We’ve had the Christmas boxes down from the garage rafters the past ten days as Christmas emerges from storage and appears all over the house. Lights and decorations go up, and the mailbox begins to fill with cards and good wishes from friends and family. There is something extraordinary that invades the ordinary this time of year—and isn’t that the point? The extraordinary presence of God shows up as Immanuel—God with us—as Jesus—God saves.
We usually think of the work of Christmas as the “containers” of Christmas. By containers, I mean those traditions and activities that have grown over the centuries as expressions of the Christmas message. Most of our Christmas traditions developed in Northern Europe, and it is impossible to underestimate the influence of Charles Dickens on Victorian Britain and subsequently the United States. But I got curious about the many traditions that have grown up around the world when it comes to Christmas. Here are a few that I found fun:
Kenya: Colorful balloons, ribbons, paper decorations, flowers and green leaves are often used to decorate homes and churches. For a Christmas tree, the Cyprus is a favorite. Not to be left out of the Northern Hemisphere’s assumption that snow is often part of the season, many of the city and store displays will include snow, something most of the Kenyans have never seen or experienced first-hand.
Croatia: The days which celebrate the venerated Saints play a big part during the Advent weeks leading up to Christmas. St. Nicholas’ day is December 6th, and the tradition is that the night before, the children clean their shoes/boots and put them in the window, hoping for chocolates and small presents. Christmas trees are popular and, as was the custom for many, decorated on Christmas Eve with ornaments the shape of fruits.
The Palestinian Territories: You’d expect a big celebration in Bethlehem as the Palestinian Christians celebrate alongside with the many tourists who make their way to Bethlehem square Christmas Eve, but it is surprising how many Muslims join in the celebration. What would be unexpected is the bagpipes leading the parades, a tradition left over from the British occupation.
Australia: It is often really hot around Christmas, so Santa needs to rest his reindeer, hitch up six white boomers (kangaroos) and shed the winter duds for something more comfortable. And like other countries, which were part of the British Empire, gift exchanges happen December 26, Boxing Day.
We all know Christmas isn’t about the stuff—or at least we say we know that. The Grinch discovered that when he stole all the Who’s Christmas stuff from Whoville, and Christmas happened anyway. But there is a cautionary note to be sounded—we know and we don’t know. Like the religious practices in Jesus’ day, the Jewish leaders and people knew the traditions pointed to the Law, and the Law was rooted in the covenant God made with Abraham. The covenant was about practicing God’s way of living with God and neighbor. The codes that grew up around the Sabbath rigidly regulated life down to the smallest detail. How food was prepared and even the simple act of washing one’s hands before eating was legally defined. The containers, meant to hold the real meaning of their relationship with God, became the main thing.
Jesus pushed back—allowing his disciples to gather grain on the Sabbath and perform healing miracles (i.e., man with shriveled hand and the woman crippled by an “evil” spirit)—and the reaction was violent in every sense of the word. The leaders and people were appalled, angry, and ultimately led to the conspiracy to rid themselves of Jesus’ disruptive presence. Religious Traditions and spiritual practices as the containers for God’s presence, meant to connect us with God and neighbor, came to be used to define who is “in” and who is “out.” Somehow the main thing wasn’t the main thing anymore.
Nevertheless, the stuff and traditions of the Advent and Christmas season can serve as containers which we fill with meaning if we’re mindful of the connections, thus keeping the main thing the main thing. If we find ourselves getting anxious and even angry, for me, that’s a signal I’ve lost contact with the main thing. And that’s a lesson that’s applicable 365 days a year, not just this season. So what might we do to reconnect with the symbols and traditions, the containers of the best news possible? Let’s brainstorm that question Sunday. In the meantime I leave you with God’s prophetic and hopeful voice through Isaiah:
The royal line of David is like a tree that has been cut down; but just as new branches sprout from a stump, so a new king will arise from among David’s descendants. The spirit of the LORD will give him wisdom and the knowledge and skill to rule his people. He will know the LORD’S will and honor him, and find pleasure in obeying him. He will not judge by appearance or hearsay; he will judge the poor fairly and defend the rights of the helpless. At his command the people will be punished, and evil persons will die.
He will rule his people with justice and integrity. Wolves and sheep will live together in peace, and leopards will lie down with young goats. Calves and lion cubs will feed together, and little children will take care of them. Cows and bears will eat together, and their calves and cubs will lie down in peace. Lions will eat straw as cattle do. Even a baby will not be harmed if it plays near a poisonous snake. On Zion, God’s sacred hill, there will be nothing harmful or evil. The land will be as full of knowledge of the LORD as the seas are full of water. (Isaiah 11:1-9)
Here’s what I have on my desk…
ANGEL TREE—PUT A SMILE ON THE FACE OF A CHILD
Angel Tree reaches out to children of those who are incarcerated. Stop by the Angel Tree table in the fellowship hall this Sunday to take a tag off the Christmas tree—we still have 12 Tags available and are running out of time! Each tag gives the age of a boy or girl and a couple gift suggestions. Join us in putting a smile on the face of a child! Thank you all so much for this successful and important Mission for the children involved. ~ Jean McQuady email@example.com—707-292-1128.
DO YOU SHOP ON AMAZON.COM? Just in time for your Christmas shopping—St. Andrew has registered with AmazonSmile. Amazon donates 0.5% of the price of your eligible AmazonSmile purchases to the charitable organization of your choice. AmazonSmile is the same Amazon you know—same products, same prices, same service. You can support St. Andrew by using the following link when you begin your shopping: http://smile.amazon.com/ch/51-0158108 . Thank you for supporting St. Andrew!
- ANDREW WOMEN’S FELLOWSHIP CHRISTMAS POTLUCK is going to be on Wednesday, December 14th, at 11:00 AM in our church Conference Room. Pull out your photo albums and find a favorite photo of a special time in your life and bring it to share with us, then fix up your best “Christmas Celebration dish” and join us for good times, good food, and fellowship. All women who attend St. Andrew are welcome.