as perfect as people can make them. But how much of all that activity actually promotes worship and praise for the One whose birth the season is supposed to be celebrating?
An important point I feel it necessary to emphasize is that everyone’s threshold of busy-ness (the point at which the act of doing things overshadows the point of doing them) is different. Mine is fairly low. But people who are blessed with a lot of energy can do a lot of different things without them becoming overwhelming. Yet, I have observed that many don’t stop there. They keep right on going until, like my parents’ celebrations, the things that “must be done” are given so much emphasis that they wind up taking priority over everything else.
Luke 2:1-20 says, 1And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. 4Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. 6So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. 7And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 8Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: 14“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” 15So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 17Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. 18And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.
I believe that the focus of the holiday season should be exactly what the shepherds did in verse 20: to glorify God and praise Him for what He did in sending His son to earth to die for our sins. All the activities and events, all the traditions and celebrations should point to that one event. The death and resurrection of Christ are the most important events in human history, but they were set in motion the day He was born. All of Christ’s life on earth led inexorably to the cross, but his incarnation was the start of it, and if our observations of the holiday don’t reflect that, we are simply indulging ourselves, not glorifying Him. If we are so busy in our pursuit of some emotional ideal, we are also not glorifying Him; we are glorifying some abstract concept we have created in our own hearts.
So I encourage you all this season: by all means observe the traditions and partake in the events that help you celebrate the “tidings of great joy,” that the birth of Christ represents. But don’t let the celebrations themselves become more important to you than the One you celebrate. When you have hit your threshold of busy-ness, stop. Don’t let the joy of the Christmas season be swamped with activity or weighed down with anxiety. Glorify our Lord, because He began a great work the day He took on human flesh, to be born in a manger. And may everything you do to observe that day be an offering of praise to the One who gave so much that we may be His own.