As the Christmas holiday season is ending, I’m sharing several impressions of Christmases past.
My childhood memories go back to when I was 3 or 4. I was not educated in the Santa Claus myth and only knew that Christmas was a time for celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christmas was a special time of song and gifts from close family members, including grandparents. The gifts were of a useful nature and helped me understand, from an early age, that Christmas was a time of caring and sharing. My father was the son of deeply religious Christian parents and my mother was the daughter of a divided home. Her mother was very religious but her father was not. My mom and her mother celebrated Christmas mostly with focus on the birth of Christ, not much on gift giving.
As I grew up, I came to realize the season celebrated the birth of Jesus, not lavish gift giving to individuals tangential to my life. Christmas was marked by religious events including church musical presentations and sermons highlighting the significance of the date being marked. It was also a time when family came together to find a Christmas tree under which those few presents were stowed until Christmas Eve. Often my brothers and I would go into the surrounding forests to find a suitable tree. We decorated the tree with items we made, like paper chains, handmade ornaments and strung popcorn.
Christmas Eve was usually tough as we had to wait until Dad arrived — often late, as he was an important medical professional in our town. I’d sit glued to my second-floor bedroom window wondering if the headlights coming down the road were his and Christmas could start. It was like Advent with its attendant hopeful watching and waiting. After Dad’s arrival, we would have a time when the Bible was read, especially the Luke passages, and a few carols were sung. Presents would be opened, many of which we made for each other prior to Christmas. Truly, it was a warm spiritual time of family coming together to recognize this special time of year. My mother, an artist, created a large stained glass window reproduction insert for our huge front window. Displayed there during the Christmas season, it left little doubt in our neighbors’ minds that Christmas was a special time for the Thompsons.
Just before Christmas my mother would have one or two get-togethers for many friends, weighted heavily toward those people whom time seemed to have forgotten, or who were no longer cared for. She’d inject good food, holiday cheer and reflections about the wonderful time of year we were commemorating. These gatherings continued until shortly before her death at age 92. An incredibly musically talented woman, Mom directed choirs in two different churches and presented wonderful musical programs during the Christmas season to direct hearts closer to God, the reason for the birth of Jesus.
Christmas caroling was another huge part of my younger life; friends and family would go caroling in groups, singing in harmony to bring cheer to neighborhoods in my northern Idaho town. It was always a joy to go caroling.
Bright Anchorage memories
During 15 years in Anchorage, I’ve collected many wonderful Christmas memories. Some Advents have been especially wonderful times of connecting with God. A particularly bright spot was the presentation of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” at St. John United Methodist Church, with Karen Horton leading the choir and chamber orchestra. It brought me so close to God, I was amazed. Last Christmas, I had the opportunity to sing with the Anchorage Concert Chorus at Our Lady of Guadalupe’s celebration of midnight Mass. That wonderful service was most fulfilling. Many churches offer candlelight services on Christmas Eve. They are wonderful events and worthy of attending, no matter the religion. Christmas at church tends to bring out the best in music, liturgy, children’s understanding and the poignancy of scriptural affirmation. If you have children, I urge you to let them enjoy this special time.
A sad Mexican Christmas memory
About 20 years ago, I celebrated Christmas in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I was thrilled to participate in a Las Posadas procession, in which villagers ritually go from house to house asking for room for the Joseph and Mary figures in the front. Las Posadas processions are accompanied by ritual singing, prayers and readings. As I joined the procession, I discovered a number of American tourists had also joined and were attempting to inject a jovial air to it by spinning around, dancing, loud talking, laughing and other absurd attempts to make it very festive. I was saddened by this “ugly American” behavior and left the procession.
Martin Luther and Christmas
Almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther redirected the practice of giving children gifts on St. Nicholas’ Day (Dec. 6) in favor of celebrating Christ’s birth on Dec. 25. In so doing he directed people to the true meaning of Christ’s birth. Luther also preached excellent Christmas sermons. One of these wonderful sermons is available on Beliefnet.
Purpose of Christmas
Scriptural interpretation is unclear when Jesus was born but many scholars lean toward 6 B.C. to 4 B.C. Times of year vary, but I lean toward early November. Christmas is a wonderful time of year to reflect on the plan of salvation and God’s love for man to provide a way of escape (a gift) for the price of sin. It’s a time we can emulate that gift by giving to the unloved, just as God did. The various ways of doing so have been shared in this column all through December. Let’s stay focused on God’s gift to us, and pay it forward to those who need our love. Remember, it’s not your birthday; it’s Jesus’.
My wish list for 2015
Over the years, my list of items for churches to address in the coming year has been one of my most read and shared pieces of writing. If you have thoughts about this, I urge you share them with me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at churchvisits.com.