Christmas at my house is always a complicated time.
There are both sets of families, lots of children, events, productions, church services, parties, break-ups; just about everything that you think could be in there! Plus, of course, that family birthday that is always awkwardly close to Christmas. In our recent production of ‘A Smithkins Family Christmas’ we saw how even the Smithkins family’s carefully-tuned plans for Christmas ended up a complicated affair thanks to unexpected visitors and natural disasters!
It’s pretty easy to get lost in the busyness of the Christmas season. I know some of you are even thinking, “Oh, he should have said ‘holiday’ season, Christmas isn’t that inclusive anymore.” That just adds more complexity to the whole thing. And, at risk of being Grinch-like, it can sometimes be enough to want just to shut the whole thing down. The Sherriff of Nottingham in the classic Robin Hood movie may have been on to something when he threatened to cancel Christmas. But none of us really want that, do we? If you’re a parent, you may be actually considering that idea. But deep down, there’s a desire to re-connect with either the golden age of Christmas-past, where we were young, not knowing the family politics that raged over the meal and the hosting duties. That, or the desire to have the Christmas we never had, maybe the one we think we’re owed and what we believe it always should have been.
The more profound question that pops into my mind when I think through all of this is: what does the perfect Christmas really look like?
If we go back to the first Christmas, it wasn’t the best-laid plans coming off without a hitch. The stable wasn’t the perfect labour suite with the right lights and the perfect music. The gifts weren’t overly helpful for a new-born: no nappies, barrier cream, onesies or picture books. The greeting by smelly shepherds and exotic Magi weren’t the family and friends that people want in the pictures of the magic moment. What it looked like was God’s best plans for humanity coming upon unsuspecting but willing participants, ushering in the single most important moment in time: the life of the Messiah. I’m almost certain that Mary didn’t plan it to look like that. Joseph quite clearly didn’t plan for his bride to be pregnant by God with the saviour of the world. For him, Mary’s pregnancy was something that in hindsight, was a seismic blessing, but at the moment was utterly awkward.
I think we are in danger of missing a crucial aspect of Christmas when we put our plans before the purpose of Christmas: remember that God loved everyone enough to give up His perfect place and position, and to enter into human history, the way everyone else did so that by becoming the same as us, He was able to redeem us. That is the most important thing – that we stop for a moment and reflect upon the astounding mystery of God and why He would do something so seemingly mundane, so fragile, so earthy and human, to restore us to something so high and significant and glorious: intimacy with the divine.
I don’t have a problem with the parties and the presents. It’s important to celebrate significant moments. The important part is that we actually take a moment to remember it. Think of a wedding, or a 21st birthday, or any other significant family celebration. There’s always a bit that most people hate: the speeches. Having done a lot of weddings, I celebrate a lot of receptions. I used to roll my eyes when the parents got up, when the awkward best man circles around stories that we all wanted to hear but are totally inappropriate for such a special day. But I’ve come to love those moments, because it lets me glimpse behind the scenes, behind that relationship I have with the couple, and see them in the context of what is most important. I hear parents express what they desired for their child, what hopes and dreams they had and still have for their loved one, awkwardly emotional and deeply-held desires coming out. The people being celebrated share something, usually a long list of thank-yous. And I think these moments are what we can recapture at Christmas, that will bring us back to a place of making the celebrations point to the right person.
N.T. Wright points out that if we take Christmas out of the Bible, we only lose a few chapters from the start of some of the gospels, but if we remove Easter, we lose the entire point of the New Testament, and indeed, redemptive history. But Easter doesn’t happen without a Christmas, and Christmas holds with it the hope of the Resurrection. Christmas shows us the goodness of God. It displays His character and His promises. Christmas gives us the reality of His incarnation, His immanence, His faithfulness to commit to us for the long journey of life. Christmas provides us with the opportunity to celebrate this about Jesus. What if Christmas for each of us becomes the place where we make the family toast about the goodness and faithfulness of God?
Why this becomes an essential element of Christmas for us is that what we celebrate, we replicate in those we are in relationship with. When we make Christmas about the consumer experience only, we replicate that in the children, the family, and the broader community around us. We replicate or we reinforce it, depending on how embedded that culture already is, and how influential we are in those relationships. As we approach this Christmas, and the freshness of a New Year, what are we celebrating, and so replicating in our families, relationships and communities?
I get the feeling that if we take the moments to discuss the nature of the gifts we receive, it opens the door to talking about the gift of Jesus. When I am giving my kids a gift, I like to choose something that they will love, appreciate or be blessed by. A simple moment to ask why they love something, or why they are thankful for that gift, allows us to open the conversation to how this whole season stems from one gift. Simple moments of prayer, gratitude, and Bible reading can make a huge difference. Why not take a moment at the next Christmas celebration to read a short section of the Christmas narratives? Read Luke 2, or the second half of Matthew 1. Why not take a moment, step through the awkwardness, and just express why you’re thankful to Jesus in this Christmas season?
I started out to write this article to come up with some ideas about how families could discuss Christmas together. I think, knowing my family, they can smell a set-up a mile off, and they know when Dad wants to talk about serious things. I don’t think that’s always a bad thing, but you know your loved ones better than I do, and you know what you are personally thankful for better than I do. Instead of having a list of pre-planned conversation starters, why not replicate a little of the first Christmas: no plan, simply humble people with a willing attitude to be thankful for the arrival of God into our existence, an arrival that set in motion a series of events that led to a Saviour for all humanity. Like the Smithkins family in the Christmas show, why not let it be awkward, let it be honest, let it be a little messy?
Let God lead you over the Christmas season and start to let the joy of the Saviour infuse your celebrations, as you let some of your plans go. Let the little kids ask the obvious questions. Pose a pointed question to that awkward uncle, or press your friend to really share something personal. But let it start with you, being vulnerable and open to being real about why you are thankful for the birth of our Saviour. Maybe our willingness to let our carefully laid plans go will help us find God’s plan for Christmas.