(I was asked to speak to our MOPS group about “Keeping Christ in Christmas”. This post is an “edited for easier reading than an oral presentation” version.)
Confession: I may not be the best person to tell you about how to “keep Christ in Christmas”.
I am pretty sure I have more Christmas failures, than Christmas successes.
In fact, I have had some serious Christmas anxiety for much of my adult life.
It reappears in some form or other, every year. (Usually right around the time that the stores start gearing up for Christmas. So around Halloween….)
I have had anxiety about keeping Christ in Christmas.
I have had anxiety about my anxiety.
I am somewhat anxious even talking about this.
And what does it even mean, to “keep Christ in Christmas”? Isn’t Christ already in Christmas? I mean, his name is in it pretty prominently. What does Christmas mean? What is it all about?
(At this point, I could just queue up “A Charlie Brown Christmas” video and let Linus take over, but instead we will press on and unpack things a bit.)
Christmas comes from the Old English words Cristes moesse, ‘the mass or festival of Christ’.
The festival of Christ. It’s a “holy day” or, holiday.
Christmas is about celebrating Christ.
So the first thing I have to tell you is good news: Jesus doesn’t want you to be burdened about celebrating his birth.
He doesn’t want you to feel pressure about celebrating in the “right” or “perfect” way.
He says, in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Tell me. Does that sound like someone who wants you to be all frazzled or stressed out about celebrating his birth?
I don’t think so.
Guess what? Jesus doesn’t care if your tree decorations are color coordinated with the pillows in your family room.
He doesn’t care whether or not you make cut out cookies decorated with homemade, piped frosting .
He doesn’t care if you send out personalized Christmas cards with a photo of your entire family in Santa hats and striped shirts.
(Note: all of those things are fine: if you like doing those things, and you want to do those things, and it doesn’t make you all crazy and distracted and difficult to be around, then go for it.)
But it doesn’t make a difference to him, really.
Christmas is about celebrating Jesus, and the fact that he is the gift we needed most—the only gift we need.
He loves you whether you do those things, or not. You can’t change his love for you.
He doesn’t want you to be burdened.
That’s good news!
But the thing is, it’s pretty easy to shift our focus away from him, and instead look at other things. And soon, we are feeling stressed out. And frazzled. And pressured. And we wonder, “why isn’t Christmas feeling the way I want it to? What’s happening to me? What’s going on?”
Because the truth is, we do feel pressured.
Pressure from the culture around us.
Pressure from our families.
Pressure from ourselves.
Some things that can be areas of pressure:
- it becomes a burden and an expectation
- you have to give so-and-so a gift
- it’s a race to get the “hot” toy
- pressure to spend as much as your neighbor or your kids’ friends’ parents
- the weight of the supposed expectations of your child or loved one
- costs and trying to stay on budget
[Personally hard for me—not a gift giver by nature— I like to give gifts that are special or have a significance (I love it when I find those), but often feel under a time pressure because I have to get something by December 25, and nothing looks “right”, and I’m worried that the recipient won’t like it or will be disappointed with it (and by extension, me….because even though it’s a gift for them, it’s all about ME)]
- we feel embarrassed if our house doesn’t have outside lights or a inflatable snowman
- our tree and house has to look like HGTV decorated it
- we see a million different cool ideas on Pinterest and wear ourselves out trying to do it all
- our “stuff” isn’t as put together (or whatever) as our friends/neighbors’ stuff is
“Perfect Christmas” myth
- we want our kids to have the “perfect Christmas”, so we load up on activities and excitement and gifts and sweets and whatever we think that is that will make it perfect and homey and with a holiday hue, complete with soft edges and instagram filters
We feel pressure from those around us:
- parents and in-laws: over-gifting, or giving your children gifts that do not integrate well with your family values
- disagreements with family or spouse about where you’re going to spend the holiday
- disagreements about how you’re going to celebrate the holiday (Santa: yes or no? How? gifts on xmas eve or xmas day? where? when? what traditions do we want to keep from our childhoods, which ones do we want to chuck?)
- invitations to things that will over schedule us, but we feel like we need to go to, or else we will be disappointing someone
We also feel pressure from ourselves.
- Christmas memories—if we have good childhood memories, we want it to look like that. If we had bad childhood memories, we want it to look the OPPOSITE of that.
- fitting in “all the things” into our already overstuffed calendar
- Pinterest –worthy family traditions: cookies, decorating, crafts, looking at lights
Listen: lot of these can be fine and good in themselves, but they can also have a tendency to draw our eyes away from the point of the season.
It can all get to be too much.
So. What do we do about it?
First of all, we need to take a deep breath, and remember point 1.
This holiday is not about all the peripherals.
It is about remembering Jesus’ birth, anticipating it, celebrating it, worshipping him, and focusing on the greatest gift we were ever given: the gift of Jesus, who came to live the life we couldn’t live, die the death we should have died, forgive us, and draw us into relationship with God.
That’s what it’s about.
So everything we do should be in light of, and through the lens of, that.
How do we do that?
Tools and tips to simplify your Christmas
Advent is a time of waiting and anticipation. We can encourage that in our kids and ourselves through the use of a variety of things.
- Advent wreath (candle lit once a week, with Bible readings to go along with it; final candle lit on Christmas). Some churches do this in their services every week during Advent, but whether yours does or doesn’t, you can do it at home with your family. (resource list below) Jesus is the light of the world, come to dispel the darkness. Advent candles in the wreath help remind us of this.
- Jesse tree —25 readings with 25 ornaments to go on a small tree or branch or even a drawing of a tree on paper, taped to a wall: tracing the story of the promise of a Savior through the Bible, and culminating with the birth of Christ (resources below)
- Advent calendars—something with 25 pockets or windows that open, counting down to Christmas with a treat and activity in each pocket, preferably pointing toward giving and doing for others as well as just fun activities together.(watch a Christmas movie; take cookies to a neighbor; etc.)
- Child-friendly nativity sets –help reinforce the Bible story of Jesus being born as a baby. We have a magnetic board with nativity figures that our kids (and now grandkids) enjoyed. You can make homemade ones out of whatever you’re crafty with (wood, clay, fabric, etc.) if you want; there are also ones by Fisher Price or other companies (just search online for child friendly nativity sets).
Your kid will probably add a T-rex or a Spiderman action figure to the scene. Don’t freak out about it. The point is to incorporate the story into a familiar, daily part of life.
- Do not neglect going to church during this time. It’s where we celebrate and anticipate, with our extended, eternal family; where we worship and re-focus our sights on the One we are celebrating.
A de-emphasis on gifts
Gifts are traditional part of Christmas, and remind us of the greatest gift that we ever got: Jesus. They serve that purpose, as well as being a way to love others through our generosity.
Gifts are great—they just need to be managed well.
Things to remember in the giving:
- A quote from Chuck Jaffe: “No one who loves you wants you to go into debt so they can have a gift, and gifts that last a lifetime—or that change a life—typically aren’t bought on impulse.”
- Make and keep a budget. You don’t want to be paying for those gifts well into the New Year. Other options: Think about gifts you can make, or non-monetary gifts of time and service.
- A gift is exactly that: a GIFT. Although obviously you want the recipient to be pleased with it, it is not your responsibility to make sure that they do. Try to be thoughtful about the gift, give it, and then let how it is received be their thing. Once it passes out of your hands into theirs, it is not yours to manage or worry about anymore.
- You want to be generous, especially with your kids—but how to keep it under control? Some ways that can help:
a) — 3 gifts; if you want to be super-spiritual about it, you can say it’s like the 3 wise men :). It helps scale it back, and keeps it within reason. Some people like to do “one to read, one to wear, one to play with”.
OR if a rhyme helps you to remember, some do this: (it’s 4 gifts, but the principle is the same):
something to wear
something to read
something you want
something you need
(By the way—there may not have been only 3 wise men. It’s traditional to think that, because there were three gifts, but it is never specified in the Bible.
Maybe there were more than three, and they all chipped in for the presents. Those were some expensive gifts, you know. :))
b) Gifts between siblings—how do handle that?
When our kids were young, I remember wanting to cultivate generosity between the siblings. So we had each child go shopping with us, to get gifts for their siblings.
This worked okay until we got past two or three kids.
Then it became a nightmare. By the time we reached seven children, I was at my breaking point; trying to find affordable gifts they could all give each other without it all just being crap, not to mention—7 kids times 6 siblings=42 gifts!!?
My dear husband, when I was wailing to him about it and how I was so stressed out, said, “Why are we doing this?” (which, by the way, is a good question to ask about all of our holiday traditions, instead of just mindlessly doing them)
He suggested that we have each child give one gift to one of their siblings. We would rotate which person was giving to whom, each year, so that eventually everyone would have an opportunity to both give and receive from every other sibling.
It also resulted in a) spending less money, and b) each person receiving a nicer gift, instead of 7 crappy ones.
(We still do this rotation of gift giving, with most of our kids in the adult phase of life.)
c) Gifts from grandparents, etc: it may be too late to do this for this year, but have a discussion about it, at a non-holiday time–what you would prefer to see happen, etc.
If they are not on board with it, and over-gift, or give inappropriately, be gracious and thankful, then quietly give away excess or things you don’t really want your kids to have. You don’t need to make a big deal of it—try to handle with kindness, knowing that they are most likely giving out of the best intentions and with love for their grandchildren.
Similarly with expectations of visiting for the holidays, try to have those conversations ahead of time, at a time that isn’t laden with holiday pressure. Grandparents and extended relatives will probably always be disappointed that they don’t get ALL the time with the kids that they want. Try to be fair yet firm in both expectations and how it’s carried out.
Yet, do what is best for your family. (If it’s a toxic environment, don’t feel obligated to be a part of that.)
d) Being generous to others
Look for and do something generous this season–something that helps your family remember that everything we have is a gift from God, and that we are called to be generous people.
Ideas for giving to those around us who have less:
- Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes/Samaritan’s Purse
- Food for the Hungry—We usually purchased a goat for a family through the Food for the Hungry organization. A goat provided for milk for them, and was also a way for them to make money for their family. We put the picture from the catalog on the refrigerator to remind us of them, and to pray for the family or community that would be receiving it.
- Angel Tree/local charities—grab an ornament with child’s name, and go and shop for their needs.
- Compassion International—a one-time gift or sponsoring a child
Decide what traditions and activities you really enjoy, and want to keep. Then get rid of the rest of them.
(IMPORTANT : discuss with your spouse, if you have one!)
a) décor—do however much or little you want. My sister-in-law really, really enjoys Christmas décor, and her home is decked out from mid-November on. I find that I am only comfortable doing what I can get done in basically one day. Beyond that, I lose interest, and can only keep thinking about what a hassle it will be to take it all down! I do enough that the rest of the family is okay with it and it looks moderately festive; I don’t do more than I want to. (If others in your family want more décor, then have them do it, if they are old enough/able to.)
One tradition in decor that I have kept is giving an ornament per child, each year. Some years I have purchased them (a good time is post-Christmas sales, although the selection may not be what you want); other years I have made simple ones.
Then when the kid grows up and moves out, they can take “their” ornaments to start their own tradition.
b) Cooking and baking: I have narrowed down my Christmas baking to a few types of cookies that are our favorites. (And I usually try to get my kids to help me—which is actually a help, now that they are older)
It wasn’t a “help” when they were younger—it would have been much easier to do it myself–but it was something that I persevered in doing, because it was an important memory / activity to me. (and hopefully to them :))
Bu, if it is not your thing, don’t feel obligated to do it! Get one of those Pillsbury Christmas cookie things and do that, buy ready made at the bakery–or skip it altogether if you want.
Keep the Christmas meal simple, if you don’t enjoy cooking. Or go all out, if you love it! Make sure you have enough time to actually enjoy it with loved ones, so that you don’t feel grumpy and like everyone is taking you for granted. (They may be, but try to structure it so you don’t feel like they are :)). Ask for help when you can—don’t be a martyr.
c) Christmas cards/letter: I have always done a Christmas letter—because I enjoyed it. I liked writing it, and I like that I have a yearly record of sorts of what happened in our family. I found, however, that it was starting to be a stressful thing for me, and NOT enjoyable, because I wouldn’t get it done early, and then felt the pressure of having to get it done, printed, mailed by Christmas, and the whole thing was a heavy burden. My solution was to take it out of the Christmas season altogether, and now I send a “Christmas in July” letter. Sometimes it actually gets sent out in July; other times, later. I think it was October this year.
Get this—no one has ever complained that they didn’t get the letter in December. They all are happy to receive it, whenever it comes!
Again: decide what things are important to you; be realistic about your time and resources; forget the rest.
How can you get started on a simpler Christmas?
Or how can you start planning for next year?
I found an article on The Art of Simple that had some good tips for simplifying the Christmas season.
It’s by Tsh Oxenreider (I couldn’t find the original link when I looked for it, so I’m writing it all out.)
1. Write down some descriptive words. What 3-5 words describe your ideal current holiday season? (Ideal is not=magazine picture perfect, but what’s best for everyone in your family in your current situation.)
My words: joyful, prayerful, fun, people-centric, restful, celebrating the birth of Jesus
2) Update your calendar—kids’ school performances, work parties, day you have a babysitter to go shopping, when you’re getting together with friends or relatives, etc. Make sure you have everything on the calendar.
3) Evaluate your family’s commitments. Look at the big picture. Is there enough white space? Are there blank boxes?
If so, good. If not, you’re booked. Don’t accept any more commitments.
(note from me: It’s good to have some blank boxes, by the way. That’s where you can fill in spontaneous things, or just have time to rest.)
4) List the rest of your priorities. Keep them realistic (jetting off to Barbados and leaving the kids behind = probably not realistic), but keep them light-hearted as well. Think of the fun things you’d like to do.
Then, for the rest of the holiday season, make those more of a priority than doing what you feel like you should do. Do the things you need to do (pay bills, get enough sleep, etc). But don’t do things just because you’re supposed to. Keep your words from the first task in mind when planning your to-do- list. i.e. restful, joyful, fun, celebrating Jesus, etc.
Keep it simple.
5) Smile, laugh, and relax. Remember your life’s priorities during the holidays, and respect them. Don’t force it to be more than it is, yet don’t neglect its spiritual remembrance. Reflect on your childhood holiday memories (the good ones).
I’ll bet you most of your good holiday memories have to do with family, friends, and a general festive atmosphere. If you’re like me, you barely remember all the gifts and all the events.
That is from Tsh at The Art of Simple. There are also some other good posts on simplifying Christmas at their site (see resources below).
To sum up: do not worry about having the “perfect” Christmas. No Christmas is perfect. That’s an impossible goal. What is it that you think will make it perfect? Think about it. Even if all of those things magically came together, then what? You will probably feel even more pressure to have it be perfect next year, and the year after, and the year after.
Perfection is a harsh taskmaster. And it is highly overrated. Perfect is what the magazines and Pinterest and blogs and everyone else tries to sell you. But life is imperfect, and so is Christmas.
When you are feeling the pressure of having Christmas look a certain way, just remember this: the first Christmas was in a dirty barn, and the gifts showed up way late. :)
The most important thing at that Christmas is still the most important thing in our Christmases now—the arrival of a Savior.
When the angels announced his birth, they sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Luke 2:14
Jesus does not want you to be stressed out at the celebration of his birth. He wants you to fix your eyes on him and why he came, and be at peace.
Thank you Jesus, for humbling yourself—for confining yourself, the Lord of all creation, to Mary’s womb for nine months. For humbling yourself to live as a human on this imperfect world, with the rest of us imperfect people. For giving us the gift of yourself, and making a way for forgiveness, and peace with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Help us to look to you this season, with anticipation and joy. May we resist outside, or inside, pressures, and rest in the peace that you give us, the peace that defies all understanding, but which we desperately need. Help us to return to you daily, for your peace, in this Christmas season, and all the year long. We pray these things in your name, Jesus. Amen.
Advent resources (several gathered here in one place): http://theartofsimple.net/advent-resources/
Jesus StoryBook Jesse Tree/Advent readings
Giving to community:
Operation Christmas Child/Samaritan’s Purse
Food for the Hungry
On simplifying Christmas:
The Art of Simple
How to simplify the holidays without feeling like a Scrooge
How we help curb the ‘I want that!’s at Christmas