If you’re anything like me, your traditions and family customs were woven into the fabric of your life – whether they were handed down by the generations, stumbled upon by sheer serendipity, or simply found by the grace of God.
Our family shares a LOT of traditions with Christians all over the world. Some, however, are not even shared by our extended family, our pew-mates, or by our church body. We are okay with that! Our traditions are clearly, merely, man-made customs, not divine directives.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
Long ago, one Oak Sunday — the Sunday after Christmas, where a pastor looks out to a sea of oak pews — our pastor in Slidell, Louisiana, on his way to church, noticed all the Christmas trees on the curbside, awaiting the fate of household rubbish. It was December 28th after all.
When should you put up a so-called Christmas tree, anyway? When should you take it down?
The pastor noted that people barely kept their tree up until New Year’s Eve, let alone for all Twelve Days of Christmas.
Wait, what? Don’t those END on December 25th?
Nope. The Twelve Days (after) Christmas conclude on January 6th. Epiphany.
Epiphany is when Christian churches recount the story of the wise men who followed the star, so they could worship Jesus and give Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
(Folks who include the wise men figurines in their nativity scenes are just getting ahead of themselves. As, in my opinion, are the people who’ve had their trees on display for so long that they are either tinder boxes or dusty.)
So, Back To The Tree
My husband, Lance, and I were practically newlyweds (we had only three Christmases under our belts), and since it was our first married year as church-going Christians, we thought we should give the Reverend a listen. So, the next time the Season with the Reason rolled around, there we were, putting up our tree, on Christmas Eve. We took it down on January 6th and voila, a family tradition was born! Our family tradition.
Then again, we don’t always bother with a tree. (Like when we took our new baby, Simon, to visit family in three separate states, on the other end of the continent.) A Christmas tree is to be enjoyed. We enjoyed everyone else’s trees that year.
In Connecticut (where we lived at the time), some folks go out the weekend after Thanksgiving to “tag” their selection at a Christmas-tree farm. A few weeks later than most, we found a beautiful tree at the local farm. Simon carried the bow saw through the snow, and helped his daddy cut the tree. He was about 21 months old.
The next year, we had Simon choose our “forever” tree. He chose a delightful white, pre-lit, fiber-optic, color-changing tree. Ever since, if we have a tree up, that’s the one. (I will add that since we were looking for said tree so close to Christmas, it was 50% off!)
Silent Night, Holy Night
For us, Christmas Eve is more than just tree-trimming day. In a darkened sanctuary, at the close of the worship service, the ushers take light from the pastor’s small candle and pass the light throughout the congregation.
Once your candle is lit, you hold the light for the next person, who then receives the light by tipping their candle toward the light. And so on, one by one, until the sanctuary is bathed in a soft glow. This reminds us that when we share the Light of Christ, we don’t lose the light, it just multiplies! Silent Night is sung, then the candles are gently extinguished. (Careful not to splash the wax!) When the lights are brought up, it’s all four verses of Joy to the World! Traditionally, that is our Christmas Eve.
Yeah. Way more than just trimming a tree.
Sometimes we took a side trip for a fun gift-exchange before going to the candlelight service. Any time you can add more joy to the day, well, AMEN to that!
A Quiet Christmas Day
We wait to open our Christmas presents until after we get home from church on Christmas Day. Not out of fear of a big ZAP from heaven, it’s just our custom to wait.
Once we had a baby, we knew we didn’t want a yearly gift-fest that left a pile so big under the tree that you couldn’t see the best gift – Jesus. What to do? My husband Lance and I came up with a rather unoriginal idea. We figured since Jesus got three gifts, our son could get three gifts.
A blessing, not a curse! Three gifts – our way to keep it simple and keep the focus on the Greatest Gift of all. On Simon’s second Christmas, a remote-controlled excavator that was clearly marked for a child whose age is measured in YEARS rather than MONTHS, wound up under the tree! So, you see, it’s not 100% religious – but it can be 100% fun!
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
If you really want to get all atwitter about Christmas, go back and start with the season of Advent. Advent is the beginning of the Church’s calendar year and includes the four Sundays before Christmas.
Advent candles are a nice touch, marking the passing weeks before Christmas, adding LIGHT to the darkest time of the year. We light the week’s candle(s) and read an Advent devotion before dinner – when we remember, that is.
During Advent, our church has at least one Wednesday night service preceded by a light supper – maybe soups and bread. The hustle and bustle that often consumes us are set aside for a little while. Folks gather to eat and visit with one another and rest a moment, (whew!) before the evening service, where they join their voices in blessedly beautiful hymns that are sung only during this special time of year.
Somewhere Between Poignant And Potluck
A new-to-me tradition is Advent by Candlelight. On the first Saturday evening in December, women in our former congregation sponsored and decorated tables in the fellowship hall and invited other ladies to join them. Readings, soloists, and singing hymns served as a lovely way to pause and reflect upon the promise of the coming Savior. Amid beautifully candlelit tablescapes, we savored hors d’oeuvres, delighted in desserts, and spent some time visiting with old and new friends. (We used unscented candles, and/or LED candles.)
Candles, Sure, But What’s In The Bag?
One of the best things that came out of Simon’s kindergarten year was the Advent Bag. We had never heard of those before. All the parents were awestruck!
Simon’s teacher used helpers across the country who sourced and wrapped 25 different little gifts. Every miniature, calico-wrapped, yarn-tied present was accompanied by an explanation of its symbolism and a Scripture message.
Each child received a small gift bag. Every day from December 1st through December 25th, one gift inside was randomly opened – except the first and the last, and those were clearly marked. During daily devotions, a student removed one gift, showed it to the class, and read aloud the passage tucked in the fabric.
One day, they took home their Advent Bags, so their families could share in the rest of the discovery, anticipation, and unveiling of the Reason for the Season.
There isn’t a more thoughtful, more meaningful way to unwrap the season, one day at a time!
You Can’t Have One Without The Other
In my estimation, the best part of Christmas is Easter, and I believe that Easter is best enjoyed after observing the custom of Lent. Again, not because of any command, but to further explain the WHY.
Ash Wednesday is the Wednesday before Lent. Some churches (though not all) observe Ash Wednesday using ashes to put a + on your forehead or hand, to remind you that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
During Lent, the six weeks before Easter, you examine your own life, your own sinful nature, and the reason you so desperately need a Savior.
Midweek services are typically preceded by supper, which all but erases any excuse we can come up with for not attending another service in our busy lives. Lenten services tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love. I promise, after all these years, it never gets old.
On Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, children enter the sanctuary, waving palm branches and singing, “Hosanna!” Save us! (Those palm branches are sometimes burned for the next year’s ashes.) We remember that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, as crowds shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Maundy Thursday service: remembering the night Jesus was betrayed. Jesus’ last supper with His disciples. Heart-wrenching prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. Drops of sweat like blood. Perfect obedience to His Father’s will. An illegal trial in the middle of the night. Disowned, abandoned. Blindfolded, beaten, and mocked. A twisted crown of thorns pressed onto His head. The purple robe. They spit on Him, hit Him, and pulled out His beard. The mob yelled, “Crucify Him!”
Bleak. Black. On Good Friday, we remember Christ’s crucifixion. Nails pierced His hands and feet, but they are not what held Jesus on that cross. His love for me, and for you, is what held Him there. Jesus’ death paid for my sins, for your sins, for the sins of the whole world.
Darkness. Slam! The sound reminds us of the stone rolled in front of the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid. The hush is heavy when people depart the sanctuary in silence.
He Is Risen!
Easter Sunday is the very best day of the year to me! Easter reminds me that God the Father accepted His Son Jesus’s death in my place, for my sins, and I need no longer be afraid to die. Alleluia!
After the Lenten season, and waiting clear until Easter Morning, there is a magnificent relief and inexpressible JOY that brighten the day!
No chocolate bunny? No problem! No basket of goodies, or ham dinner? So, what? But, Easter without the joyful, triumphant, glorious hymns, sung at full volume, with all my church family? Nope! I tried it once, and it was painfully sad and dreadfully empty. After experiencing the full-on season of Lent-to-Easter, there is simply no substitute this side of heaven.
Not to say that a worship service is all about how you feel, but for me, an empty tomb makes for a full Easter – so much better than a hollow rabbit.
God’s Love – Our Response
Is Thanksgiving just an annual event? Well, in the sense of the whole once-a-year dinner that keeps us stocked in left-over turkey for days, yes. However, in thankfulness to God for all that we are, all that we have, and all that we ever will have in heaven, our attitude should be one of gratitude – all day, every day.
If you ever need a peaceful way to fall asleep, or to go back to sleep, I suggest thanking God for every little thing, one by one. You will fall asleep before you can ever finish.
Meanwhile, AllRecipes.com has something called, “Perfect Turkey” on their site. If you need a tried-and-true recipe for the main attraction at the traditional dinner, this one is it. One more thing to be thankful for! You’re welcome.
I pray that we never become so complacent, so smug, or so spoiled that we forget to praise God from Whom all blessings flow!
What Makes A Tradition?
The short answer: “When you say so.”
A more thoughtful answer: Something (a holiday or event) you anticipate, participate, and celebrate together as a family.
We look forward each year to holidays that are important to us — each with varying degrees of excitement, expectancy, and even decorations.
We acknowledge, embrace, and experience them one by one. And not because of posted rules that must be strictly adhered to, or because we are “holier than thou.” But because every celebration can bring yet another chance to tell someone our “why.”
Holidays are the perfect time to share our faith! When you find yourself telling someone why you do what you do, it’s natural to want to include them in the fun, in the fellowship, in the Family of God. Then we can celebrate together!
May you embrace your traditions, and find a way to share your “why.”