First and foremost, it is certainly about love. Not just Christmas, but every day of the year. Let’s start with John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Yet that quote might apply more appropriately to Easter, or — as I prefer to call it, “Resurrection Day.” Still Christmas was when Christ came to us as a mortal man and thusly “love” entered the world.
The babe in the manger grew, and, at the age of thirty, began His short ministry. The theme of love was always in his message. His words recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke: “He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.’" (Luke 10:27, but also Matt 22:37 and Mark 12:30) First and foremost is to love God, but it is the second commandment for us to repeat that love to others. This was the new covenant. Rather than ten commandments, we now have just these two: to love the Lord and to love our neighbors.
But who are these neighbors? Is it just the people that live next door? No, it is much more than that. In Matthew 5:44, Jesus states, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” The commandment to love our neighbor has universal application. We are to love everyone, including those that don't love us, as we love ourselves and as we love the Lord God.
We’re also told in Luke 14:12-14 “He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’” So that’s who we are to love: our enemies and our friends and family as well as the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. Our neighbors and our enemies. Those in our country and those abroad. This is not an exclusive list. This is an inclusive list. Simply, we are to love one another — all mankind. This is a reflection of God’s love for us.
In Matthew 25:45, Jesus ties these two commandments of love of God and love of neighbor into one explanation: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” So it isn’t two commandments at all. It is a single commandment that we are to love Him and to love His creation. For we express our love for God through how we treat others, neighbors and foreigners, friends and enemies, the greatest among us and the least, the poor and the downtrodden; we are to love all people.
It is very clear. It is how we treat others … including the least of those … is how we show our love for Him. That is part of the love of Christmas. It is a special time that we focus more on our neighbors and those in need. That is one explanation for the presents. Although it is sad that this Christmas “love” can’t continue throughout the year, it is still good to have a special season to remind us of His love. Think of the acts of kindness and fellowship that have become the very spirit of Christmas.
There’s all those stories about love at Christmas from Dicken’s “The Christmas Carol,” where Scrooge learns to abandon greed and avarice and to love humanity, to the William Sidney Porter’s “Gift of the Magi,” where love is shown to be sacrifice. The reason for the season is “Jesus,” but the theme of the season needs to be “love.” We are commanded to keep his word: “Jesus answered him, ‘If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me.’” — John 14:23-24. "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” — John 13:34. What better way to honor His birth than with love.
Since I was married shortly after Christmas, there is a special kind of love that I associate with this the season. The love between a man and a wife is an institution and a miracle instituted by God in the Garden of Eden. What the Lord has joined let no man break apart.
One thing I’ve learned as both a teacher and a parent is not to assume others know what I’m talking about. Explanations must be given in terms that can be understood. Don’t assume that the message is getting across simply because you give a speech or quote a verse. So what does it mean to love one another? How do you recognize love?
The apostle Paul explained love in very simple terms. In First Corinthians 13:4 - 7, he wrote, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” That makes it clear what love means and what it looks like. These are words for all the days of the year. They are also words very appropriate to any marriage vow. They are words that should be at the foundation of any celebration of Christmas.
Love also is a segue to the next term, “Family.” Family is a physical representation of love. Through marriage, birth, adoption, even divorce, and just circumstance, families are formed. Christmas is a time for family. For, in the American folklore, both from by-gone centuries and modern times, Christmas is often the setting for reuniting of family. Whether it is an annual trek to grandma’s or mom’s, by car or plane; or it is the reuniting of family and prodigal sons or daughters and broken relationships healed by the season that is often the theme of sappy and soapy tales from the Lifetime network. These reunions are the plot of many a Christmas story and the cause of crowded airports in late December. Travel and “getting home for Christmas” is the story line of many a yuletide tale.
It seems the entire extended holiday season from Christmas to New Years, often a week or even two of vacation, holiday, and time off from from work, is ideally suited for travel and reunion of family. Perhaps, at least in the Northern hemisphere, the weather may not be the best for long distance trips, still we’re reminded by “Over the river and through the woods, to grandma’s house we go” that Christmas is a time to visit loved ones.
I’m quite fortunate that most my family lives here in northern Colorado. Linda’s parents, our two sons, our grandkids, they are all here. There might be a new family travel tradition starting at the home of Linda’s brother Chuck and his wife Dawn in Alaska as their family has migrated to the lower forty-eight, but has returned to North Pole at Christmas these last two years. Talk about weather related travel! If it doesn’t seem much like Christmas in California or Georgia, Alaska is sure to provide the requisite snow and burning yule logs. Roasting chestnuts seems like such a winter occupation, it is hard to get the spirit when you live amongst palm trees.
I grew up in central Montana with my parents, siblings, aunt and uncles, and maternal grandparents. We would all get together to celebrate Christmas, and no long distance travel was involved; just a drive across town. Here in Colorado, for the last nearly forty years, we too have not had to drive a long way to enjoy Christmas and family.
Although things have changed a bit around here in the last ten years. With the loss of Linda’s mom we have moved the celebration from her house to ours. That is actually a transition we started before she died. The Christmas morning celebration and the food and fellowship that follow are now hosted at our home. Although we’re blessed with two sons that both are excellent in the kitchen and although Linda and Mark labor intensely with my help, we still wonder at how easily her mom was able to pull off the celebration and meal. She had the true gift of hospitality and we miss her help in the kitchen as well as her presence in our lives.
It has also changed a bit regarding presents as we are no longer as focused on gifts under the tree as we once were. With the exception of wrapped surprises for the young ones, Christmas has changed from a pile of gifts for everyone in the gathering. At some point it just got a little too much to try to figure out exactly what each family member wanted. Children, now adults, became more difficult to shop for and we gradually de-emphasized the gift giving to focus more on the the special day. Now opening presents has become a simple treat for the kids, and not a giant burden of shopping for just the right present for all. Although I miss the mystery of a present under the tree, we have found it a simpler time of year once we’ve deemphasized the commercial and focused more on the companionship.
A friend asked me if I had a photographic memory. I wish my memory was eidetic. No, I don’t have that talent. I don’t really have a good memory at all. I have to study and study to get stubborn facts into my thick skull. On the other hand, some events from my life are preserved in living color, and I play the projections on the back of my skull often. Oddly, Christmas past has sort of blurred out of focus. My childhood memories of Christmas are not very prominent in my recollections. Nor are the Christmas years I spent in the Navy, for I didn’t bother going home at that time of year, but remained on board ship and celebrated with my shipmates. I’ll be darned if I can recall those times. They’re lost in the mist of failing recollections.
My memories of Christmas as a child are sporadic. I remember opening presents and Christmas dinners and parties at my great aunt's. I remember my grandparent’s tree. It was only four feet tall. They had a built-in buffet in their dinning room, and they would put a small tree on top of that. I remember family gatherings at the table and playing cards into the late night with my uncle and aunt. There were no trips and no adventures to really cement Christmas in my youthful reflections.
I know there were always lots of gifts when I was a child, and I’ve written about some of them in my blog. One memory that is very strong is the Christmas of the Lionel Train. For some reason I was very focused on what the gifts cost. I have no idea how I knew, but I remember the “transformer” cost $49 and the train set was the same, for a total of almost $100. That was a lot of money in the 50’s and, although we lived comfortably, my parents were not rich. It was a train set we shared with the whole family and it was very rugged and easy to use, but it was a small set.
On the following Christmas, my dad got us a pair of track switches. I remember they cost $32 and had levers on the end of a wire to switch the train remotely. Now we could build a track layout that had a little more variety. My friend, John Barr, had an HO train set that was much more realistic. But the big O gauge Lionel was perfect for kids. I wish I still had that train, but my dad ended up giving it to my mom’s uncle that had a large train collection.
One thing I do remember from childhood and from my early years as an adult is that special feeling when I wake up on Christmas morning. Like any school kid, I have trouble going to sleep on Christmas Eve as visions of sugar plums … actually don’t sound appetizing … danced in my head. As a parent, I would always wake early on Christmas morning, even before the boys, and I’d wait quietly by the tree for everyone to get up and join me for the special day. Opening the presents was the central event and a good time was had by all.
That’s kind of what family is for. Sharing and giving. The real gifts I got from my parents have lasted for all these years. That is the gift of love, self-reliance, joy of learning, and a teaching of how to love my wife and raise my own kids. I tried to practice those gifts throughout my adult life. Christmas brings back all these memories of family. It may not be the exciting event it once was to me, but it still raises the goosebumps as memories merge with events of the day and the joy of love and family combine. I’m still the first one up!
As I mentioned in the first paragraph, faith is the reason for the season, and Linda and I enjoy the Christmas programs and the focus on Jesus. In the past we were regular attendees at the Christmas play at a nearby mega church and our own church holds a Christmas Eve candlelight service that we never miss.
I remember the time that our pastor, my good friend Tom Beaman, came out dressed as Joseph and told us Mary and the baby were fine. He proceeded to tell the entire Christmas tale in the first person, concluding with all the lights turned off and one by one we passed the flame from the Advent candle down the rows until the sanctuary was brightly lit like a church from ages past. Last year our friend William joined us and our new pastor repeated the celebration of depicting the light of the world coming again. This year, we’ll be there for that special service.
For those who follow the Christian faith, the birth of Christ represents the first step in God’s fulfillment of promise and prophecy. For it is through the virgin birth of Christ that God sent His Son to suffer and die for our sins. This is the act that unites all Christians in a common belief, no matter how much they disagree on other creeds and interpretations.
It is at this time of year that we’re united with others of our faith and belief. We are taught to share our love with all, Christian and otherwise. Here in America, Christmas has become a secular religion and the sacraments are shopping and eating. That’s OK. Anything that can remind us of the season and what it really means is good and important. I don’t mind when I see Santa because he represents charity and giving. I do wish we’d reduce the focus on commerce, however. This time of year was not meant to be the season of greed and desire, but rather the season of blessings. Sometimes the music and the bustle makes it hard to contemplate the inner meaning of the holiday.
The worst thing that has happened to Christmas in our technological and jet plane age is the rushing and scurrying that has taken the place of relaxed winter thoughts. It should be during some quiet time during this hectic season that we stop and consider the power of love, of family and friends, and the gift from our Savior and Lord. This is a time for church, not a time for shopping. In that regard, we have gotten things out of proportion. The reason for the season is not to wish everyone the inclusive “Happy Holidays.” Many businesses now depend on this time of year to fill the cash registers and hire extra help to deal with the crowds. Starting with Black Friday, it is hard to tell what the true reason for this holiday is. At least all the stores close for Christmas Day. That's a small victory.
Yet the secularization of Christmas isn't all bad; for the love of Christ is inclusive. He loves all of mankind. This is not a time to exclude others that follow another faith, Christmas time is a time to celebrate Christ and love everyone. Sadly, it seems that that celebration is lost on many Christians, just as it is lost on those that don’t follow Christ. The best way to restore the true meaning of Christmas is not in a cheery “Merry Christmas,” although that is a good start; but in our attitude. Let it begin at Christmas and extend throughout the year as we show the love, love of family and love of others, to all men and women of all religions and beliefs that our Lord is the Lord of love, forgiveness, and grace. This is how we honor Christ and our faith, not just one day a year, but throughout the year.
Finally, in what I think is the correct order, comes tradition. For Christmas has become much more than an anniversary of a bible story … an anniversary most likely held in the wrong month of the calendar. It is very unlikely, based on ancient writings and practices, that Christ was born at the end of December. That date and much that happens on Christmas is more the result of tradition developed in the two thousand years hence.
I don’t find this all together bad or wrong. Christmas is about tradition. The way we celebrate has little to do with the original setting in Bethlehem, and much to do with traditions from Europe and England. That’s OK. These are good traditions that we carry on. The decorations on the tree and the lights on the houses are part of the reminder of this special time of year. If it were not for holidays and celebrations, our lives would be entirely focused on the day-to-day routine of life. We need a season to stop and reflect and all the glitter and glamor and noise and confusion is part of the trigger to that meditation.
Although the gifts may be in honor of the tradition began by the Magi, most of the trappings of Christmas come from other traditions. From the Christmas Tree to the Yule Log to Santa himself, this was all added later. The afore mentioned tale by Dicken’s has created much of the traditions we now celebrate. But these are not the traditions dearest to my heart. No, it is the personal traditions that I hold closest.
As I previously stated, I don’t really have a lot of specific memories of my childhood Christmas times. Christmas in the 50’s was not that different from Christmas in the 40’s so well chronicled in the movie “A Christmas Story.” This tale of Ralphie and his quest for a BB gun that everyone warned would “shoot his eye out.”
The move is a 1983 Christmas film based on the short stories and semi-fictional anecdotes of author, radio personality, and raconteur Jean Shepherd. The film has become a holiday classic and is shown numerous times on television during the Christmas season on the network TBS, often in a 24-hour marathon.
In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” So there you go, you don’t need your own Christmas memories. You can share Ralphie’s (or Jean’s). I think this comical tale of boyhood wishes and a loving, although clearly not a perfect family, are the memories I have in my heart, even if they are not my own.
Besides, this slightly more modern tale probably fits our current Christmas traditions better than Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I’ve seen that one about ten dozen times too, but I always miss the beginning where everyone is praying for poor George Bailey, the “richest man in Bedford Falls.” The movie has plenty of snow and a Christmas tree, but I never really think about it as a Christmas tale, maybe since much of the action occurs in earlier flashbacks. Not a lot of Christmas tradition in that popular Christmas tale, yet it is a good story about love and family.
One year I was teaching in New York before the holidays and got to enjoy all those metropolitan traditions from the big tree at Rockefeller Center to the window displays at Macy’s, Bloomingdales, and Saks Fifth Avenue. They even put up railings on the sidewalk to separate the window shoppers from the hurrying crowd. A visit to FAO Schwartz near Central Park completes a Christmas tour. You can also tune into Turner Classics TV network which will display a plethora of black and white Christmas memories located in New York City including Bing Crosby and “White Christmas.” It seems like the American tradition is Christmas in New York.
I love New York City during December, but I’m happy to be here in Colorado. We are the modern traditional Christmas capital of the world, you know, complete with ski resorts and sleigh rides. Of course, that may be more Aspen or Telluride than Longmont. Still, if you watch TV, you’ll see a Colorado Christmas portrayed complete with cowboy boots. Maybe it’s because I’m a westerner that I find Christmas in Colorado superior to the earlier portrayed Christmas in New York … or L.A.
Another common tradition at this time of year is Christmas Carols. I love to sing along, even if I only know the first verse. We would start to sing these ancient (and a few modern) songs at church after Thanksgiving. You would hear them in the stores and live singers would appear on street corners. I love to sing along and share the memories of generations past as these traditional melodies and lyrics fill the air this time of year. There are Christmas concerts with kids and grandkid’s school bands and symphonies of bells and other instruments to attend. We always have Christmas music here at home and I wirelessly spread the iTunes “Holiday” genre throughout the house with “random” play. An odd mix of ancient music with modern technology.
There is also a classical music tradition from "The Nutcracker" by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to Handell's "Messiah," Christmas music has several powerful musical compositions. My dad is a talented singer and I fondly remember listening to him perform the Messiah when I was about ten years old.
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
Then there is the big “traditional” question of “when do we open our gifts?” Since, following the Jewish calendar, Christmas actually starts at sundown on Christmas Eve, many will open their presents at that time. Since a lot of modern life is extended and broken families, several Christmas events must be held at different locations. That may be the reason that gift opening begins the night before. Then there can be more gifts on the following Christmas day and a tour of family is begun. Trust me, the kids will never complain about an early opening of gifts.
In our family tradition, despite the protests of the youngsters, we open gifts on Christmas morning. In fact, as we wait for the family to gather, it is much more like Christmas noon. We used to go to Linda’s parents on Christmas day. At a few very special times one of her brothers would be there and one joyous year in the nineties, the entire Alaska clan was present. I remember a couple of years that Linda and I actually spent Christmas eve at the Lincoln’s, sleeping in the guest bedroom. That was very special too. Again I was the first one awake Christmas morning.
After a while the traditional start of Christmas became breakfast with Bob and Bea as Linda and I awaited the arrival of the rest of the family. Linda’s mom would always make a cherry cobbler and Linda would often prepare eggs and sausage. Somewhere along the line we got the tradition of fried rice the night before Christmas. Bea originated the recipe, but we still do that most Christmas Eve’s in her honor. How many Christmas traditions are based on a specific meal or food item I wonder.
In those early days we would have a big turkey dinner after the presents, and I always enjoyed the evening snack of turkey sandwiches. We’ve changed the menu a bit over the years, and last year we had a cold cut buffet so people could just graze when the urge came over them. That was very successful. After all, turkey again, so soon after Thanksgiving, seems to lack originality. It also eased both the cooking and clean-up chores and allows everyone to participate in the gathering.
IBM would provide events and funding for department parties and other gatherings back when I still worked for a living. One year, early in December, our department went to a cooking school and prepared a gourmet meal that we then enjoyed as a team building event. The main course was a prime rib roast. I liked it so well I decided to cook it for Christmas. The sticker shock for that particular cut of meat was a bit stiff. As I recall, I spent over a hundred dollars on the beef. Now I understand why everyone cooks turkey.
When I got back to work in January, my boss said he had done the same thing only his roast cost nearly two hundred dollars. We both agreed it was a very nice meal, but we would go back to turkey the next Christmas purely for financial reasons. Turkey, even at a dollar a pound, beats prime beef cuts at around fifteen dollars a pound!
Another tradition is decorating the house, a Christmas tree, and driving around to see the lights in the neighborhoods. We actually start the celebration on the Friday after Thanksgiving with our annual trek to Estes Park for the Parade of Lights. It is usually a cold night, but we bundle up and make our pilgrimage to our summer vacation spot. I fondly recall taking Alyssa up there when she was just knee high. One year we had been waiting for about two hours for the parade to start, standing around in the cold. (You have to get there early to get a parking place and a good spot on the parade route.) Just as the parade started, Alyssa said she was cold and had to go inside.
So we retreated to “Penelope's,” a local hamburger joint. We ended up getting a table right in the window and watched the parade from the warmth of the restaurant. Now that’s a tradition I can live with. Last year the night was unseasonably warm. I could get used to that too.
As I’ve grown old and gray, I’ve joined personal traditions with national and international. I think now that it is the traditions more than the gifts that are now celebrated in my heart. A time for love and faith, family and traditions. This is the most special time of year. The simple repetition of habits and music and menus has a familiar and comforting effect. The joy of the children as they anticipate the presents mingles with my memories of Christmases past. It is nice to recreate those memories each year.
While all four: love, faith, family, and tradition are very important components of the season, I think the last is greatest in my heart. For Christmas reminds me of the past. The ancient past in that town of Bethlehem, as well as my childhood and the Christmases enjoyed when my family was young. Christmas before we lost Linda’s mom and Christmas before our boys grew to men. Christmas reminds me of gifts, and the great gifts I’ve received during my lifetime. I remember Christmas in Lewistown and Christmas in Longmont. So here it comes again. The sun having completed its annual trek around Sol, it is time for love, faith, family, and tradition.
You can capture a whole philosophy in a single word — if it is the right word. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” — 1 Cor 13:13.