Indeed, that point seems particularly apropos this year. The economy is in tatters. Unemployment is still a horrible problem. We have friends and family who have been out of work for well over a year, and have gone to heroic measures to find another job but to no avail. We have friends whose employers are not doing well and their jobs are not secure. And almost a year after the earthquake, the situation in Haiti is still desperate. The challenges and suffering seem to get worse for Haitians. Tropical storms struck people in tents last summer and now the cholera epidemic.
In such times, it particularly seems inappropriate to try to buy a lot of stuff to try to make merry. Many folks don’t even have the basics. Our family is trying to focus on the reason for Christmas. I know a lot of folks strive to do the same thing, but it is very hard to go against the grain. The mainstream culture is so influential and is very hard to escape. I thought it might be an encouragement to hear about the ways our family has found to reclaim Christmas. And I’m always open to new ways if readers have suggestions to share.
First, our kids’ Sunday School teacher gave all the parish’s families a “Jesse Tree” poster to help celebrate Advent. Every night we read a brief story from the Bible and place a sticker on the paper tree on the poster. The stories and stickers symbolize particular events from the Bible. Jesse was the father of David, so the Jesse Tree traces Jesus’s lineage and promise through the Old Testament. It is a simple and neat activity to help us remember the religious meaning of Christmas, and refocus on why it is such a special holiday. Christmas is the celebration of Christ coming into this world. It is a beautiful and awe-inspiring event particularly when we compare human existence before Jesus came to this Earth to live among us and teach us the Father’s ways. The link below provides some information about the Jesse Tree tradition: http://www.jesse-tree.com/.
Throughout the year our church frequently collects donations for a local food bank. Our family usually participates in them, but it seems particularly important to donate during the holidays. It is anguishing to be food insecure at anytime, but it is particularly hard when the rest of society is over-indulging. And this year in particular, the need seems to be so great. Like much of the country, the economy is really bad here in Arizona. We know plenty of folks who have lost their homes, who have been out of work or who are at risk to lose their job. In that context, donations to food banks have dropped off dramatically while the need has grown tremendously. Those who are fortunate enough to still have a job and a roof over our heads are particularly obligated to help. The following link has information on contributing to food banks in Arizona, but similar information for food banks in other communities is just a Google search away: http://www.azfoodbanks.org/.
Our church is participating in the Angel Tree program, which is part of the Prison Fellowship ministry. Prison Fellowship ministers to the needs of incarcerated people. But incarceration does not just impact the convicted individual. No man or woman is an island. We’re all interconnected, so incarceration impacts families and communities. In our society’s emphasis on getting “tough on crime,” we often overlook the impact on the children of convicted people. They bear the emotional loss of the absence of their parent, the social stigma of being a child of a convict, as well as the economic insecurity and deprivation that often is associated with having a potential breadwinner incarcerated. At the holidays, the Angel Tree program aims to minister to children in that situation by allowing individuals to buys gifts for specific children. Our deacon purposely asked that our church be responsible for sponsoring older children this year because they are often overlooked. More people volunteer to buy gifts for babies and toddlers because they are cute, but not as many people volunteer to buys gifts for older kids. Our family is sponsoring two children this year—a 7 year old and a 10 year old. We have done this kind of sponsorship (through various programs) ever year, and always involve our kids in the shopping and planning. We don’t want to shelter them from the reality that our family is very privileged, and not everyone has the same material comforts and advantages. We should be grateful for what we have been given, and never taken it for granted. We are proud of our kids’ interest and contributions to the shopping experience, and we hope that as they get older, they will do the same sort of thing sua sponte. The link below has information about the Angel Tree program: http://www.angeltree.org/deliverlove.
For several years, our family has made the World Vision Gift Catalogue a part of our family’s Christmas tradition. World Vision is a well-established and well-respected Christian humanitarian organization that works around the world to alleviate suffering due to poverty (and associated problems such as exploitation and disease). They have a catalogue of gifts at various prices that one can purchase to gift to people in need. The gifts are practical in nature and can make a wonderful difference in the lives of the recipients. You can choose to gift livestock, a water well, medicine, food, educational supplies, clothing, or a host of other needed things. Each year we give each of our children a budget and sit with them to go through the catalogue to let them choose how to spend their budgeted monies. It has brought tears to my eyes when they have chosen to buy things like ducks, blankets, seeds and mosquito netting for other families. I’m proud of the thought and reflection they put into the purchases. I’m also grateful that their own material needs are met, but I’m heart-broken for parents whose precious children are more vulnerable. More information on the World Vision Gift Catalogue is available at the link below: http://donate.worldvision.org/OA_HTML/xxwv2ibeCCtpSctDspRte.jsp?go=gift&§ion=10389.
On several occasions in the last few years, our family has sent notes and care packages to men and women in the armed services who are serving overseas. The site http://www.anysoldier.com/ provides a list of soldiers who are willing to act as the point person for their unit, and lists things that would be most useful and appropriate to send to that particular unit. It has been a privilege and a very moving experience when our family has sent things in the past at various times of the year. We plan on sending a package again this holiday season. Our family has known children whose parents are serving in the military abroad, and our own kids cannot image how tough it is to be separated from a parent like that. As a result, this activity is meaningful to our own family.
Like most families, our own financial resources are limited, so we certainly do other things to keep the focus on the meaning of Christmas. During the holidays, we particularly make a point to spend time with friends and family. Being together and enjoying each other’s company is a better gift than anything you could wrap and put under the tree.
This month, our kids are going to be in a holiday parade with a group of their friends, in which they are participating in a live nativity scene. Our kids and a friend of theirs were designated to portray the three Wise Men. In early January, they are also going to participate in our church’s annual Epiphany pageant, which is a lot of fun. My husband and I will be on hand to help the Sunday School director herd livestock (i.e., preschoolers) at appropriate times.
Our children enjoy the spectacle of Christmas lights, so throughout the holiday season, we take an occasional walk around the neighborhood to admire the light displays. It is fun to take a walk and get some exercise together. In our part of Arizona, the days are very pleasant because of all the sun, but when the sun goes down it can get a little nippy. We make a big to-do about putting on scarves and jackets and mittens when we go for our walks to admire the lights. We don’t otherwise have much occasion to get bundled up and wear such things. And we have to keep moving to keep the blood pumping. Then when we get home we sometimes make Mexican hot chocolate, which is a real treat. As opposed to traditional American hot cocoa, Mexican hot chocolate is a rich blend of chocolate and cinnamon. At our kids’ request, we add a couple mini marshmallows and/or sprinkle some ground up candy canes on top to really make it a party!
We make the long trek to Texas to be with our relatives in time for Christmas. Our family is from South Texas, where eating tamales on Christmas Eve is a tradition. My in-laws are from a small town and buy homemade tamales from someone they know for the Christmas Eve supper.
Our family is composed of people from different faith traditions, but we go to church on Christmas Eve. Before we were parents, my husband and I always went to midnight mass. That is way too late for our kids, so we go to an earlier service. Churches often have one geared for children’s short attention spans.
On Christmas day, one of our family traditions is Jesus’s Birthday Cake. We enjoy making the cake together and letting the kids decorate it with left-overs from prior Christmas cookie baking. Truth be told, they generally go a little overboard with the sprinkles and icing, but we think Jesus takes it all in stride. What mere mortals may consider to be gaudy is surely a work of art in his eyes. We serve the cake with dinner on Christmas day. We turn out the lights, sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, and blow out the candles for him. It is one of my favorite traditions—and not because I have a sweet tooth.
Isaiah 11:1-9 (Contemporary English Version)
Like a branch that sprouts from a stump, someone from David's family will someday be king. The Spirit of the LORD will be with him to give him understanding, wisdom, and insight. He will be powerful, and he will know and honor the LORD. His greatest joy will be to obey the LORD. This king won't judge by appearances or listen to rumors. The poor and the needy will be treated with fairness and with justice. His word will be law everywhere in the land, and criminals will be put to death. Honesty and fairness will be his royal robes. Leopards will lie down with young goats, and wolves will rest with lambs. Calves and lions will eat together and be cared for by little children. Cows and bears will share the same pasture; their young will rest side by side. Lions and oxen will both eat straw. Little children will play near snake holes. They will stick their hands into dens of poisonous snakes and never be hurt. Nothing harmful will take place on the LORD's holy mountain. Just as water fills the sea, the land will be filled with people who know and honor the LORD.