The Skill of Celebrating Christmas

Celebrating Christmas is a skill. I’m not particularly good at this craft, but I have at least figured out that you must handle the holidays with a measure of prowess. Just letting Christmas happen to you is a recipe for trouble. Like sailing a ship, Christmas is an opportunity requiring keen attention at the helm.

Every year, it seems, I gain a lesson in what not to do and resolve to do things a little better the next time around. I do not pretend to offer anything like a comprehensive word on the subject here, nor to speak with authority. But after many tries at it, a few reflections may at least stimulate thought as we reflect back on this past season and look to the future.

The first skill in navigating Christmas well is to renounce idealism.

This is harder for some than for others; but it is vital never to permit tradition or fantasy to overwhelm reality. Fulfilling traditions and meeting expectations is not evil; but unrestrained dreams can quickly morph into vampire-like nemeses that suck the joy from our souls. Have a long talk with your head (rather than your heart) at the outset of the holiday season: “Some preparations will fail. Unforeseen complications will arise. Some things will not go well. And all of that is okay.” Do not expect to hit a home run every Christmas; hitting a single now and then is acceptable. Moderate expectations can brighten the season considerably.

The second skill is to renounce materialism.

Gift-giving that necessitates over-spending and/or feeds a sense of indulgence or obligation leaves a wicked after-taste. Work to modify the expectations of children. Explain to them that you are consciously resisting the standards set by commercial advertisers and “normal” families. Help them manage the hype. Teach them by word and example that Christmas is about much more than the gifts they receive. When gathering with larger families, try to get your relatives to agree ahead of time on a modest dollar limit, a single name-exchange, forgoing gifts for the adults in the group, or something of the sort. “White elephant” giving for larger family gatherings can be a lot of fun and eliminate expectations and jealous comparisons. You may need to patiently labor for such changes over a number of years; but the results can be rewarding.

The third skill is to manage the imposition of expectations from the outside.

Sometimes it seems that family peace can only be upheld by responding to the unreasonable dictates of a parent or grandparent. If outside expectations exerted undue pressure on you or your family this past holiday season, graciously communicate this reality and resist it in the future. Families need to respect their elders and bend to their desires; but family elders who put unhealthy demands on younger family units should not be granted free reign. January may be a good time to express thanks for this past Christmas while suggesting a new direction for the future.

On a larger scale, a fourth skill pertains to how Christmas is celebrated nationally.

To celebrate Christmas well, workers need to have time off work.

Some employees want to work Christmas Day, particularly those who earn essential overtime pay. There are also those who must work on Christmas Day, such as medical personnel, police officers, emergency dispatchers, livestock managers, and a host of other industries that provide essential services. But with increasing regularity, retail stores that could remain closed on Christmas Day are choosing to open for business. Many of the workers in these stores do not want to be there, but feel they have no choice in the matter.

The arguments in support of this trend are numerous, but generally relate to servicing customers and increasing revenues. The fact that customers desire or even demand a service is not sufficient justification for pressing employees to meet those expectations. Closing a store when competitors are poised to snatch away consumers is not an easy decision for retailers. But the golden calf of material gain should not overshadow the wellbeing of employees. Managing Christmas skillfully may include advocating for employees whose hearts are at family Christmas gatherings, but who work in order to retain their jobs.

Due to common grace, these four Christmas-managing skills are achievable, on some level, by virtually all who set their minds to the task. These skills are, however, ultimately rooted in the wisdom of the Christ of Christmas and enabled by his indwelling Spirit in the hearts of those who through special grace trust His word. The framework for these skills is provided by Jesus in passages such as Matthew 5:7, 6:19-34, 7:12, 11:28-30; Mark 3:31-35, 10:7; Luke 12:15-21; and John 14:27. The light found in these texts not only equips us with skills to manage Christmas, but with illumination for every step of life’s journey. Read them as a post-Christmas balm for the soul.

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