Christmas traditions can be fun, exhausting, or family-focused. Or they can be Christmas traditions highlighting Jesus. Or they can be all of the above, even at the same time. Our family’s best Christmas traditions varied with our time of life. And one fun one has no focus on Jesus and originated in my needing to save time.
One Christmas Eve, I had been too busy with Christmas errands to make dinner. So I suggested to my husband that we make a fire and roast hot dogs. It turned out to be great fun. The next Christmas Eve, as I was making my girls’ favorite spaghetti dinner, my oldest said, “Aren’t we roasting hot dogs? We always roast hot dogs on Christmas Eve.” I laughed at the notion of our sudden tradition but was glad to keep the spaghetti for another night.
Our roasting-hot-dogs tradition is not one of our Christmas traditions highlighting Jesus. It could be a tradition for any night of the year. But it’s one our family has chosen to keep for decades, because it’s something that begins the evening in an unusual way. And it’s our personal family tradition now.
One of our first family Christmas traditions highlighting Jesus was introducing our little ones to the story of Jesus’ birth through pieces they could play with. My first set was made of wood, hard to break and fun to use to tell the story. Our little ones later enjoyed telling using the set to tell the story too. I look forward to having my two-year-old grandson celebrate with the same set. As they got older, the girls enjoyed nativity sets from various countries, some tiny enough to be Christmas ornaments. Later they even enjoyed finding good places to display each one.
Birthday Cake for Jesus
When our girls were elementary aged or younger, they loved making a birthday cake for Jesus. The recipe we made was similar to this one and ready to share with others. Each year we made one cake for ourselves and one for neighbors or friends we wanted to share Jesus with. The recipe used three cake mixes and made two three-layer cakes. The chocolate layer designated our sin. The red cherry layer symbolized Jesus’ blood shed for us. And the green pistachio cake celebrated our new life in Jesus.
We frosted the cake in white for Jesus’ righteousness, which he gave to us through his death and resurrection. The decorations highlight Jesus’ role as Jewish Messiah, by having a gold foil Star of David in the middle of the cake. Through that a red candle stood, revealing Jesus as the light of the world. Circling the top of the cake, round like the world, were red heart-shaped candies. These candies represented Christians standing together, united around the world. I know of no better Christmas traditions highlighting Jesus.
Reading the Bible Story Aloud Before Opening Presents
A tradition that we included for many years was reading the story of Jesus’ birth as the beginning of our celebration. In the early years, we read the story from a good storybook Bible. When the girls were older, we read the account from Matthew 2. We wanted to set the gift giving in context. As the girls got older, they often took turns reading the story out loud.
Recently, I learned from a new friend about another great way to tell this story with tiny ones. She reads the story from a book which comes with six key figures wrapped in special boxes. A child opens each one as that character is introduced. Unfortunately, I can’t find that set to purchase for myself this year. So, I’m planning to act out the story with my grandson with a nativity set, while my husband reads it out loud.
Taking Turns with Giving
One tradition our girls will never outgrow. Many years ago, we began emphasizing the importance of giving gifts. We began taking turns to give, rather than taking turns to receive a gift. It changed the focus instantly. Our girls already knew that we gave gifts because Jesus is the ultimate gift. They knew no gift was greater than salvation. They also knew that Christmas was not about the gifts they received. But up until this change, it was sometimes too easy to focus on who was receiving what.
Once we switched to taking turns with giving,their excitement was contagious. Immediately, they clamored for the privilege of giving the next gift. Now as adults, they also look out for who hasn’t received one recently. But even when they were young, changing this tradition changed the focus wonderfully for our whole family.
These days I eagerly look for new traditions—and resurrect old ones—as I seek to pass on to little ones the joy of Christmas and of Jesus as the reason for the season. I would love to hear about your Christmas traditions highlighting Jesus. This year I am going to make a small simple cake for Jesus. My grandson is not yet old enough to understand or remember the symbolism of the many-colored layers. But he LOVES singing “Happy Birthday,” and this year he’ll sing it to Jesus.
During my time of seventh-grade bullying, one girl was the primary cause. Supposedly a close friend, she instigated the incidents. Over the years I needed to learn the hard way that I couldn’t trust her. Originally I confided in her, trusting her friendship. Then she betrayed me. Repeatedly. Because she had been my first friend in my new school, it was hard to wrap my mind around the fact that she was acting as my enemy. Finally my mom got me to see, after far too many times of being betrayed, that I couldn’t trust my friend. Then my parents taught me the even harder lesson of loving difficult people by faith.
Loving difficult people by faith.
Loving by faith initially seems to contradict our definition of love. When we think of all the ways we use the word “love,” we usually associate it with pleasure. We love pizza. I love chocolate cheesecake, especially when I make it with Kahlua. Mmmmm. We love great books and great movies. And, of course, we love people. We love all the special people in our lives.
But what about the difficult people in our lives? Don’t we all have difficult people we love? And, if we’re honest, aren’t we difficult to love at times too? My parents taught me the importance of praying for difficult people. But here’s the most challenging part. We’re not allowed to simply pray that they stop being annoying or sinning against us. We need to pray for them in a way that cares about their needs being met. That meant I needed to pray that my frenemy would be happy, that life would go well for her, and that she would feel loved. That meant I could never complain about her to our friends.
God uses prayer to create love.
In his Love is a Feeling to be Learned, Walter Trobischer explains that the feeling of love follows the actions of love. Not the other way around. Infatuation can come first. Or an intense, sudden best friendship. But the feeling of real love follows our learning to love unconditionally, as God loves us. It also comes after we learn to love by faith. My parents gave me a tiny book by Bill Bright that changed my life and relationships: How to Love by Faith. This tiny book taught me how to trust the Holy Spirit to give me his love, as I prayed for the person who bothered me so much. What a revolutionary, biblical concept!
Prayer for others changes us.
To me what was most amazing about this process was that God used it to heal me. He took away my anger, my desire for vengeance, and even much of my pain. As I really prayed for this girl, I began to notice the ways she was suffering and saw that she was lashing out because of her own pain. My changed heart allowed her heart to change–slowly. I didn’t notice the change in her as quickly as I noticed it in myself. But God changed both of us, through my prayers.
Over the years, God has called me back to that lesson many times. Because I forget. When people act nasty toward me, my automatic reaction can be to feel hurt and angry. But each time God brings me back to his lesson of loving difficult people by faith, he brings healing. To me and to the other person.
God sightings: helping kids see him
Years ago, one of our church series focused on “God sightings”–specific places we saw God working. For quite a while we were diligent in asking each other for God sightings during prayer time. It was fun to see our girls recognize God’s work in answers to their prayers. It was even more fun to see them recognize God’s presence in areas we hadn’t thought to pray about. Yet God was blessing us specifically in those areas anyway. Ahead of our prayers. He knew our hearts. We used to say, “Wow. I hadn’t even thought to pray about that yet.” But after a while, we forgot to look for these special moments, those God sightings.
We need God’s reminders.
The people of Israel were like us. For a while they noticed God’s blessings and talked about them. Then they forgot. God knew that would continue to be true, so he used a pile of rocks to help them remember:
21 [Joshua] said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. 24 He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.” (Joshua 4: 21-24)
We don’t live in a rocky country with a huge pile of rocks to stand as a national memorial. In fact, conservationists tell us that we might cause problems in certain habitats when we do leave piles of rocks behind to show that we have been there. So, what reminders can we set up for ourselves? More importantly, how can we point our children to the ways God is working in our lives and in theirs?
Not all reminders need to be physical.
Our traditions can be reminders. Even our daily habits can be reminders of who Jesus is and what he did for us and continues doing for us. Praying before meals, reading the Bible together as a family, praying for each other during the day–all these behaviors God uses to remind us and our kids who he is today. Can we ignore these reminders? Obviously. Did the Israelites sometimes walk by those rocks without thinking? Absolutely. But God does call us to create our own reminders and our own ways to tell our children about who Jesus is and that he is an active part of our lives today.
We need to be living reminders of the reality of Jesus Christ.
God told the Israelites they needed to love him with all their hearts and talk about him continually with their children (Deuteronomy 6:5-9 NIV). In the same way, he tells us that we need to season our conversations with the reality of Jesus Christ (Colossians 4:6 NIV). To our children, we are the most powerful reminders of Jesus they have. We need to make intentional choices in being those reminders. My husband and I chose family prayer time before the first person went to bed. For us, that has been a lasting legacy for our family–and a powerful stimulus to our faith.
I challenge you to choose either family prayer time, talking to your children daily about God sightings, or some other special tradition to become your spiritual legacy in conveying the living reality of Jesus Christ.