When I compare Christmas in America today, with the Christmas of my youth, I find it a very different holiday than it once was. Let me share some cherished memories to give you some perspective.
Though I did believe in Santa, I had much to help me ponder the mystery of Christmas in the divine coming of Christ to Earth. Our Town Council decorated the streets of our town, hanging large, red candles from each light pole, the candle a common symbol of Christmas that stood for Jesus as ‘the light of the world’. Everywhere you heard, “Merry Christmas!”. Carols played in every store, and children in every school sang them. There were nativity plays in schools, or school principals read aloud the biblical Christmas story, without recrimination- imagine that! It was NORMAL.
In our family life, December days were rich with Christian emphasis. We used an Advent Calendar to help us to think about the Lord’s birth, opening a tiny calendar window for each date that advanced towards Christmas Day. Though we didn’t have a lot, our mom and all the children prepared food and presents for days to give to friends and family. Our mother taught us that, as God in Heaven freely gave Jesus to us, we were to give to others. The house rang with Christmas carols from the stereo all season long, and we were loath to stop them until after New Year’s Day. We had just three TV channels, and one of them played The Ten Commandments on the Sunday after Thanksgiving as a religious start to the Season. We had a rather large, musical family, and we enjoyed bundling up against the bitter Pennsylvania night to go caroling around our neighborhood, sharing the beauty and joy of the Season with our neighbors. We didn’t need sheets with words; we had heard the carols in church, in school, at home, in town, so often that we knew them well, and could sing most all the verses. Our Dad set up a life-size outdoor nativity silhouette in our yard on the corner at the entrance to the neighborhood, and he lit it with a large spotlight that stayed on through the night. We completed it with one of our dolls playing Baby Jesus.
Christmas Eve was the culmination of the preparations, and it remains in my mind an especially sacred time, devoted to the evening Candlelight Service in our beautiful old church. In the quiet, dimly lit sanctuary, we listened to time-honored hymns and classical Christmas music. There followed the thoughtful, annual re-telling of “The Tale of the Innkeeper”, written and delivered by our humble minister. I looked up at the huge stained glass window behind the altar, depicting the Annunciation to the Shepherds, as I listened. We left the sanctuary with full hearts and reverent hushed voices, thinking about all that we had seen and heard. We rode home talking about it all.
Once home, the children slipped away in secret to plan our re-enactment of the Christmas story. Out came the bathrobes and bath towels for the cast of characters from shepherds and angels, to the Holy Family, to the Wise Men, amidst much giggling and whispering. The sheep, camels, and other animals of the nativity we replaced with stuffed animals, and bath salts and perfume became the gifts of the Magi. Our oldest sister was the narrator. The rest of us played multiple roles as she read from the account of Christ’s birth in the Book of Luke 2:1-18. We performed this retelling for our parents with dimmed lights and much solemnity, and an occasional slippage of halo, as an older sibling scolded in whispers a little one who missed a cue in awe of it all. Our parents were at once slyly amused and proud, and praised our rag-tag troupe. This remained a tradition until there were too few actors left to sustain the play.
There was an emphasis on Santa in our community, the hints of the takeover to come, but Jesus was still honored in our time. We never knew if anyone was incensed that we had a life-sized nativity in our yard for all to see as they passed by on the main road. We worshiped in safety, with no thought at all that someone might enter the sanctuary of the church to do us harm; this was entirely unheard of. Jesus was honored in our schools, taught and celebrated. The America of my childhood was still considered a Christian nation. Those who did not espouse the Christian faith were not the norm, but, for the most part, they were good enough to honor our choice, and not harm us or take us to court because our beliefs differed from theirs.
Yes, things are different, these memories make me yearn for the simple Christmas days of my childhood. The changes we witness in the secularization and removal of all things sacred from Christmas are symptomatic of a growing intolerance toward Christians throughout the land. Though I alone cannot change the world, I can pray to the God of heaven who sent His Son to be the Savior of the world. For my part, I can continue to be an instrument of change in my own circle of influence, determining to honor Christ with my daily contacts. As a stone causes a ripple that extends to the very edges of the pond, so my kind words and deeds and my unflinching faith can have an effect, more than I will ever know.
The greatest change will occur, the one most desperately needed, when all Christ-followers choose to live as Christ would have us to live, to humbly repent of our own sinful shortcomings, to seek to know God more, and to teach our children the same. Only then will God listen to our prayers and begin the work of healing our land.
Then once again, Jesus will be honored at Christmas, and every other day. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
“If my people, who are called by My Name, will humble themselves and pray, and seek My Face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14
“The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light….
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
Isaiah 9:2, 6-7