What is Christmas about?
What really matters? What do we want our children to understand about this time of year? I've found some things challenging this year - we are in the UK, whereas last year we were in west Africa, working in a mission hospital; somehow there was a much greater focus on Christ, His incarnation, His salvation and the priorities were to honour and worship Him. Yes, we enjoyed special food, and exchanged small gifts, but the priority, the emphasis was on the birth of our Saviour. Here, even within the churches that I know, there seems to be a skewed emphasis. One of my four year olds was almost laughed at the other day, when somebody was asking what they thought the best thing about Christmas was, and he said 'Jesus dying on the cross'. I don't know if the laughter was because they thought he was confusing Christmas and Easter, or because all the other children were talking about food, toys, television and parties. But it made me sad because this took place in a Christian context.
How do churches portray the celebration of Christ?
The preamble to a service might talk about gifts, maybe even ask the children what gifts they had recieved. That happened this morning, whereas we as a family do not open gifts until after church because our priority is worship. We want the children to know that God comes first, and that Christmas is primarily a celebration of Jesus. I'm not against gifts, or joyful celebration by any means! Today, we'd had a lovely morning, special breakfast muffins, a brisk walk across two frosty parks watching the pink and yellow sunrise, time together as a family. But it was confusing and distracting to have the pastor start by asking lots of people to tell the church what presents they had recieved. And then to conclude with remarks to the effect that its now time to go back to feasting and enjoying gifts - also suggests that God is somehow an added extra, even though the focus of the sermon was entirely the opposite. As an adult, I found this frustrating, and I was aware of how this may confuse children by sending mixed messages. On the one hand, as Christians we can really celebrate Christmas because we understand its deeper meaning, but on the other hand, we celebrate very much in the same way as the world.
I knew some Canadian missionaries who did not celebrate Christmas Day at all. I think that approach misses the point too, because it is a time worthy of great celebration. But I can also understand some of their reasons. In the UK, it seems to me that 'Christmas' often becomes a celebration of materialism, of the family, of feasting (which can turn into gluttony and drunkenness) and often brings much of the opposite of what Christ brought into the world. But at the same time, is it not a real opportunity to challenge people to consider what they are truly celebrating, and who Jesus was and what He did? I don't think we should not celebrate. But I would also urge caution. There can be a tendency amongst the church to think that because they are not as extreme in their excesses as those in the world, that it is somehow OK. It is true that we are called to be 'in the world but not of the world' and that we need to understand the people around us to be able to know them more, and to love them more. But at the same time, we are told to be 'holy' - to be set apart for God, to be different. Often, I come to think of what it means to be in the world but not of it, to live here but never fully belong, to be a 'stranger'. The motivation is that we are longing for our heavenly home, the place where we will truly know rest, the place where all things will be restored and made new. And that is the celebration of Christmas.
How can we truly celebrate?
I hope what I have written above makes sense. I am not a miserable, joyless, legalistic grouch! But I feel concerned when churches seem to bend over to reach the world to the point where they almost seem to forget what their highest priority is. People long for something more. In the book of Ecclesiastes, it is written 'You put eternity in the heart of man' - there is a longing for something higher, purer, better than this corrupt world that surrounds us. And Christmas is a time to remember that glory and to truly rejoice!
Pondering these things, I came across another Christian parent with similar concerns.
So, you might wonder, if I feel a bit conflicted by some church activities, and if I am anxious not to celebrate in a way which is too worldly, and if as home educating Christian parents we are seeking to instill in our children a greater understanding of God and what it means to rejoice in Jesus' birth - then what have we done over the advent period?
1) Memory verses/ passages. I've reflected before that young children are expected to be able to remember nursery rhymes or songs from TV shows, but that somehow Bible memory is seen as too serious an activity or too advanced for them at this age. We were first challenged by this when we celebrated our first African Christmas with a family who home educated their seven children. Each of them had prepared something, right down to the three year old. This year, our four year olds learned most of Luke Chapter 2, the passage from Isaiah 9 proclaiming, 'Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders. And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace'. They now get extremely excited when they hear these words spoken in church, and have been writing their own songs with them in!
2) We baked cookies and sweets, made cards, and then took them round to friends as gifts. It's difficult these days - most people have everything they want or need, but there is something personal about a home made gift, and few people don't enjoy something nice to eat. Also, it makes it tangible for the children to see that effort goes into making something good, but that it brings real pleasure. Again, it reinforces the importance of relationships and community, which sometimes seem lacking in current society.
3) We've done music. Lots of it. Recently we got a new piano (having left our old one behind when we left Africa). I've brought down my saxophone (which had been hiding upstairs for too long) and the boys have various percussion instruments. We gather round the piano most evenings, and over Christmas have had extended singing times after dinner. Its a really special thing to do, to be able to worship God together as a family. (It also has the added bonus that the boys become more accustomed to times of singing/ bible reading/ prayer and so cope better with Sunday church services). Through the words of some of the great Christmas carols, we've all been able to reflect and know something more of God.
4) Making decorations. We've collected pinecones, holly and ivy, and some of these we have spray painted silver. We made a large collage of shepherds out in the fields, watching over their flocks by night when suddenly an Angel of the Lord appeared to them. We've asked the boys to think about what they've read in the Bible and what needs to go on the collage. As well as being fun and making a lovely decoration, they've thought quite a bit about how it must be to be out in the fields at night - hence we lit a fire for the shepherds and made them some warm clothes!
5) Visiting family. We live quite a distance from most relatives, but were able to visit a large section of the family last week. Like I said, I'm not against visiting friends and family, enjoying meals together and having fun - its just that I think the emphasis needs to be on why we are having the celebrations.
6) Lots of baking. Cooking is a big activity in this house, in that we do plenty of it, but involve the boys and embrace the many educational opportunities that present themselves as one follows a recipe. Sometimes I stick to things I know are simple and will work well, but this month we've experimented a bit more
7) Singing carols in a nursing home with a group from church. This was a very special thing to do. Many of the old people in that home were confused and suffering with memory loss, but their faces lit up as they started to sing along to the old carols that they remembered from their youth. It was good for the boys to be involved in this, and to seek to share some of the good news about God with those who may not know it themselves.
In all these things, my prayer is that the boys know and love God more each day as they grow. Somebody recently told me I was thinking too much about things, maybe being a bit 'hard on myself' when I was reflecting on mixed motives and whether we truly live to serve and honour God in all things. But as a parent, what is the most important thing of all? What is your priority? Truly? Is it simply to get through the day, or to do the things that everybody else does without thinking about it? Or is it worth stopping and thinking a little more.
'And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.'