Christmas

This is for posts specific to the Christmas season.

Final Thoughts

It’s Christmas Day and I’m still not sure I have totally figured it all out. At the Christmas Eve service last night, I commented that I really didn’t miss much of the Christmas traditions that I had skipped. I had bought a few gifts for Bekah and Caleb, but not much more than that. I certainly didn’t miss that. I had avoided Christmas music for the most part. I really didn’t miss that (though I do have to admit that I kind of missed performing Christmas music, but that’s a whole other story). I think what I missed most was having Bekah and Caleb around.

Robyn and I spent almost the whole day at home. (We ended up going to my in-laws for a little bit in the evening to drop off a couple of things.) It was a spectacular day. Izzie had some gifts to open, which we did after coffee and hot biscuits in the morning. For lunch, we ate fresh fruit and hot cocoa while we played Rummy. Honestly, we didn’t do much at all, but we did it together. It only could have been better if Bekah and Caleb were home with us.

But I think the greatest moment that I had and the one that celebrated Christmas most for me was after the Christmas Eve service. Before the service began, I was in the kitchen at the church preparing for the service. I planned on serving hot cocoa and cookies during the service as a treat and I was boiling water. As I sat there by myself, a knock came on the back door. I opened it to find one of the neighborhood boys standing there holding a pellet gun. He asked if it would be okay for him and his friends to use the church property to run around a little and have a game of “tag”. (He assured me that the pellets they were using to “tag” each other didn’t hurt and that there would be no damage to the church or the property. His yard was just too small to have any sort of fun.) I told him that we had a bunch of people coming for service at 7:00 and that it would be okay as long as they didn’t get in the way or scare anyone. With that, off he ran.

The service went off okay and I didn’t hear anything more from them until later. Once the service was over, there were just a few of us left in the sanctuary. I was talking with this last group as we all walked toward the doors to leave, when I saw the four boys from earlier come running up on the church steps wielding their weapons and yelling at one another. In a flash, they were gone again enjoying their time together. I said goodbye to my last group and turned to say something to my wife when the four boys came up on the porch again.

At this, I opened the front door of the church and yelled “Hey”! All four boys stopped and looked at me. Then the one that I had spoken to earlier dejectedly said, “Okay, we’ll get going”. At this, I stopped them all again and announced that we had leftover cookies and hot cocoa that needed to be used up and that they should come in and get some before I threw it away.

They stayed for an hour.

I think what I learned this year is that what is sorely missing for me is a true sense of community. Traditionally, Christmas has been about friends, family, and community. If you were to look at all of the hoopla surrounding Christmas today for evidence of its meaning, you’d think it was about gifts, copious amounts of decorations, food, and political correctness.

Even well-meaning Christians have gotten in the way. The meaning of Christmas has gotten lost, at times, in the story of Christmas. Some mix up the beginning of the story with the end of the story and spend far too much time looking at the miracle of Christ’s birth rather than understanding the magnitude of the fact that Christ was born at all. In other words, for some it is as important that Christ be born “without sin” (whatever that means) as it is that he was born at all. In other words, even Christ’s birth had everything to do with setting up his death.

Why can’t it be a simple story with a simple message? Christ was born! End of part one. What does the rest of the story tell us? We have tried so hard to attach such meaning to every part of Christ’s life. Maybe that is because we are all trying so hard to find meaning in our own.

I don’t know if this grand experiment that I’ve called my Swiss Christmas is going to have any long term repercussions. (My brother wished me a Merry Swiss-mas on Sunday.) It’s too early to tell. I don’t know what I’ll bring in to next year’s celebration, if anything. But I do know that something has changed inside of me. The search for meaning in the things that I do and that I ask others to do has only begun. And it will never end.

I’m only starting to realize the full extent of the radical message that Christ delivered that the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is here and it is now. And as I start to live that message out in my life even more, I hope I have more opportunities to encounter people in new and different ways whether that be in having hot cocoa and cookies during worship, or inviting kids in to enjoy them afterwards.

Secret Santas and Yankee Swaps

It’s Sunday morning and we are having a heck of a storm here in Maine. Most of the churches in the area have cancelled services, but I still walked over to the Church for anyone that may still show up. (It’s all of 100 feet away.) This morning, seven other people joined me in spite of the weather and we had a great discussion about our Christmas activities this year. It seems that there are at least a few of us that are going to be “observing”Christmas while not overtly “celebrating” it.

One of the things that characterizes this subtlety is the amount of stuff that is being bought. It is also one of the biggest questions that people have for me when I tell them about my “Swiss” Christmas. How am I going to avoid buying stuff for Christmas? The answer is that I am not. It just has to have some meaning to me.

Very early on as Robyn and I discussed our Christmas plans, we decided that we would not be getting gifts for anyone. Almost as soon as the words came out of my mouth, exceptions were being made. First, we found that some people had all ready bought gifts for us and the kids. We decided that accepting gifts was okay, as long as those giving the gifts understood that we weren’t taking part. Any gifts that could be returned should be. We then decided that Bekah and Caleb should get some gifts as they are older and have always gotten gifts at Christmas. Even so, they would not be getting as much as they have in years past (even including the Funtown passes). Izzie is too young, so she won’t be getting anything from us. (Don’t worry, though. I know that she will be getting plenty from her grandparents. She won’t miss out on anything.)

We then had to decide how to take part in the annual Yankee Swap at my mother’s house. If we were going to take part, we would need to purchase three gifts of not more that $10 each – one for each member of the family at the party. If we were to skip the Yankee Swap, would it go against our intentions and actually draw too much attention to our cause? Plus, was it possible that it might hurt feelings in the process of making our point? Besides, this activity is more of a party game than an actual exchanging of gifts. So the answer was “yes”, we would be able to take part in the Yankee Swap.

After making this momentous decision, Robyn then confessed to me that she had all ready signed up to be part of the “Secret Santa” gift exchange at her work. Okay. Well, that was a commitment she had made prior to our big decision, so it was all right. She could still be part of that because it was part more about team building in the workplace.

But you know, I still think I might do it differently next year.

One of the people at church this morning told me that she was concerned about some of the drastic changes that have been made at the church. To her, it is important that the church maintain a certain amount of tradition so that people can have something to count on. Tradition gives people a sense of normalcy and builds community. My response to her was to say that, in my experience, the word “tradition” has often been code for “we’ve always done it that way”. But her words have haunted me all day.

I have felt for some time that some pretty big things have to change in the world. Traditions in my life have lost their meaning for the most part. But I realize that not everyone feels the same way that I do now. I recently read somewhere that true change in the world doesn’t happen through the political process. Politicians are notorious for putting a finger in the air and swaying whichever way the wind blows. True change only occurs if we change the wind.

I know I’ve been blowing a lot of hot air lately, but not enough to affect the weather.

As for Robyn and I this Christmas, we have never really gotten things for each other. We usually get each other tickets for a show or a night out. In other words, our gift to each other is to experience something together. Because her birthday comes in January, I usually couple the two gifts together. One year, we went to the opera. Another year, I bought tickets to go see Nine Inch Nails. This year, I hadn’t planned on getting anything. But as luck would have it, an event came looking for me. I bought tickets to see the Blue Man Group on tour in February here in Portland. (We saw them in Boston on our honeymoon.) And when I was buying those tickets, I noticed that one of our favorite bands is coming to Worcester, MA the night before. So Robyn bought me tickets to see the Foo Fighters. That’s all. No more gifts for us.

I don’t know. Am I the right guy for all of this? Trying to guide people on this path toward the Kingdom of God is hard. It’s tiring. It’s stressful. It’s frustrating. It’s difficult.

But I think it will be worth it.

So This is How it Feels

I have tried to be neutral in honor of my “Swiss” Christmas this year, but it has been very difficult. It is amazing how many people make small talk this time of year by saying something along the lines of “so, are you all ready for Christmas?” At times, I’ve said something dismissive like “just about” and other times something philosophical like “are we ever REALLY ready for Christmas?” But there have been those times that I have been very honest with people and tried to explain this great experiment that Robyn and I are doing.

At this point, I usually get one of three reactions. The most common is the blank stare while it registers. This concept is very foreign to many people and so it knocks them backwards for a moment or two. If they are able to regain themselves enough to make a comment, it is usually something like “Wow! I don’t know how you’re going to be able to pull that off”. That’s a good safe thing to say. It is non-committal. With a comment like that, they don’t have to tell you what they really feel. And, to be truthful, they probably don’t really know how they feel at that moment. This reaction usually comes from those that haven’t given anything like a “Swiss” Christmas any thought at all.

The second reaction that I am likely to get is a moment of hesitation followed by a knowing smile. Some have even said that they were either doing something similar or were going to be having a greatly reduced Christmas celebration this year themselves. These are the people that acknowledge the fact that they have done too much in years past and need to reign in the craziness on some level. Some do it because the family has gotten too big. Others do it because they have a tighter budget. The ones that interest me most are the ones that do it because they haven’t found meaning in the celebration of Christmas (at least for awhile). I’ve been quietly surprised at just how many people there are in this category. I’ve even had some people breath a sigh of relief because even a pastor was going to be skipping Christmas.

The last reaction that I get is the one of astonishment, even disapproval. I’ve heard from more of these people than I thought I would. Or maybe they were just more vocal than others. Don’t get me wrong. They are well meaning and their horrified gasps come from a place of compassion and bewilderment. The most typical response I have heard from this group is one of worry for Elisabeth. (“What is Elisabeth going to do without a Christmas?”) I have tried to respond, though often unsuccessfully, that a fourteen month old child really doesn’t know what day it is anyways. But this seems to fall on mostly deaf ears. As I said, this group is very well meaning. I imagine that there reactions comes so poignantly because their love of Christmas is so strong. I think that this group of people doesn’t feel the same sense of sadness and melancholy that I feel toward Christmas.

Again, I am not having a “Swiss” Christmas because I am losing my faith. It is because this holiday has become something other than an exercise of my faith that I need to lose the holiday. Or at least allow it to gain its own new meaning.

As I spoke to someone the other day about all of this, we got ready to part company and prepared to say our goodbyes. We weren’t going to see each other for a few weeks and she turned to me and said, “Merry Christmas or, ah, I mean, Happy Holidays!” It’s funny how my reaction to Christmas this year can cause others to stumble. I wonder if that is how Jews, Muslims, and others have felt for all of these years as I have run around hollering “Merry Christmas” while they quietly celebrated Hanukah, or Ramadan, or Kwanza.

Please, keep celebrating Christmas as you always have. Don’t worry about me, Robyn, or any of the three kids. Make Christmas what you want it to be. We are doing the same. I can feel God moving richly in my life because of this experience, and I pray that you feel the same. If you don’t, maybe you’ll want to try something different next year…

The Phone Call

I received a message on my phone the other day from a concerned parishioner. She is part of the Gab ‘n Grow study group that meets on Wednesday afternoons at the church. At the study group, she has been trying to convince me that Christmas isn’t as bad as I am making it seem. It might have some issues, but it certainly still has some redeeming qualities that cannot be overlooked. So I had to chuckle when I listened to the message that was left.

During group that week, I reiterated the story to them about searching through Target for the word “Christmas” and being sorely disappointed that the only words that seemed to be printed were “Happy Holidays”. (See “Skipping Christmas“ – Part 1 for more on this experience.) She informed me that she had just gotten back from Target and that there was indeed a large printed sign with the words “Happy Holidays” hanging above the rather large section containing all of the holiday ornaments and other holiday paraphernalia. But what I had missed – and what she couldn’t wait to tell me – was that on the other side of this sign was an equally large printing of the words “Merry Christmas”. Checkmate! The game is won! See, even Target still celebrates Christmas!

I openly laughed at the absurdity of the discussion. Here we were having a friendly discourse about the meaning of Christmas and we were using the existence (or lack thereof) of words printed on signs inside of large retail establishments. (“No, really, there must have been a virgin birth. Wal-Mart is still stocking ‘Christmas’ wreaths, not ‘Holiday’ wreaths!”)

It occurred to me at that point that I may be playing the part of Ebenezer Scrooge even though I am not meaning to do so. Have I been looking for reasons to discount Christmas as an exercise in obscene consumerism today? Have I been unintentionally adding to people’s frustration and issues that they have, making it worse for people by pointing out all of the negative aspects of the holiday? Have I set people up for failure rather than for freedom?

This same friend told me in the class that I needed a Christmas miracle. I think she might be right. I do need a miracle. But I don’t think that I am alone.

The more I think about it, the more I understand that Christmas is a personal holiday with a public dimension. I guess that could be said of many of our Christian holidays now, and I’m not sure that this is how it is meant to be. The Christian Church has been spending a lot of time in recent history preaching about Jesus as one’s “personal Savior” whose sacrifice has washed away all of our “personal sins”. So it isn’t surprising that we have become a Christian culture obsessed with our own personal standing with God and not nearly as interested in the societal sin that has permeated (and actually become) our Western (and in particular) American lifestyles. We have added to the inequity that permeates our current economic system by being complicit in the takeover of Christmas by the consumerism of Santa Claus and his orgy of gift-giving to all of the good boys and girls. I didn’t know that Christmas had much of anything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ until I was almost a teenager. Fortunately, I feel that this current reality is being challenged. Miracles are happening.

Many churches are reminding people in not-so-gentle ways of the true meaning of Christmas and challenging people to give money not only to family and friends but also to others. And I’m not just talking about “Toys for Tots” or “Adopt-a-Family” programs. I’m talking about Third World relief efforts, the feeding and clothing of the hungry, and other social and economic justice issues. Churches are using this time of year to raise awareness of global suffering and inequities in our social systems and are challenging people to take action not just financially, but politically and physically as well.

That’s the miracle that I needed to be reminded of – the miracle that Jesus was born and everything changed. This is a season of birth, of beginning. This isn’t the end of the story, this is just the start. The miracle is that it was all begun by the birth of a Savior King so many years ago.

In that moment, I realized that having my “Swiss Christmas” isn’t about skipping anything. It’s about restarting things and acting responsibly in a necessarily fresh and new way. It is a clean slate and a new beginning. It’s not about re-discovering Christmas. It’s about uncovering what has been there all along.

Mail Call!!

If your house is anything like mine, you’ve been receiving all of the circulars and advertisements for Pre-Christmas sales, Black Friday sales, and the ever-popular Holiday sales. I’ve also been receiving a fair amount of email advertisements to try to get me to make my special purchases in time for those special items to be shipped to all of those special people on my list. All of the advertising I can ignore in my effort to maintain my Christmas neutrality. (My new mantra – “I am Switzerland!”) After all, I don’t plan on spending much at all this year. I owe nothing to those Madison Avenue types that are trying to separate me from my money in an effort to make me feel guilty for not taking part in their idea of “spreading Christmas cheer” which inevitably ends up with me owing money on my credit cards well after I get tan lines and mosquito bites in the new year.

But guilt started to set in the other day as I went through my mail. I received my first Christmas card of the year. Now I’ll be honest. I have never been really good about getting out my Christmas cards most years. But I at least look them over in the store and talk to wife about the possibility of getting them out at some point before Christmas most years. But as part of my “Swiss” Christmas, I am not even planning on sending out cards this year. To be honest, I hadn’t given it much more than a passing thought until I went to my mailbox that day.

So here I sit contemplating what to do about this Christmas card. How do I maintain my neutrality toward Christmas in this situation? If I open it, do I somehow waive my position by taking part in this Christmas ritual? If I don’t open it, is that rude on some level? And what if I don’t contact this person by sending a return Christmas card? What if I see them at some event and they ask me if I received their card? What do I say then? This is suddenly getting more difficult. Okay, maybe this “Swiss” Christmas thing was a bit drastic. Maybe we can do a “French” Christmas instead. You know, we could talk a good talk but then end up caving in the end.

But wait. Why am I doing this in the first place? I’m not skipping Christmas to avoid the season all together. I’m pretty sure that Robyn and I want to rediscover what Christmas is actually about. I don’t exactly know why this person sent me a Christmas card, but I don’t think it was to give me a moral dilemma or to make me feel guilty. On the contrary, it was probably sent out to take this opportunity to say “Hi” to friends that don’t see each other too often in this far-too-busy world. It was probably just a way of saying “we’re thinking of you” and “we miss you”.

So I’ll open this Christmas card (and all of the other ones that come) and I’ll say a prayer of thanks for people that love me and my family. And some night in the not-so-distant future, I’ll take a moment to write them a note letting them know that I’m thinking of them, too. Maybe I’ll even wait until next month so they can pause just as I’ve done and be thankful for the community of love and friendship that surrounds them as well.

The Search for the Slogan

Early on, I tried to capture the idea behind what I was doing to a Bible study class I was holding. They asked me why on earth I was skipping Christmas. I tried as best as I could to explain it to them, but the right words just wouldn’t come. I said that I expected to have new traditions and new purpose next year, but that I needed a year off. It was a year to clear my Christmas brain and figure out what was important. I think I even said something about Jesus actually being born in April or something.

But the more I spoke, the more perplexed and troubled everyone looked. Was I crazy? Was this just some reason to be controversial? It seemed like such a great idea at the time, but now I wasn’t so sure. I said that this year I was indeed throwing the baby out with the bath water, but that it was okay. I’d find the baby next year. (Given that I work with Child Protective Services in my secular job, this analogy didn’t go over very well.)

So I asked my wife how I might be able to explain it to people. She has a knack for coming up with analogies that set people back for a moment, but make really good sense in the end. I told her that I thought this year was kind of like a “Christmas enema” – it might not be the most pleasant thing to go through, but it can be very cleansing in the end. Thankfully, she didn’t think that sounded too good.

She decided that this would be our “Swiss Christmas”. I have to admit, I thought she was going somewhere with a cheese analogy at first. But she was thinking more along the lines of the geo-political spectrum. This year, we would be Christmas “neutral”. We weren’t really going to celebrate, but we weren’t going to skip it either. We were going to stay out of the way and let others do their thing.

There it was. A slogan was born. Now I could tell people that I was having a Swiss Christmas. It was so much better that telling them that, “No, I was in fact not getting ready for Christmas.” I was able to say a much gentler, “We’re keeping it mellow this year.” No big political statement. No looks of utter confusion or, worse yet, fear. No, this was a year to just observe and take it all in.

And then, the mail came.

The Word Gets Out

I’m a pastor. Pastors don’t just “skip” major holidays on the Christian calendar. Advent was coming in about a week, and I had to make some quick decisions. How was I going to break it to the congregation about my bold, new initiative to skip one of the most holy days of the year? As grace would have it, there was a way to start the conversation.

Over the summer, we cleaned out the church. When I say “cleaned out”, that’s what I mean. Almost all of the junk that had accumulated over the past ninety years or so was either sold, given away, or thrown out. Included in all of that was all of the old Christmas decorations and the fake Christmas tree that we used in the sanctuary. I took the opportunity to make an announcement in church on the Sunday just before Thanksgiving. This year, we were not going to spend money purchasing new Christmas decorations. We would do something different; something to get us back to the true meaning of Christmas. We were going to decorate the sanctuary with all sorts of nativity sets provided by the congregation.

I also announced that Robyn and I would be skipping Christmas in our own home. This would mean that the parsonage would be undecorated, there would be no Christmas tree at the parsonage, and that we would not be getting gifts for anyone.

Unfortunately, this announcement in the middle of a worship service did not come as good news to everybody. After the service, I was approached by a few people wondering why we would not have a tree in the sanctuary. The problem, it seemed, was that a tree was needed to supply the names and gift ideas of the people for whom we were purchasing gifts.

I also seem to have miscalculated the willingness of the family to go along as well. Some of my family members were in the congregation that day, and had already purchased Izzie some Christmas gifts. They were upset and worried that we were taking Christmas and away from her. It seems that my announcement did not go as smoothly as I had hoped.

So I backtracked, a little. The following Sunday, I told the folks in the congregation that a Christmas tree was fine in the sanctuary, but that we would not be spending church money to purchase it. To ensure that my craziness didn’t spread any further, I put someone else in change of decorating the sanctuary. As it ended up, I actually let the church use my own personal fake tree in the sanctuary. After all, I wasn’t going to need it.

As for presents, we let everyone know that it was fine for them to purchase gifts for any of the three kids, but that it wasn’t a necessity. To my shock, this came as a relief to most members of my family and congregation. Even more surprising, there are more than a couple of people joining us in our “Christmas skipping” revolution. And almost everyone I know is taking a fresh new look at what they have done in the past and are opting for reduced Christmas activities this year. (It’s amazing what $3/gallon gas and $5/gallon milk will do to a budget.)

But “skipping” Christmas sounds so harsh. And it’s not even accurate. We’re not skipping it. We’re trying to find the true meaning this year. What we needed was a catchy slogan…

In the Beginning

It all started out as a simple enough idea. All we were going to do was skip Christmas this year. We had no reason not to. We are both broke; Elisabeth is only a little over a year old, so she won’t remember; Rebekah and Caleb are staying in New York with their mother and step-father this year; and Robyn and I have been extremely busy over the past few months. Not having to deal with all of the additional work of decorating, buying gifts, and generally being “jolly” was going to be a relief. On top of that, we have both been desperately trying to fight the tide of consumerism in our culture. Taking a break from Christmas this year would go a long way to breaking that cycle.

Or so we thought.

As I sat and pondered exactly what to do with this newfound resolve, I realized that skipping Christmas was going to be difficult. Yet I was even more sure that it was the right thing to do. But my mind wasn’t completely made up until that last trip to Target.

One evening, Robyn and I took the baby to Target to pick up a few needed items. It was before Thanksgiving, but they had all ready put up their “Holiday Season” display. There were a full twelve aisles of “holiday” decorations, “holiday” necessities, and various fake trees in all sorts of “holiday” colors. Upon closer inspection, I found the word “Christmas” printed in a few places such as on some of the “holiday” wrapping paper and “holiday” cards. And way in the back, on one four-foot section of shelving, I found the three different nativities that were being sold in that store.

To be honest, I was neither upset or surprised by all of this. Retail stores have been struggling with the secular nature of the “Holiday Season” and have wondered what to do about the “Christmas” part of it. Some companies, like Wal-Mart, have chosen to stay with the traditional “Merry Christmas” while many other companies have chosen to go with the more politically-correct “Happy Holidays”. I wasn’t even bothered that the nativities were neatly hidden in the back of the store.

But what did bother me is that there wasn’t any sign of any of the other holidays in the “Holiday Season” display. Nothing at all existed for those that were celebrating Kwanza. And what little existed in the store for Hanukkah wasn’t found in the “Holiday Season” section. I found it all halfway across the store on the end of the office supplies aisle.

So it seems that the “Holiday Season” according to Target has something to do with the birth of Christ, but they don’t want to come right out and say it. It’s the hidden meaning behind it all. Which made it easy for me to skip Christmas this year.

Robyn and I made a promise to each other as we stood in those aisles trying to find the word “Christmas” associated with all of those decorations and fake trees. This was NOT how we were going to raise Elisabeth. We would not succumb to the temptation of making Christmas something that it is not. Now, more than ever, it was important for us to put our foot down. We were going to SKIP CHRISTMAS!!

Now, what am I going to tell everyone.

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