Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
Christmas has a certain rhythm to it, starting quietly in October (thanks to retail stores) and building to a full roar by Thanksgiving Eve (thanks to retail stores) that’s sustained until Christmas by all kinds of gatherings, celebrations, and activities. Its predictable entrance and unfolding to December 25 is the framework that upholds our traditions, both personal and communal.
Much of the communal aspect, for me, hangs in the background of my Christmas memories. When my city hangs garland and decor from streetlamps and hosts a Christmas parade, and when TV stations start their countdown to Christmas specials, it’s a signal to me to get in sync with the larger celebration. The communal traditions remind me to fix my eyes ahead, to wonder at what prompts such disruption. I remember anew that “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 The Message). I remember that Christmas is as much about the hope (and promise) of change as it is about tradition. The traditions keep me wondering what God will do next.Our writers share how traditions shape their Christmas celebrations.
And these communal traditions spur me to unpack the ones my husband and I have established for ourselves, few as they may be. While I’m great at thinking up potential traditions, I’m terrible at ongoing execution. We’ve tried a bit of this and that, with few things sticking over the long haul. We always decorate the house and trees with plenty of twinkle lights. We always watch a handful of Christmas movies—How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Jim Carrey version), A Charlie Brown Christmas, Claymation Christmas Celebration, to name a few. We always visit and feast with extended family and friends—my family on the 24th, Mike’s on the 26th. And there are always cookies.
But my favorite tradition comes Christmas morning, in the pause between family parties. There is no alarm clock, no schedule, no need to get ready. There is quiet and coffee, books and blankets, lounging and reflecting. (And cookies.) We look at our twinkle lights and enjoy simply being together. It seems a fitting tribute to the God who chose to come and be with us.
Traditions are signals to remember, to get in sync, to participate. They disrupt our norm—mostly for good. Here, a few of our writers share how traditions shape their Christmas celebrations. We hope these reflections help you find your own Christmas rhythm as we celebrate the coming of Immanuel, God with us.
What I remember most about my childhood Christmas programs is feeling uncomfortable. The heat was turned all the way up to combat the mild chill of Alabama Decembers, so it was unbearably hot indoors. We practiced for hours upon hours, and my legs often ached from standing, my throat scratchy from untrained, jubilant singing. My tights itched. During performances, I and my fellow cast members were crammed into small spaces just before being thrust out of the wings. The stage smelled like smoke and melted glitter (it’s a long story, but suffice it to say that my childhood church was heavily invested in pyrotechnics). The spotlights were blindingly bright, so bright that it was impossible to see any of the audience members who had come to see us. I felt deliciously smug when I was cast in the coveted roles, and I harbored a nagging, stinging sense of deep disappointment when my friends received the desired appointments. Still, it was wonderfully fun, if incredibly overwhelming.
My own children will have no such memories of Christmas programs because our church’s Christmas Eve service for children preserves all of the joy of pageantry with none of the complications. Our kiddos saunter into the lobby just minutes before the service begins and rifle through boxes of costumes, casting themselves into whichever role suits their fancy. Once they take their seats, animal puppets (guided by practiced adults) narrate the Christmas story, and Baby Jesus takes center stage. As the story progresses, the costumed children are invited up in groups to visit and sing to the newborn king. Freshly cast angels lead the congregants in a familiar Christmas carol, then the self-appointed shepherds take their turn. After each group has presented themselves to the Lord and to their doting parents, everyone sings a final carol before returning home for Christmas Eve festivities.
It’s true that some kids don’t know the words to their song, and sometimes a child chooses a costume that doesn’t fit perfectly. The service is loud, and the children are scampering. But these things happen in every children’s program, rehearsed or unrehearsed. The main thing is clear—the children are not there to perform perfectly. They are there to meet with God.
Within the church, and outside it, Jesus tends to surprise us. We don’t earn our roles in His appearance. It’s best if we show up, work with what’s available, embrace the role we’ve been given, and joyfully participate in what He has done. I’m reminded of these truths every Christmas Eve, when a few dozen little girls dress like Mary and scurry down the aisle to behold Him.
Since my parents divorced, it’s been a struggle to find a “family Christmas tradition.” I thought once I married my wife, we’d quickly create our own tradition. But between my separated parents, my sister’s family, and my wife’s family, a family Christmas tradition remains a foreign concept to us. We want to be unified with our families, but at the same time, choosing where and when to be with them has often put a strain on where and when we can be with them.
To create some sort of holiday continuity for myself, wherever we spend our holiday, I like to make sure TBS’s 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story remains on at least one TV in whichever house we’re staying in. Even though most of our family members aren’t the biggest fans of A Christmas Story, I think they essentially understand my desire for tradition and continuity. So they laugh at and along with me for some of my favorite lines of the movie: “Ohhhh ffffuuuudge,” “Fra-jee-lay. It must be Italian!” and “You’ll shoot your eye out,” are just a few of them.
Our editor helped me see that this touches on the ways we navigate brokenness and attempt to establish stability in the midst—which reminded me of the hope we have in Jesus. The desire my wife and I have for joy and unity at Christmas will one day be fulfilled at the foot of Christ’s throne. In the midst of our current broken patterns of Christmas, Christ remains the joy at the center of our Christmas Story.
Christmas is a busy season for us, as I’m sure it is for most families. Between school programs, parties, shopping, and all the other things that come with the holiday season, it can be hard for us to pull back, slow down, and delight in the beauty of what we’re actually celebrating.
One of the things we started doing when my kids were small has grown into a favorite family tradition now that my kids are slightly less-small: We read together. And one of our favorite books to read aloud is One Wintry Night by Ruth Bell Graham. It’s a picture book, but it’s a long one that’s divided into chapters so we take our time, reading a little here and a little there as we’re able to carve out time. The kids grab every blanket they can find in the house and make a huge, comfy pile in front of our Christmas tree, I make mugs of hot chocolate with whipped cream, and we all come together to listen to the story of Christmas. But unlike most Christmas storybooks, this one doesn’t just tell the story of Mary, angels, a long donkey ride, and a city with no room. Instead this book opens by asking, If Christ was the saviour, who needed saving? With stunning illustrations and beautiful writing, One Wintry Night starts with the creation account and moves all the way to the resurrection, telling the overarching story of God’s plan of redemption. I love pulling close with my family. I love slowing down and re-orienting ourselves. But most of all, I love being able to put Christmas back into the context of God’s plan to draw us near; to delight in the beauty of the incarnation while looking forward to the joy of Easter.
I am the oldest of eight children. For 28 years, I have witnessed the inauguration of all our family’s Christmas traditions. I know why we open our stockings full of candy and propitiatory toothpaste first, why everyone always gets socks, and the origins of the ornament we make every year: a little booklet made of construction paper cutouts where we write down all the year’s notable events.
Over the years, the list of traditions has been edited down to a manageable scope, and things like the family Christmas photo and stockings hanging on the mantle are sometimes last-minute additions in a season that feels like it only ever gets more hectic. Even when things felt a little perfunctory, we still did them because we were preserving something unique that only our family, out of all the families in the world, could preserve. They might sound similar to what your family did, but these traditions were ours—a flickering advent candle held by 20 hands, alive only as long as we continue to hold it.
Last year, my wife and I moved to Portland, Oregon, so that she could pursue her master’s degree. When the first Portland Christmas rolled around, we flew home to spend Christmas Day with our families, just like we did in college, opening presents, playing games, and helping construct especially complex LEGO sets. We helped fill in important dates on the construction paper booklet ornament. We upheld the traditions.
This year, we’re not. We will spend our first Christmas in our own home, just the two of us. It’s a change in plans (we love seeing our family; work doesn’t always love giving us sufficient time off), but I can’t help but see it as a tremendous gift.
This year, Christmas is a completely blank page. We have a tree—that much seems essential—and we will be exchanging and unwrapping gifts. But there’s no map to this. There isn’t a list anywhere of the available holiday traditions to choose from. Aside from collecting likes on Instagram photos of your lights and decorations, there’s no metric to really measure if you’re doing “tradition” right. What if you can’t think of anything good and, someday, when your kids get to that age where they get good at sniffing out nonsense, they say, “This is a stupid tradition,” and just crush your spirit? What happens if you try a few different things every year and nothing sticks and you end up with no traditions at all? What then?
I don’t claim to know much about capital-f Family. But if I may impart this one very small observation: it’s whatever you decide you want it to be. The part that makes it family business is that you decide together. We might cook an elaborate dinner, or we might go out to a Chinese restaurant. We might stay up all night wrapping presents for our kids last minute so that the living room is “magically” filled with them when they awake. We may never have kids at all. We like going to see the Nutcracker ballet. We’ll probably keep doing that.
At some point this December, something will happen, intentional or incidental, that will simply be right. It will feel warm and safe, and it will pull us in toward each other. It will be the first board nailed up in the framework of our family: the distinct tiny holy thing comprised of the two of us, which somehow amounts to something much larger.
During my childhood, my parents both had jobs that didn’t stop at Christmastime. My mother is a doctor and my dad is a pastor, so working Christmas Eve was a part of the job. Most Christmas Eves my mom would work late trying to wrap things up for the holiday. My dad would pack up the three (and later, four) of us kids and take us to church. We’d get there early, and while he finished reviewing his sermon, he’d have us put the drip guards on the candles and fold the bulletins. Then, we would get to hand them out to the congregants as they arrived.
Although my parents didn’t take us to a homeless shelter to serve meals or make a big to-do about donating toys, they quietly taught us service by continuing to work in order to ensure that others could celebrate Christmas. Even as he prepared for his most-attended services of the year, my dad took the time to give us—and trust us with—real responsibilities. We loved getting to help my dad and share Christmas with every single person we greeted as they walked into the sanctuary. Through my parents’ demonstration of quiet, daily commitment, my sisters and I learned about both the duty and joy of serving our church and community.
When I was a child, my family holiday traditions were everything. We got a real tree, we observed Advent, we opened one gift on Christmas Eve, we attended a late-night candlelight service, and we woke up early to stockings and a Bible reading of the Christmas story. My dad made homemade crescent rolls—the smell of baking bread filling the house from sun-up until it mingled with Christmas dinner and scented candles and lingering weeks-old Christmas tree at sundown. This was peace and joy and holy longing. This was Christmas.
But then I grew up and became a wife and a parent, and Christmas changed. For many years, Advent longing suffocated beneath the stress of expectations—my own and others’—and I could not reclaim the joy of the season in the midst of the noise and the chaos, or my resentment that my Christmas was not the same as it was when I was a child. It took me a long time to realize that what I longed for was not a reclamation of my childhood traditions, but a return to the holy peace and longing of Advent. I needed to forge new traditions with my husband and children and allow my family members to do as they wished, as well.
In recent years, our holiday traditions have become something unique to us. I cannot bake, so there are no homemade rolls, and I despise mornings, so we do not wake at the crack of dawn for the stockings—and we forbid our family from disturbing us before 10 a.m. on Christmas morning. But I love the soft light of candles and the holy music of Advent. I love a good meal shared with family, and we all love great books and fun and whimsy. That is why, after Christmas Eve service, you can find my husband and me and our four boys in our home sharing an English rib roast and Yorkshire pudding from my Harry Potter cookbook. Our door is open to guests—you’re welcome to come and share—but madness and stress have no place here. It is good to reminisce about the past, but building traditions in the present has become a sweeter, holier, more joyful way to enjoy the holiday season than I ever could have anticipated when I was a child.
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