I just love the whole Christmas thing with all the traditions. Lights on the house, Christmas music playing, my wife watching “Elf” for the millionth time, me watching “Christmas Vacation” for the millionth time, my dad reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to his grandkids. All of these are so familiar to me, and I’m sure you have a bunch of your own traditions that are so familiar to you. The problem is, sometimes they can get so familiar that they lose all meaning.
I want to breathe new life into three familiar Christmas icons (and hopefully create some Christmas traditions for you). Don’t worry, this is not about “losing the true meaning of Christmas.” It’s about being part of the Christmas story today.
Icon 1: Christmas Gifts
People have wrapped gifts for thousands of years, but it didn’t become elaborate until the early 20th century when a guy named Joyce Clyde Hall ran out of the traditional white Christmas wrapping paper in his store. He did have some fancy paper that was used to line the inside of envelopes, so he offered that to customers and they loved it. Unfortunately, it was so thick they couldn’t get it to stay folded, so he sold them a long piece of ribbon to be tied around the package. (By the way, the company he started is called Hallmark. So Christmas has truly become a Hallmark Holiday.)
Studies have shown (and I am going to ruin Christmas for guys who are terrible at wrapping and like to throw stuff in a grocery bag) that the prettier the wrapped gift, the happier someone is with the present. When you take time to wrap it, it does something to the receiver psychologically.
Picture, if you will, the wise men as you read their part of the Christmas story:
And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
How do we picture them opening their gifts? We picture them as beautifully displayed gift boxes.
If you’ve wandered around any of our venues, you’ve noticed that we care about art. Holt, REO Town, and Westside all have their own art galleries. We spent two years and thousands of dollars on our REO Town Venue to turn it from a pretty dilapidated building with a giant wine-bottle-turned-bowling pin on top to a classy place that brings beauty to the community. The money the people of Riv have donated over the years have allowed us to turn a kind of ugly building into what I like to think of as a giant gift-wrapped present to Lansing.
Your giving brings the next icon to mind:
Icon 2: Wreaths
Wreaths have been around for thousands of years and have carried a wide variety of meanings, but one is particularly striking to me. In ancient European contexts, they didn’t have numbers to identify houses, but homeowners would make unique wreaths from the plants and flowers found on their land. When someone was looking for their house, they just needed to know the type of wreath on the door and they would know they had arrived to the right place. It was a symbol of hospitality, which is an important part of the Christmas story.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Often, we think of this manger situation as a “woe is me…how terrible it was that Jesus was born in a barn” type of situation, but it wasn’t. The innkeeper showed great hospitality in not turning Mary and Joseph away. He could have sent them away, but he showed them compassion and gave them a place to sleep and Jesus a place to be born.
This is hospitality. When you see a wreath, allow it to inspire hospitality for you. Not just friends, but neighbors and those in need around you.
Icon 3: Christmas Trees
Bringing a tree into the house in the winter is a common tradition dating thousands and thousands of years. The main reason was the fascination that something could stay green even in winter. It would symbolize that life would triumph over death. In fact, many pagan cultures used this to worship false gods.
In the 16th century, Germans began to decorate their trees as part of a Christmas celebration (with some people even crediting Martin Luther with putting lights on the tree for the first time—with candles. Not everything he did was smart). But pretty much only the Germans really loved the idea until the 1890s or so. Then the idea took off and the Christmas tree became an enduring symbol of the holiday.
Should the pagan roots of the Christmas tree cause us to keep them out of our houses? No! They are a wonderful reminder of the meaning of Christmas precisely because they are a pagan idea!
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).
One of Jesus’ names is “Immanuel,” God with us.
He became one of us. He took on flesh.
Did He sin? No! But He took on humanity, in a particular time and place and culture and His presence redeemed that time and place and culture. We exist in a specific time and place and culture and we shouldn’t be afraid to step into it.
When we bring a pagan tree into our house and decorate it for Jesus, we are remembering that He engaged our culture to save us.
When we decorate gifts and give generously to others, we do so because Jesus was generous by giving His life for us.
When we hang a wreath on our door, we are symbolizing a hospitable sharing that allows us to tell others about Jesus.
There are those that say, “Keep Christ in Christmas!” Well, I say “try keeping him out!” It’s all about Jesus!
By itself, a wreath has nothing to do with Jesus. Neither does a present or a tree. But for those of us who follow Jesus, everything we do is for Him.
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Image Credit: John Morgan