My family goes all out for Christmas. They always have. We have the full roast dinner in the middle of a stinking hot Australian summer. It might not make sense, but it’s tradition. When I lived at home I loved, decorating every inch of the house was another one. Taking in the smell of a real tree while singing along to the carols as I found ever more impractical places to string tinsel and baubles. The decorations filled every space in the house over the years. Many of them were handmade, and however bad they were, they could never be thrown away. And each year, more just added to our pile.
I also work in retail and December is the most hectic month of the year. All our customers seem a bit frazzled; they usually have too much to do and too many places to be. The other day, a woman came into the store and complained that December was nearly gone. My coworker excitedly said, “It’s almost Christmas” and the woman responded with scorn.
“You obviously haven’t got much to do” was her reply. “I don’t know when I’ll find time to do the tree. It takes me two days to do the tree. It’s a very big tree.”
Two days! And I thought, what is all that effort really for? I know I have often lost a whole afternoon decorating the house with my Mom but that is because we love it. We enjoy spending the time together, laughing, singing, and reminiscing. Well, that and the fact that tinsel (or any string of decorations) is the worst thing to untangle. So why do we put in all this effort? Why do we spend more than we have, commit to more than we have time for and obsess over covering every inch of our homes with decorations we probably don’t need more of?
What’s it all for?
When I’m running around frantically and spending afternoons going through old decorations, I have to remind myself to read my Bible and to wonder anew at our God who came to live amongst us. I have to intentionally remind myself that this is what Emmanuel means – God with us – and it’s why there’s anything to celebrate in the first place.
It’s easy to feel guilty about forcing myself to reflect and pray when shopping and wrapping and draping the tree in tinsel all come so easily. Reminding yourself of the baby in the manger shouldn’t make you feel guilty though, it should move you towards unending gratitude for the one who gave it all. Getting caught up in the Christmas festivities is too easy even when we know Jesus is the reason for the season but reminding ourself of the main thing, the reason for the twinkling lights and gifts under the tree, is not just a nagging responsibility – it’s essential.
The spiritual problem with Christmas excess.
It’s okay to celebrate and get caught up in the commercialized spirit of it all. Frankly, it can be quite fun. The traditions, the cookies, the movies, the music – it’s a whole experience and it’s not easy to opt out of when many in the world participate in one way or another. But if we let the buck stop there, we end up empty. All of these things, although entertaining, don’t fill our hearts with the truth of a God who suffered the indignities of humanity so that he could have a restored relationship with us.
They don’t point to the greatest gift we have in Christ. If anything, they’re glittering distractions. And if we miss the taking this season to celebrate the Son of God, then we miss the whole point.
Getting back to the main thing.
A good way to celebrate without going completely overboard is by taking it all in. Take in each moment in the presence of family you only see once a year, take in each decoration and the memories they symbolize. Stop and take stock of the blessings you’ve been given this year.
The traditions and celebrations we take part in during Christmas connect us to each other, and to the God who gave us the ability to laugh and to sing and find joy in His creation. Even the act of buying presents for friends and family gives us an opportunity to honor the people we’ve been shaped and blessed by – to think of their likes and dislikes, and the ways in which we are similar and different.
Loneliness and complicated family relationships are common among many of our gatherings and Christmas forces us to reconcile issues we’ve ignored all year. This season urges us to come together – to make time to see friends who live far away. And with the year coming to a close, it’s a reminder of how quickly our time runs short. When people are important to us and we show that through our actions, Jesus, who died to make us in perfect relationship with himself and one another, is honored.
Look up from the gifts and the lights.
Whether motivated by Christian values or from a secular sense of holiday spirit, Christmas is looked at by many as a time for togetherness. It’s a time for being together with family and a time to remember we have a promise to live together in heaven with Christ, seated at his right hand as children of God.
The countdown of advent services and the countdown of the advent calendar filled with chocolates share more than a name because we should have the childlike wonder of children as we think about the true meaning of this season. This excitement doesn’t have to cease as we mature, but can go hand in hand with the fuller, deeper understanding of the joy we find in our Emmanuel.