Making Christmas New—The Old-Fashioned Way
~ by Fr. Chris Marchand ~
An underlying concern lies at the heart of how we go about our annual Christmas customs: how do we pass meaningful traditions down to our children? Indeed, in many ways children are the primary consideration behind nearly all our Christmas celebrations. Even so, in the midst of this concern lies a beautiful truth: the things we want for our children are the same things we want for ourselves. We want them to truly know Christ and be able to worship him with all of their being. We want them to know the Story and to be able to tell it to others. We want them to know how to selflessly give themselves to others and to have eyes to see when there are people in need around them. And we want them to carry this set of fun and meaningful traditions on into the future. A hope we can have is that as we learn about the old traditions of Christmas, we can make them an integral part of our family life and ensure they live on into future generations.
One of the key ways to approach our holiday celebrations is to observe how they fall into one of four categories: worship, festive celebrations, service, and rest. In actuality, you may say all festive seasonal traditions, both sacred and secular, follow this pattern. Sometimes all four categories can be found overlapping in a single event or sometimes only some of them are used, and yet they all naturally embed themselves into our communal celebrations. For instance, a typical American Independence Day might feature a solemn civic ceremony at a courthouse (worship), a fundraising event designed to help veterans (service), a backyard barbecue with lawn games that ends in attending a firework display (celebrating), as well as some much-needed downtime with family and friends (rest). Our Christmas season should follow a similar pattern, and, I would argue, it often already does. We attend Christmas worship with our congregation, we participate in celebrating, many of us engage in serving the needs of our community, and I would think that nearly all of us find time to slow down and get extra rest. In fact, these patterns are part of the normal rhythms of our lives in which we must be constantly seeking balance. The intent behind drawing from the richest traditions of the past and allowing them to take root in our families is to make the Christmas season a single, interconnected movement between worship, celebration, service, and rest. The only way Christmas will remain meaningful is if these four categories become inherently intertwined with our joyful and normal ways of celebrating.
Initially we might approach the traditions of Christmas as a vast well of wisdom from which to draw, but eventually we come to realize that rather than merely preserving Christmas, we are instead being called to reinvent it altogether. By looking back at the past, it becomes apparent that there are numerous traditions worth reviving, but that all of them will have to be adapted to the cultural contexts of the modern world. Looking at Christmas traditions over the span of history soon becomes overwhelming because there are too many practices and variations to choose from. It is difficult to be faithful to a tradition when there are in fact a vast number of traditions in the world. We therefore come to realize we are free to adapt the traditions of old into new forms and to even invent some traditions of our own. Combining the new with the old just might be the most “in the spirit of Christmas” tradition we can participate in.
As modern people, the task of discernment is up to us. What traditions of the past will we continue to make our own? What newer traditions are worth keeping, which are worth rejecting, and which are in need of significant reformation? But also, what new adaptations and innovations can we offer to our culture as future traditions that might take root now and blossom in later generations? Answering these questions will begin to help us form what we want from the Christmas season, spanning from Advent, the 12 days, and Epiphany.
As a way of considering some old ideas made new that you can put into practice, let’s look at one example from each of the categories listed above.
Worship: One idea is to learn how to incorporate the various saints’ days and days commemorating different events from Christ’s birth into your devotional and Scripture practices during the 12 days of Christmas on through Epiphany. This would include St. Stephen’s and St. John’s Days on December 26 and 27 but also a number of other saints’ days in the Orthodox tradition. Some churches have even begun holding “Stations of the Nativity” services during the 12 days as a parallel to Stations of the Cross during Holy Week, where along with reading the corresponding Scriptures, offering devotional reflections, and lifting up set prayers, new artwork can even be commissioned depicting the events before and after Christ’s birth.
Festive celebration: We tend to already have fun with our families or communities during the Christmas season, but rarely is the full church calendar incorporated into how we celebrate. A couple of potential suggestions are to commemorate New Year’s Eve/Day (which in some traditions is also Feast of the Holy Name) and Feast of the Epiphany with larger gatherings or festivals. Doing so can help us connect the narrative of Christ’s birth to fun celebrations that others in the community may even want to join in with us on.
Service: St. Stephen’s (or Boxing Day) and the holiday season in general has traditionally been associated with giving our time and resources to help serve others, however it is more important for us to ask how our church communities can develop long-term and relational approaches to helping individuals in need as well as the organizations who serve people all throughout the year (and not just at Christmas). A more challenging question to ask ourselves is how to connect the message of Christ coming and dwelling with us with the Kingdom work God is calling us to continually do as his hands and feet in our world.
Rest: In past centuries, when society was not based in industry and technology, life and work would all but shut down during the midwinter season. Though much in our lives has shifted, more and more people are feeling the call to have extended seasons to rest and sabbath. Thus, it can feel natural to approach the 12 days of Christmas or the 8 days between the 25th and New Years as a time to unplug and rest as a family. Rather than the frenzied busyness associated with the holiday, how might we teach our children as well as model to the world what it means to rest and trust in God’s provision by consciously making Christmas a time to draw back, seek refreshment, and devote ourselves to the most important things in life, namely worshipping, celebrating, and serving others?
For numerous other suggestions and ideas for celebrating the Christmas season, explore Celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas: A Guide for Churches and Families.
Christopher Marchand is a music pastor and priest at Epiphany Church in Peoria, Illinois, serving in the Anglican Church of North America. He holds a Master of Theological Studies and a Master of Arts in Music Ministry from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. A former headmaster and teacher at Aletheia Classical Christian School, he has taught humanities, history, science, and government courses. He is married to Elisa, and they have four children: three boys and a girl. The author of Celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas: a Guide for Churches and Families and producer of the blog/podcast PostConsumer Reports, Christopher loves discussing anything related literature, film, music, art, or tennis.