Examine your Traditions

By Cindy Koch

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Every year, about this time of year, our lives are molded and shaped by our traditions. Now they could be family traditions, personal traditions, traditions of the church, traditions of the culture; but the familiar patterns of the Christmas season are guiding us through life until the New Year.

Some of us are fortunate enough to fall into beautiful expressions of the Christmas Truth. We may not even know how we got here, but our traditions formed us to confess complex and profound realities with our family and friends. Everything from sights, sounds, smells, and anticipation point us to an almost unbelievable story of light and joy in our dark world. The truth of a hero, hidden in dust and a messy diaper, announced by supernatural messengers to lower class workmen; this story is retold, experienced, and placed into our own lives through our traditions.

At the same time, most of us have been not so fortunate. We also end up with traditions involving family and friends, holiday pressures, and cultural norms. These traditions can toss us to and fro in our world, reminding us about the chaos in which we live. Fighting families at Christmas dinner, random holiday customs around the tree, annoying shopping sprees overdrawing generosity we just don’t have. Tradition will make sure that we do it all again next year, for better or worse.

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Before my oldest daughter was born, a simple blessing plagued my young family. My husband began his seminary education and we moved away from everybody – friends, family, even acquaintances. For years I imagined that this was the worst thing that could have happened. I moved far away from every piece of my support system. We made it home for a few Christmases at the beginning. But as our little family grew, and as Christmas meant overtime for a pastor, we quickly began to discuss that our Christmas traditions needed to change.

Changing traditions is no small thing. These are the safe patterns that keep us sane and focused on the important things. But as my husband and I talked out this Christmas thing, we realized some of our personally “sacred” traditions didn’t really mean anything. Sure, maybe they preserved some happy childhood memories, but is this all we want from our traditions at Christmas?

Christ the Lord, the One that prophets were talking about for thousands of years, actually left God the Father to come and live with us. He was born, he was cold, he grew up and actually walked on real dirt and talked to authentic people. He taught hard lessons of love and sacrifice. He lovingly took the punishment for sin and death – He won eternal life – and He gives it graciously to all who believe. This is what my traditions at Christmas should remind me and my children.

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We reexamined our Christmas traditions. Where are we focused? Why do we do that? Stockings on the fireplace? Free gifts from a generous Father? Let’s keep that. Santa can encourage anticipation – and it’s just plain fun. A little unexplained magic is part of the beauty of our creation. Of course people like to call St. Nick out about the naughty and nice list; but really? You leave coal for your kids in their stocking? Nobody does that. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:11

Our traditions move us to actively participate in Advent and Christmas at church. Kids sing in angel & shepherd costumes, older ones sing in the choir and play on the piano. Candles and music and decorations and food, anything that we can do as a church family: we all celebrate Christmas together. Our community of faith is one of the most joyful places we celebrate the coming Christ! And if it’s not already part of your tradition, if there is nothing for the kids to do or nowhere to sing or serve, YOU can make it happen. Church is a family that helps each other; “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1Th 5:11)

Of course a good tradition can turn into something meaningless and rote. Given the close examination of “why?” many of those traditions become rich, real, and extremely helpful once again. God’s holy Word commends the remembering of good traditions. But even St. Paul reminds us of the apathetic danger. He follows his praise for practicing the good tradition with, “But I want you to understand…” (1 Corinthians 11) The power of a tradition is not simply found in the action – it is important and excellent because it reflects a greater truth. This truth is that which I challenge you to consider.

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One of my favorite family traditions happens on Christmas Eve. Our family gathers in the dimly lit living room. Soft twinkling lights. Sweet smells of pine next to a warm crackling fire. Pretty bows and bright paper under a sparkling tree. Stockings placed, cookies on the table, children excited. 3-2-1, the kids search the house to find baby Jesus for our manger scene. He has been hidden somewhere in the common objects of our house, but he is there. One of the children finally spots the little ceramic baby, maybe tucked in the planter. Finally, the child who found baby Jesus places him in the nativity and hands out a special gift to everyone. Christmas Eve is filled with excitement and joy as Baby Jesus is found and placed in our story, in our tradition.

About 15 years ago, a tragic and delightful thing happened: our changing family examined our traditions. Old faithful practices were reinvigorated; special sentimental patterns were reconsidered. Our family grew stronger together as our traditions serve to now reflect our Hope. I pray your Christmas will be blessed with an examination!

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2 thoughts on “Examine your Traditions

  1. One of our traditions is building up the nativity scene, week by week. We have the empty stable and place rocks next to it – the rocks and hills rejoice. The next week, we add plants (usually clippings from the Christmas tree – the plants rejoice. Third week, the animals – all the animals rejoice. 4th week, people – the people rejoice. Christmas Eve morning, the angels (I have these Metropolitan Museum of Art angels that I suspend with fishing line over the scene) – all of creation now awaits the coming of Christ – heaven and nature sing. the Christ child is placed in the manger before bed on Christmas Eve.

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  2. This is my first advent “season” in a liturgical Lutheran Church. As far as traditions are concerned, I’m very grateful for the traditional season of advent and all that leads up to Christmas time.

    As you referenced above, our involvement in the church is the best Christmas tradition we can have. Nothing will get you more in the “Christmas Spirit” than nativity scenes, Christmas plays, choirs, and sermons on advent.

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