Part 2: What is Christmas?

c. 2002

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. – Luke 2:10-11 (NRSV)

Christmas is all of our traditions and time with family as well as the celebration (and thanksgiving!) for the Incarnation.  And we focus a lot of this on two days on the calendar.  I’ve been thinking a lot about “What is Christmas?” this year, because this year Eldest is a freshman in college.

For most parents launching a child, that means we would have him home in the next week or so after finals until sometime in January.  There is no serious significant other that he will be splitting time with, so we are still able to maintain our family traditions of being home on Christmas Eve (except for the worship services).  We can still visit Dave’s parents on Christmas Day.  We can still spend New Year’s Eve at my parents with my brother’s family.  We can still have hang out time together.

We could.

But we won’t.

In addition to being a college freshman, Eldest is also playing football. On October 27, I wrote this to my family as we planned when to get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas:

Here’s what I know about Thanksgiving and Christmas – Eldest will be home at some point for some period of time.  That being said, we can’t make any plans around Christmas and do not know that we will make it up.  They are now bowl eligible and will probably win at least two more games which means they are going to a bowl game.  We won’t know what bowl game until December 3.  Based on their schedule, we think they will play one of the later games (around December 31/January 1).

The Spartans flipped their record this year, going 9-3 and have earned a bowl game (Go Green!).  Last year, we learned all about football recruiting.  This year, we learned all about post-season college play.  Watching the rankings when they come out on Sundays and bowl prediction websites, it seemed clear that they would either play in the Citrus or Outback Bowl.  Florida in December!  Both are on January 1.  This would mess up New Year’s Eve with my family and Eldest would need to fly out on Christmas morning, but we’d still have Christmas Eve together.

We received the December practice schedule after the final game of the season, so I booked Eldest a ticket home on December 20.  He was going to fly to Florida on December 25 (as would we).  We’d enjoy Florida and hopefully a Spartan victory and all come home on January 2 for some family time before Eldest head’s back for the spring semester on January 7.

But then December 3 came.  (Remember me saying Eldest would be home at some point for some period of time and we wouldn’t know until December 3 when the bowl games were announced?  Obviously, I forgot it.)  Because of the powers that be (read $$ in college football), the Spartans will be playing in the Holiday Bowl.

In San Diego.

On December 28.

The ticket home on December 20 will go unused.  Instead, we will be driving to Michigan to get Eldest on December 18 because the change fees are too high to switch the date.  Christmas Eve together as a family?  Not really, since he’ll be heading back to Michigan on December 21.  Early trip for us to sunny California?  No, a short trip – because I work on Christmas Eve (you know, that little part about celebrating the miracle of the incarnation).

In full transparency, we actually haven’t been home for Christmas Day the last two years.  We’ve taken advantage of long Christmas breaks while our nuclear family was still intact.  Two years ago, we were in Hawaii for Christmas Eve/Christmas, and we celebrated one way (I brought the stockings, candles, and some gifts).  Last year, we flew out on Christmas morning, and celebrated in yet some different ways.  If I wasn’t a pastor, we’d fly out to San Diego around the time Eldest does and we’d be together on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.] In Hawaii, watching the Christmas Story – our family tradition – on ChristmasDay.] Christmas tree in St. Croix, with palm trees and the ocean in the background.]

So – after all of the new travel plans have been made – I’ve been thinking a lot about how we celebrate Christmas (and why) and how we keep some of our Christmas Eve traditions, differentiating between those that relate to celebrating the Incarnation versus those that are family time and gift giving.  What is Christmas?

What are we actually celebrating?

It isn’t really Jesus’ birthday.  It isn’t simply gift giving.  It isn’t a single day or an 18-hour window of guarded time together.  We go through a lot of maneuvers to try to be with family on a specific day.  Is Christmas about a day or about how we spend it?  After all, it wasn’t merely the tradition of being home for Christmas Eve/morning that I wanted to preserve the last two years as we traveled.  Rather, it was sharing time together.

As a family, we’re still working it out.  We won’t abandon all of our Christmas Eve traditions because our family of three will still be together on the actual day.] I admit that poker for Christmas presents and candy became a new tradition on Christmas Eve in Hawaii. BTW, sugar packets and granola bars work for chips when you are traveling.]

But we also won’t really have any lazy days home together as a family since Youngest will be in school on all the days Eldest is actually home (although I think we’ll solve that by missing a day of school).] Because seeing this is one of my favorite things.]

But maybe all of this is a good thing.  Chances are, we may have few if any opportunities to spend our 18 hours together in the future.  By unbundling all of the Christmas vs. christmas stuff, we might free ourselves up to fully enjoy all of what makes Christmas Christmas for us:  time together as a family, giving one another gifts, maintaining and building holiday traditions, and actually celebrating the Good News of Great Joy for all people.

Might it be a more wonderful time of the year if we didn’t squeeze it all into such a single day on the calendar?

It’s true, Christmas Eve will feel a little less full for me this year.  The kids won’t be nestled all snug in their beds – or at least not their beds in our house.  But Christmas and christmas will still be merry this year because it will be more mindful this year.  And maybe, it will be the best Christmas yet.

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