Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Advent Day 17: Why A Tree?

Christmas traditions are a sticky subject. Probably because there is so much emotion & memory tied up in the day's observance, more so than really any other holiday, people are quite passionate about how they either do or don't celebrate it. I personally LOVE my Christmas memories, especially the ones from childhood. Allow me to indulge in a little bit of memory-lane-walking... :)

We loved the whole Christmas season. My mom always had a fabric Advent calendar, with a little figure to be added to the Nativity scene each night. We had an unshakable rotation about who got to put Baby Jesus in each year. When I was in high school (I think), my aunt gave us our first Advent book. Having never been raised in a tradition that observed Advent, my parents did some researching, and found out about the practice of lighting candles in a wreath each night, usually reading scripture & singing. From then on, we added an Advent devotion to each Christmas season. I know my sisters & I occasionally bucked out loud about getting together to read each night, and there were DEFINITELY fights about whose turn it was to light or snuff the candles out each night (so much so that my Dad did a schedule with who did each reading, lighting & snuffing!), but we all really were glad for the consistency & tradition.

I think all of our favorite tradition was the "Angels & Mortals," though. We'd draw names within our family, and become that person's "Angel" for the season. We'd sneak into their room to leave little surprises, do their chores secretly, and buy them the nicest gift that year. We'd reveal our "Mortals" on Christmas Eve, and get to open their gift then. Nicole & I were talking & it's a tradition we both would like to continue in our new families, once the households have more than 2 people in them. :) We'd also go on treasure hunts for baby Jesus on Christmas morning (my Mom collects nativity sets from around the world). We always went Christmas caroling with our church and participated with GREAT gusto in the "Messiah Sing-Along." (I had a leg up on everyone else in my choir when I went to college!) There were also certain CDs which were pulled out yearly; one from my grandparents' home church; several versions of Handels' Messiah; another from the Winchester Boys' Choir (purchased when we spent Christmas in London one year). I remember barricading myself in my parents' room to help my Dad wrap presents, or in one of the sisters' rooms to put finishing touches on crafts... there was that time we ruined one of Mom's good hand towels making candles (oh that's a good story)... she didn't find out until I was marrying & moving out & we found it wadded up, still waxy, in the back of my closet... We dressed up as Santa & his elves and pulled gifts out of a pillowcase at my grandparents', shouting "ho ho ho!" My sisters & I loved the slow round of present-openings, as we each tore into one gift at a time, and then watched the next person open one gift, etc. It stretched out the morning and made us all enjoy each gift that much more. I honestly think we had more fun making presents and giving them than we ever did anticipating what we'd get. We didn't get that many gifts, either, though the ones we got were ones we really wanted & enjoyed (we tended to be more "spoiled" on birthdays). The notable exception for me was the year I was 8, and finally got the American Girl doll, Molly. I wish I could have seen the look on my own face when I got to open her. She didn't leave my side for the next 3 years...

So there you have a bit of my own "Christmas culture." The thought of leaving behind Christmas as a holiday celebration would make me so sad! I love the Christmas tree, and I can't wait to lay under it with my sisters when I get home and look up through the trimmed branches, past all those tacky ornaments we made over the years, through the glimmering lights. I love all the trimmings... but I would hate even more to lose the central meaning. My sisters & I had a robust appreciation for why we were celebrating Christmas, and why there were gifts involved. God gave us a massive gift, and we were passing on the favor by blessing others, often in the hopes of reminding them of God's gift. It's interesting to me that I remember much less about post-present openings than I do about the days before, when I was trying so hard to make sure I'd made or gotten gifts for everyone on my list. I remember making the Christmas cards & illustrating our family newsletter a lot more than I do writing all my thank-you cards, although I certainly enjoyed the gifts after Christmas!

My friend & I were talking about Christmas traditions the other night. I recently discovered that one friend's family doesn't celebrate Christmas at all, not in the traditional sense. There's no tree, no gift-giving and no gift-receiving. They do read the Nativity story and have an Advent calendar; maybe they have Christmas dinner, I'm not sure. I was a bit taken aback at such a scale-back, though. This is a family whom I respect in the way they are raising their children to worship God, so I didn't immediately dismiss this notion as "wacko." But as my other friend & I talked through why we do what we do at Christmas, I realized why I shrink from pulling back entirely from "Christmas trimmings." As yet another friend put it, the question isn't so much about the traditions around Christmas as it is about how to best teach our children to worship God, year-round and especially in our "holy-days." (That same friend asked me to read these blog posts, which got me thinking on this topic again: here and here.) You know, the Bible never commands us to have any holidays in the New Covenant. We are to commemorate the Lord's death in regular observance of the Lord's Supper... but that's it. Nowhere are we told to celebrate Easter or Christmas, Epiphany or Pentecost (as in the giving of the Holy Spirit). We are repeatedly told to remember, though. And we are always told to rejoice. The Old Testament is chock-full of God's people doing both in holidays & festivals. And when they're not eating a special meal or doing a special ceremony, they're raising up altars & stones-- why? So that when they see them, they will remember. We-- like them-- are a naturally forgetful people. God does AMAZING things for us, and... we forget. There's always a danger that one generation will not tell the next of God's works. So He taught His old-covenant people how to help themselves remember-- through little daily habits of meditation, through visible & palpable reminders, through weekly worship & corporate prayer, and through all-out, joyful public celebrations.

So even if we're not commanded to observe holidays, I think it's safe to say that they can be helpful and spiritually beneficial. It's also ingrained in human culture; we're always making up holidays. As an American, I enjoy celebrating Thanksgiving & the Fourth of July, though those are definitely cultural days. (Even they had God-honoring origins, though) I love birthdays, New Year's, Mother's Day & Father's Day-- even though those are far from Bible-mandated. They all provide times to reflect, give thanks, and plan ahead while imploring God's help. Days that commemorate the lives of faithful men & women, such as St. Patrick's Day or St. Valentine's Day, or even the Jewish holiday of Purim, can be really encouraging too. Christmas & Easter are perfectly geared for helping worship, though. It's really up to every family how they treat the "holidays," but there are definitely emphases that are more God-honoring than others, or that help worship rather than hinder it. Yearly traditions don't have to be financially costly to fill the day with memories, each year building on the previous. Yearly traditions also allow for benchmarking of each year, of seeing how far God has brought us, and remembering what He has brought us through.I don't think that gifts & a tree, when done simply, hinder worship at all. Rather, by making the day special and set apart, worship can be MORE natural. That's my goal in everything I do as a mom, for sure.

One other thing my friend brought to the discussion was the issue of our children. We want to model Christian joy in front of them for sure. We have more reasons to celebrate than anyone else in the universe, and NOT because we're American!! :) We need to be joyfully being Christian all year, for one because it's natural & God-honoring, but also because we don't want our kids (or any unbeliever) to associate "Christian" with "missing out on life." Certainly, if we call our families to "put off" aspects of holidays we deem unhelpful or undesirable, we must make sure we provide ample helpings of healthy celebration to "put on" instead. The last thing I want is to teach my daughter that we don't get to have any fun because we're "Christian." So why a tree? I guess because there's no reason not to, and I really enjoy them. It helps me remember that now is a special time of year, because I'm focusing on God's incarnation. It'll be a touchstone I get to share with my daughter, as I already do with my family on both "sides." Isn't that why we pick all our traditions?

How have your families balanced cultural & spiritual aspects of Christmas?


Wakenda said...

A little defense of the Christmas tree for you as I was planning on blogging about the history of it a bit myself later this week. The Christmas tree came from German traditions and decoration of the fir is often credited to Martin Luther. It is a symbol of eternal life (ever-green), the wood of the cross (Easter & Christmas are symbiotic in importance), and the triangular shape of evergreens is to represent the trinity (3 in 1). The Germans would hang sweets and apples from the tree as a reminder of the tree of life in Eden. German immigrants brought the tradition to PA and OH with them, and it didn't catch on in the US proper until the mid to late 19th century. As for the argument against the symbol, Puritans at one point actually banned Christmas trees as distracting from the solemness of the holiday. For me the key is making sure you have a purpose for the tradition beyond just liking it for tradition's sake; and not being ashamed to share the reasons. Hope this helps. =)

Eowyn's Heir said...

Thanks, Kendi! I love your phrase "Easter & Christmas are symbiotic in importance"-- so true!

pnix said...

Hi! I found your post via Thabiti Anyabwile's post about Santa. Great words-they echo much of what we do in my family with our two daughters. I appreciate your balanced, biblical thinking! I especially love the reminder of how often the Israelites were commanded to "remember". I think our traditions can be a way to effectively teach our children, and remember ourselves, the amazing things the Lord has done for us! Merry Christmas : )

Eowyn's Heir said...

Thanks for the encouraging comment!

Rebecca Elves said...

so i had saved this in my e-mail but never responded! i love your post and appreciate your thoughts. in the end, the details of how you celebrate christmas isn't what is most important - it's most critical that your children see the truth and believe it. families can pretend that the santa tradition doesn't exist, but the absence of santa from a family's celebration will not automatically teach your children the truth. teaching your children requires a year-round commitment and christmas is only a small part of the year - even if it's important!