I Don’t Know How to Celebrate the Holidays

November 16, 2011

In a couple of weeks, the Christmas season will officially begin for me.

Sure, I’ve already walked into more than one store and been maced with an almost lethal dose of artificial cinnamon gas.  And I’ve seen more than a few Christmas commercials.

But on Thanksgiving, my wife and I will return home after visiting with family.  We’ll put up our Christmas tree and the few decorations we own.  And we’ll play some old holiday records.  I will probably wear a sweater, and that will start Christmas in our house.

Christmas traditions are generally enjoyable to me.  But my wife sent me a text at work the other day that got me thinking…

“I want to do something this year to really prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Any thoughts?”

Oh sure, I’ve got lots of ideas.  Let me list them out…

…Crap.  I don’t have a clue.  Maybe you can help us?

What Are We Celebrating?

As I thought about how to respond to my wife’s sincere question, I thought to myself that we do plenty already!  We put a bunch of crap on our walls, and we go to a lot of trouble to buy thoughtful gifts for people we don’t know how to shop for, and we drink eggnog, and we truck across town to go to your office’s party which is not my idea of a great time, and we drive to the middle of nowhere to see your relatives, and we listen to Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ about a hundred times.  Yep, I’d say Jesus is getting a pretty sweet party from Matt.  

But she was right.  I feel the same way.  I’m feeling a little Charlie Brown-y.

We know how to celebrate Christmas.  We’ve got that down to a science.  We just haven’t figured out how to celebrate Jesus.

The Christmas Routine

When I was a kid, I really enjoyed opening the little paper doors on the advent calendar my parents would get for me.  I haven’t had an advent calendar in years…and I don’t particularly care.  I’m an adult now and I can have a piece of cheap molded chocolate any day I feel like it without waiting for the proper day on the calendar.  I could buy an advent calendar and eat all the chocolate in one sitting if I want to.  It’s not quite as magical, but being an adult rarely is.

And starting with advent calendars, Christmas has just sort of progressively lost some of its shininess to me.  Maybe it’s because we don’t have kids.  Christmas just seems to be turning into…I don’t know, a routine.  Do these things, buy this stuff, go to that place, eat some junk.  Rinse and repeat.

I’ve realized that most years, as long as the Christmas season is, with weeks of preparations and planning, when it’s over, I still feel like I missed Christmas.  It’s like I just tuned the whole thing out and woke up in time for New Year’s.

Stop a Christmas Zombie

Okay, that was a really negative take on Christmas, I know.  But maybe you can help me.  I need help!  Because I don’t want to be a Christmas grump.  And I don’t want to zone out like a Christmas zombie for a month.  So help my wife and I out.  How do you not just celebrate Christmas, but celebrate Jesus?  Do I need to go get an advent calendar?  Or do I need to shake up my whole Christmas routine?

42 responses to I Don’t Know How to Celebrate the Holidays

  1. justapeekartwork November 16, 2011 at 4:16 am

    Hey Matt…..stumbled on here. I agree that the season seems richer with children. My husband and I, although the kids (not little goats)are grown still celebrate the Advent season. There is something wonderful about lighting the Advent candles each week and sharing an evening supper talking about the Lord in our lives. We used to cram all sorts of activities and celebration into the season and celebrated all the way to the old Candlemas on February 2nd. Yeah, we were nuts and obviously had way more energy over 2 decades ago. On Little Christmas Eve, Dec. 23rd, we await the Christ Child and share our inner heart’s desire and longing to a loved one. It is a way to celebrate the “longings” that we are promised the Lord will answer in the Psalms, and a definite intimacy between husband and wife. It keeps our marriage of 31 years alive in a quiet way. Have a Happy Advent, wonderful Hannukkah, terrific St Lucia, magical Little Christmas Eve, a bright and shining Twelfth Night, and a nifty Navity Day!
    and……..Merry CHristmas. Evonne

  2. Hi Matt,

    Come Christmas time, first I think in terms of red negligees.

    Then, for years we have served Christmas dinner to the bums at a local mission. Or, some years, we pick up homeless hitchhikers and bring them home with us for the feast (Yeah, could be dangerous but we’ve never had any trouble).

    Now that our kids are grown with homes of their own, to me one of the best parts of Christmas is remembering. Few things generate more of a sense of Christ’s presence now than remembering His presence in past times. I also remember black lace negligees… but they never fit me right.

    John Cowart

  3. Hey. Deep in december, it’s nice to remember that Jesus was probably born in September. Celebrate His birth? Celebrate the Jewish High Holy Days. Find out what those are all about, because Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of them.

    • I’ve done a Passover Seder before and loved it. Great idea.

    • I agree Marty, the Church could do a much better job at celebrating the holidays God actually told his people to celebrate. God was constantly telling his people to remember the acts of God…I love thinking about how that is another way we can connect with “the great cloud of witnesses.”

      My wife and I have two boys. We’re really wrestling with giving them too many gifts each year. Francis Chan, in Crazy Love, mentions a couple of people who go out of their way to give, and to make their children give, to those who are really needy around them. I suppose if you don’t have children, you could begin the practice and just continue it when they do come along.

  4. Have you thought about ‘fasting’ from certain aspects of Christmas that have become more the focus than Jesus (e.g. gift-giving)? This is something I’d love to do if my family would agree to it!

    And in its place–maybe entering the heart of Advent, the anticipation of Christ’s first and second coming. Use the wreath and the candles; the calendar; etc. You could even go ‘high-church’ and really emphasise the waiting–no ‘Christmas’ carols before Christmas actually starts on the church calendar(Dec 25), only ‘Advent’ carols; etc.

    Just some thoughts. I too would like to see Christmas become more meaningful–but meanwhile Lent and Easter are my favourite seasons, because the world has no real idea how to ocrrupt them!

  5. The key to Advent, for me, is exactly that sense of not being sure what to do. It’s a nascent time, a time of waiting. I like to think of Advent as a growing sense of unease, of realizing that there’s something wrong in our life and we can’t quite find the solution, and starting to lean our trust back on God that he’s going to send us Salvation. As we get closer to Christmas, we hopefully get closer to the belief that something transformative IS going to enter the world, and our empty rituals and running around will once again have meaning. Maybe it’s sort of like an anti-Lent- spend Advent being bombarded by the worst excesses of our world, see that those, too, lack meaning, and heartily embrace the better way Jesus offers come Christmas.

  6. I think changing up the routine a little helps. My wife and I aren’t getting each other presents this year, and instead we’re saving up so we can go out to a nice restaurant we usually can’t go to later on. We enjoy going out to eat, so this works for us. I still remember one Christmas when my dad actually made us a knock hockey set rather than buying us anything. It seems almost every year around Thanksgiving family members have a chat about how we’re doing presents that particular year, due to finances, but the results vary and are therefore memorable. I think if everything stays the same the years blur together and don’t make a dent on our memory: herein lies the rut and lack of meaning. One of these days I’ll man up and do Advent Conspiracy. There’s always that.

  7. I thought about the luster of Christmas, and how it seems to be gone. We have made family traditions which my parents seemed to be much better at. I used to love midnight mass; I felt close to Jesus then. Now we go to an antique Christmas celebration at a museum – it’s our favorite. We used to do the Nutcracker with the kids.

    So here are my suggestions:
    – Family meals with people that we love from our own family, or our church family – or homeless people. There are lots of lonely people in this world. Buy them gifts, and roast a huge freakin’ turkey. Or just do a little one and ask the Lord to multiply it.

    – Serving. Make good fruit bread or cookies and take it to your neighbors. Knocking on doors doesn’t only have to be done by the police.

    – Extravagant Giving – you think you have everything? How about getting the worship leader a huge gift certificate at Guitar Center? How about a new car for a struggling family? How about taking a wayward teen to the movies for no reason?

    – How about getting a gift for Jesus? For real, how about laying something down so that He can have more of you, and more of your life? So often, we like to do, and sometimes all we need to do is receive.

  8. I think you’ve nailed it–our culture is so bound up in Christmas that we miss Jesus.

    In the past few years, we’ve scaled back the hype to make room for some new traditions: First and most important is spending extra time in prayer and meditation. We turn off the TV so we don’t get bombarded with ads, and I try hard to finish my shopping and gift-making by Thanksgiving. That eliminates a lot of distractions.

    We reduced our gift budget to make room for more giving–last year I “gave” my husband a goat through Partners International (it’s living in the Dominican Republic), and I “received” a flock of chickens (very appropriate, as I actually do have hens) and support for a widow in Africa.

    Since my 89-year-old Dad has no other family, we still celebrate Christmas at home with presents and brunch. I can see in the future, however, that we’ll probably head for a soup kitchen to serve, and get together with our kids another day.

    I think you’re on the right track. It just takes being aware of the problem and intentionally doing something about it.

  9. Hi Matt!

    I love-hate the season, and have for years. I finally came to terms with it when I realized that Advent is the key for me. The waiting, the anticipation, the un-ease described by some of your other posters–these are the heart and soul of Advent.

    I like to walk a labyrinth during Advent, if I can find one. We go to the woods to find the sticks and greenery to decorate our Advent wreath. Throughout the season, I try to find silent, contemplative moments that I can listen for the Quiet Voice of God. I started these habits when the kids were much younger and the “noise” of the season became too loud.

    Helping serve the homeless a meal is great, but the homeless need me more AFTER the Christmas hub-bub has vanished. We often take small food gifts to those who have to work on Christmas Day–fire stations are great, as are nursing homes (the staff appreciates a treat, too), etc.

    And, now, I plan to find a labyrinth and follow my own advice this season!

  10. Hey Matt, you mentioned traditions from your childhood. As corny as it can sound, revisiting some of these can actually re-establish your connection to the season, so yeah, get that advent calender (and no, don’t eat all the candy at once!). Try to remember other things that made you feel closer to God at this time of year. Your wife probably has similar memories. Sit down and really listen to each other as you recall special memories from past christmases. and yeah, All that stuff everybody else said is good too, especially the giving. We as believers can never give too much! God Bless.

  11. so….i have been thinking about this post.
    i guess my question is….
    does it matter?
    does it matter that “christmas” is not really about Jesus? i love Jesus, i celebrate and reflect on him every week and on most days.
    i think it does suck that our culture is so consumer driven around the holidays…but then again, thats our culture. could it not just be fun to sit around, drink egg nog, party with friends and family, get gifts, give gifts, think of santa claus and the magic around him, enjoy the change in weather, celebrate with our believing and non believing neighbors and communities?
    to me, the above sounds a lot like enjoying creation and being involved in our culture. thats a pretty christian thing to do.
    i try really hard to tell the story of Jesus to my children around christmas time….but i hope thats not the only time i do that. i guess i just beg my first question:

    does it really matter that Jesus isnt the “reason for the season” anymore? does this mean Jesus loses a point?
    i say it doesnt. he is still just as big and just as beautiful. and for all intents and purposes, it may just be better that our culture finds its way around Jesus for christmas. that way he is way less superficial and may open their minds to something bigger.

    just a thought.

    • Justin, I think you have some interesting ideas. But for those of us who do believe in Christ, I guess I’d like to think of this season as a way to refocus on what’s truly important. And I don’t think I’m willing to so quickly accept that our culture is consumer driven.

      But Jesus will continue to be beautiful no matter what – you’re right!

    • Interesting question. I guess I feel the need for Jesus to be at the center of Christmas because I know I don’t pay enough attention to Him. My spirituality dries out through the year.

  12. You do it by celebrating the season of Advent, of course. :-)

  13. Matt – Last year was one of my favorite Christmases because I gave (anonymously) to a family at church who had a rough year (death of a parent/grandparent, foreclosure, etc.). Starting on December 12, under cover of darkness, I snuck up to their front door (luckily they lived within a mile of me), hung a Christmas stocking on their doorknob with a note, knocked on the door and ran like heck (the text of the first note is below – subsequent notes were all rhymes with gifts relating to the 12 Days of Christmas)! Word came from our pastor’s wife that the family looked forward to that knock on the door each night. I know Christmas isn’t about me, but I think I got more joy out of those 12 trips than the family did.

    Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
    not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse!
    ‘Cept suddenly one little soul did appear,
    It’s your Christmas Friend to bring holiday cheer!
    Tonight a partridge for your tree,
    Tomorrow, who knows? You must wait and see.
    So hang out this stocking each night with care,
    and know that your Christmas Friend soon will be there!
    Beware this warning, your friend will be here,
    DO NOT LOOK, or he’ll disappear!

  14. Last year we picked up a copy of “Today in a Manger” and read the devotions together – I highly recommend it as a good starting place.

  15. I’ve celebrated Advent for longer than I’ve been married, let alone had children.

    There are numerous websites and helps to find an Advent Bible reading plan. I used to do it by myself, but not we read the Bible together at dinner time (aside from Advent, that is not a typical family activity since my husband is not a believer).

    Matt, if you let this season be separated from the commercialism that is rampart, then you might regain your love and awe of Jesus once again.

    Another reader commented that it didn’t matter. I guess it’s okay to let the enemy take territory, many Christians are not doing anything with it anyway. We have a vision of Jesus, meek & mild instead of King of a kingdom, of which I am royalty and therefore have a vested interest to see the kingdom grow and expand, and see Jesus get his full reward.

  16. The overwhelming noise of the commercial Christmas has become deafening. I’ve talked with so many people that have that same sense of disconnectedness from Christmas.

    Here are a few suggestions that we have found help us:

    1. Reduce the gift budget and get it out of the way. We’re done already. We can now focus on spending time with our kids and family and friends – those we love.

    2. Give unexpectedly – like others have mentioned – food for those that have to work, treat bags (popcorn, Blockbuster card, soft drink and candy) for waiters/waitresses, free gift wrapping, raking leaves, helping a neighbor (especially elderly) put up their decorations (the smile will be one of the brightest lights).

    3. Create memory moments. Although we live in the south (Charlotte, NC area), Charlotte has an outdoor ice skating rink with carols and hot cocoa during the “season”. That is an intentional fun time with friends/family. The kids look forward to it. Pull a hayride of friends/family through a neighborhood filled with lights!

    4. Remember intentionally – our family has a tradition that my kids look forward to. We have a candle that we burn once a year. That candle is lit while we stop on Christmas Eve to read about Jesus’ birth in Luke 2. That candle and lights on the tree are the only lights on at that point. This helps us remember the light that Jesus brought into a world of darkness

    Sorry for going on so long. :)

  17. I know what you mean. Christmas seems to lose some of its magic each year as I grow older–it no longer has the wonder it did as a kid. Maybe this is because I’ve grown more cynical, maybe because I’m an adult and am not shielded from the craziness of the season as much, maybe because there are no kids in the house anymore.

    I don’t really have any suggestions to add–this is a question I’ve struggled to answer myself. Lots of good thoughts here, though–thanks for starting the conversation.

  18. I would say just focus on service to others during a hard time. There has to be elderly or singles in your area who are alone on Christmas. A surprise of a pizza to someone who thinks no one really cares on Christmas could save a life.

  19. We set aside time to decorate our tree as a family (it’s really important to five- and six-year-olds, you know.

    The very first ornament we hang is a four-inch-long nail on a red ribbon.

    And we talk about why it’s important to remember that Jesus’s birthday is about so much more than presents and trees and lights. That nail ornament reminds us that he came to die for our sins.

    We don’t like to think about the fact, I think, that Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birth, and that his birth was the juggernaut that started the salvation plan rolling towards the crucifixion. Blood and gore don’t seem to have any place in our pristine manger scenes. We don’t want to think about tears of anger and grief at the same time that we think of happy tears and awe of a newborn baby, of Mary gazing in wonder at the Word becoming flesh.

    That nail ornament is a way for us, as the adults, to remember WHY Jesus came, and as parents, to find a way to teach this to our children.

    Because we don’t like to acknowledge that the crucifixion is essentially the fulfillment of the Incarnation, because it’s “hidden,” we hang the nail ornament on a branch, tucked back against the trunk of the tree.

    We have an advent book that we read with our kids.

    One of the things that speaks to me the most at Christmas is the music. In particular, Handel’s Messiah. Inspired work, no doubt. It always brings me closer to the real meaning of Jesus’s birth, his life, his death, and his resurrection, the ultimate hope.

  20. We have been working our way toward The Advent Conspiracy in baby steps. Last year, we cut back on giving things and instead, planned stuff to do together. We went on The Polar Express (Grand Canyon Railway) one night and then to the Lowell Observatory the next day.

    We have also started incorporating the 12 days of Christmas, where we do something together each day after Christmas though it wasn’t consistent. Ever since we had our first child, my husband prays for our kids and asks God for verses to help them in the coming years and I put it in a scrapbook. They open them on Three King’s Day, because, frankly scripture verses can’t compete with worldly presents. Maybe you and your wife could pray and ask God to give you verses for each other.

    In all this, though, I still find myself not praying as much as I should or reading God’s word. And for this, I still count myself as failing to celebrate Jesus fully.

  21. Can I use this as a soapbox to complain that Walmart and Toys R Us are trying to gyp us out of Thanksgiving by opening their stores at 9 p.m. Thursday night? I mean, PLEASE, let us have one full day of remembering to thank God for the blessings He has already given us before we start to covet more stuff!

  22. The big thing on all the “mommy” blogs the last few years is the idea of the “Jesse Tree.” It’s like an advent calendar, but the focus is on the things and people in the Old Testament that point to the Messiah. There are probably thousands of versions online ranging from cheesy things to color with the kids to extremely elaborate and fancy. It’s not just a “countdown to Christmas,” it really puts the idea of “Messiah” into perspective.

  23. We started a Jesse Tree–and LOVE LOVE LOVE IT!

    Here is a blog where I learned about it:

    Amazing stuff!

  24. Are you going to be wearing a sweater with a reindeer or a snowman on the front? Sorry. I had to ask.

    My family is cutting our gift budget in half and the “little events we are expected to attend” by 80%. I hadn’t heard of the Advent Conspiracy before tonight but I keep thinking that my family needs to do quiet, random acts of kindness all next year instead of just during the holidays.

  25. Something simple we do as a family is bake Jesus a cake, and sing happy birthday to him. My girls love it. We also make sure that all gift giving is done before Christmas. Make the whole day about family and Jesus, a total fellowship thing.

  26. Hi Matt….you’re deliciously funny!!! Let me just start with that. Kinda of fell over into your Blogspace and I like your voice. With that being said I’ll stop beating the bush and answer contribute to your request.

    I teach a Holy Spirit led Bible study here in Greensboro, NC where I live. We call ourselves “Bible Bootcampers”… We’re getting ready for something, and I believe it’s something amazing:-)

    Anyhoo, so we have homework every week and last week’s homework was to journal about what our individual ‘service’ to God looks like. Keeping a log of how we serve Him on a daily basis. It’s pretty interesting, I’ve found that I’m not quite of at Christ’s service the way my pride was allowing me to believe. I’m always saying ‘Lord use me’…but what I’m really saying is ‘use me where I already have plans to be’….we both know that’s really more about my convenience than a servant’s heart for God.

    I’m saying all that to say this….why not take your beautiful wife by the hand (don’t worry, I’m not stalking you….I just trust she’s a beauty:-) and go off the beaten path in ways to serve others in Jesus Name this Holiday season? I’m sure it’d be refreshing…..One of the things I love about God is how He’s connected our joy to our capacity/willingness to make joy happen for others.

    I know all about the ‘go here, go there, rinse & repeat’ syndrome for Christmas. I’m looking forward to celebrating Jesus instead of all the hoopla…dare I call it paganism? Yikes!!!

    Anyhoo, thanks a million for your post!!!

    Blessings & Strength…

  27. We’ve had this same struggle every year. Whatever you do, DO NOT buy an advent calendar. We usually celebrate ‘Christmas’ on a mild scale. We make it a point to read several different versions of the Christmas story from the Word.

    Last Christmas, we watched The Passion of the Christ. That pretty much did it for me.

    I don’t know if it’s so much celebrating Jesus as keeping our eyes on Him, which is what we’re supposed to do all year long anyway, right?

    Start some family traditions now, so it won’t be a big deal for when you do have children. I know when my wife and I started to question how we spend the holidays, our children were like, “Why are we doing it different this year?”

    Wishing you all God’s best this season and always!