It’s December 26th … the day after Christmas. And I’m a bit sad. Christmas is my favorite time of year, my favorite holiday, but I have to confess that I didn’t “keep Christmas well” this year (as a converted Ebenezer Scrooge would say). In fact, I’ve had more than one moment of struggle and sadness over the last few days, as a result. So I’ve been asking myself, and God, what went wrong and why I don’t feel satisfied with Christmas this year.
What I feel like God has been telling me, as I’ve brought my frowning lonely disconcerted moments, is that I did a bad job of “consecrating Christmas” in my heart this year. To consecrate something means to set it apart for special (or uncommon) use, particularly by God. In other words, I feel like I’ve treated the last month of my life just like the month before that or the month before that, but with a few extra Christmas-y check boxes on the todo list … instead of setting it apart as holy, kicking off my sandals, and treading carefully and contemplatively on holy ground.
I thought about naming this post “What alien invasion, Clark Griswold, Christmas cookies and gift cards taught me about creating a sacred space for Christmas,” but ultimately thought the better of it. Instead, let me unpack a little of what God and I have been talking about in the last 48 hours, in the hopes that it benefits all of us in the years to come. Here are a few principles I’m proposing to my family for how to change the way we can do a better job setting apart Christmas as holy … in our lives and unto the Lord.
(Bonus points if you can find the four lesson-teachers from my original title.)
Christmas Principle #1: Life is broken; worship God anyway
Yes, I had really tough finals that took a lot of preparation this year. Yes, Faith and I both have colds, have less energy, and are therefore drained of some of our holiday cheer. Yes, Faith is a nurse, works nights, and specifically had to work Christmas Eve, so John and I were home alone. Yes, because of Faith’s work schedule, we didn’t get to spend the kind of time with family that we would have liked to this weekend. And yes, because we’re new to our church, we didn’t really have the connections that would have allowed John and I to surrogate our way into the Christmas celebrations of some of our spiritual cousins.
BUT… None of that (or even circumstances far worse than those, had they pertained) is an excuse not to worship God fully and joyfully and passionately, with our lives … not just at Christmas, but every day. These realities are simply no excuse to fail to set apart Christ as Lord or to set apart Christmas as sacred. To be blunt, God’s response to my whining to Him about my circumstances this week has been, “Um … suck it up.” And even if I hadn’t just downed my latest Advil Cold and Sinus an hour or so ago, I would have to agree.
What do I do?
No matter what process is in place or changes we make to schedules or whatever, nothing’s going anywhere unless we change our minds. It all starts with the commitment to take the time and expend the energy to do it right, even if circumstances seem to be in the way. And in practice, this kind of commitment starts with a changed heart … and that happens by asking God to change it. It’s about making a decision to be, and asking God to cause us to become.
Christmas Principle #2: Work hard, but worship first
As I said, my finals were really tough this year. I studied a total of 71 hours for 3 finals during the two weeks leading up to them (yes, I track my time; we all know I’m a grade A nerd). When I was more executive and less student, I remember working hard to close out the fiscal year or get something ready for the coming year that had to be able to hit the ground running on January 2nd. That too can take a huge commitment of time and energy. I get it. But again, I don’t think that’s an excuse. The question is, “Who is your God?” Is it the final? The grade in the class? The deal? The promotion? The customer? The boss’s approval? The cash that comes from all of the above? The prestige? Some kind of obsessive compulsive bent you can’t seem to shake (which is one of my own personal demons)?
Whatever it is that tempts you to work first and worship when the work is done is from the pit of hell and smells like smoke. News flash, Jeff: It’ll never be done. The only thing that kept me from studying for 72 hours for my finals (vs 71) is that I ran out of waking hours. And honestly, if it’d been 57 hours vs 71 (leaving one additional hour per day during those two weeks to invest in the active attempt to set apart Christmas as a sacred time), would it really have changed the outcome? I submit not. And even if it had, the cost would have been worth paying.
The work is never done. It’s not a question of getting it finished, it’s a question of how you do it along the way … of where you start and end. If you wait until the work is done to worship, then it’s not worship, it’s perfunctory box checking. Period. Worship comes first, or it’s not worship at all. God will not be “fit in” to anyone’s busy schedule. So, it’s no small wonder that waiting until 12/16 (the day after finals ended) to even start thinking about Christmas sucked the life and joy and sacredness out of the holidays for me.
What do I do?
First, realize that everything valuable takes time. So plan ahead and be realistic. Having totally unrealistic expectations (a la Clark Griswold) won’t help you. Neither will waiting ’til the last minute to start what’s important.
Second, redirect existing activities. If you’re going to watch a movie, make it a Christmas movie. There’s no excuse for watching Independence Day Resurgence over It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, as I did this year just because my son wanted to. If you’re driving somewhere and listening to something, make it meaningful Christmas music (O Holy Night, not Jingle Bells), not your latest sci-fi novel (did that this year too). You get the idea.
Christmas Principle #3: Get tasks done early, so Advent is sacred
No matter how you slice it, it takes time to do Christmas right. Even the logistics related to visiting family, decorating, or exchanging gifts are very time-consuming. Unfortunately, because our time is severely limited, many of us (and I stepped squarely into this bear trap this year) focus more on the functional and logistic tasks of Christmas than on the spiritual, regenerative, communal aspects of Christmas. That’s not okay.
There’s absolutely no way to slide into home at 7pm on Christmas Eve, and suddenly expect to switch from frantic task accomplishment mode to quiet, worshipful, soak-deeply-in-the-meaning-of-all-this-with-God-and-my-family mode. If you want depth, you have to plan for and make space for depth, and that starts with level 1 planning months in advance, level 2 execution starting at Halloween (yes, I think the goal of starting at Thanksgiving isn’t early enough … although obviously better than starting on Dec 23rd), and level 3 intentional space-making during the advent season itself.
What if we front-loaded the logistics and planning and tasks with the goal of having them done by Thanksgiving, and then spent Advent (the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas) in the sacred space of anticipating the coming of the Messiah? That would change our lives.
What do I do?
Literally make a check list / plan for the execution of Christmas tasks starting … like now. What will you do between 1/1 and 11/1 to identify the people to shop for, think through what to get them (so their gifts are meaningful, not perfunctory), buy their presents, and put them in a bin somewhere so they’re ready to go next year? Not only does that protect the time in the run-up to Christmas from becoming one giant shopping day, it allows you to buy real, actual, thoughtful gifts for people, not just restaurant gift cards (yep, that was me this year too; ugh!). The only reason we don’t have shopping done by Thanksgiving is that it’s not a priority until the last minute. That has to change now, not on Black Friday, if we want Christmas to be sacred.
Next, get the decoration done early. Be ready to go on Thanksgiving, or even the weekend before. Move other things out of the way. Start planning for that now. Make it a family affair. Talk about why you’re decorating and how. Intentionality is your friend.
Third, take time off from work before Christmas, not just the company holidays one day on either side of the 25th, or in the week between Christmas and New Years. Take time off before the holiday with the specifically goal of keeping the holiday well. Use that time to create sacred spaces, not just to take a family vacation to warmer climates.
And with those three changes in place, use Advent to actually celebrate Advent … slowly, meaningfully, with intentionality. The music you listen to, the devotions at dinner with the family, the movies watched, the stories read, the time spent… focusing on Jesus, who is our very life!
This year, I literally realized on the way to Christmas Eve service at church that we had no Christmas cookies to eat together around the tree or to put out for Santa. And because we were running late getting to church, we had to put off picking them up until after the service. And when we finally got to Jewel, we discovered that they had closed 10 min before. Epic fail! And then, I woke up at 2am Christmas morning (while Faith was at work) realizing that I had nothing for stocking stuffers either. In fact we’d never even put up the stockings. Double face palm! Now, John is 12, so this wasn’t the catastrophe it could have been, but it all still demonstrates — quite embarrassingly, frankly — just how poorly my engagement of Christmas really was this year. We simply didn’t make the time or invest the focus to make the holiday what it is supposed to be.
By God’s grace, never again!
Christmas Principle #4: Sacred time starts by being with Jesus
No matter what else you do for Christmas, if you’re not sitting alone in prayer to frame the rest of the time you spend, then it’s not sacred. Period. And because I wasn’t (for many reasons), it wasn’t.
It has been my habit in years past to stay up late after everyone goes to bed at least on Christmas Eve, if not for a few nights leading up to Christmas, stare at the lights on the tree, and pray … thanking God for Jesus and for the other countless blessings in our lives. But this year, it was all tasks and trappings and distraction, and somewhere in all of it, the sacredness of the presence of the Messiah in our living room got lost. Again, that’s just not okay.
What do I do?
Read the Christmas story alone, listening to God and responding in prayer and song and thanksgiving, before you read it Christmas morning. Get a cup of coffee or egg nog or whatever, and just sit alone after everyone else goes to bed. Or if you have a different practice, great. But the point is to actually remember the Lord … slowly, with a purpose. If the frantic pace of work or school or holiday logistics or inviting friends over or whatever else is such that no time is left over for this kind of devotional, contemplative, soaking with the Lord, then the whole thing is fundamentally broken … no matter how good the individual parts may be. Cancel everything else until this is in place, and then build on that.
Of all the things I regret this Christmas, it’s that I just didn’t spend much time with Jesus. And it can’t be Christmas without being with Jesus. Christmas isn’t about a Savior coming abstractly for the whole world, it’s about Jesus coming to you and to me, to be our Brother and King, Savior and Friend. A Lover who has no interest in our perfunctory observations or leftover time. He expects to be invited in, to join us for Christmas dinner, to sit with us staring at the tree … to just be together. There is no Christmas without that.
Don’t get me wrong…
In closing, I just want to make sure you know that this post is not some kind of indictment of anyone else. It’s my sharing my personal convictions, having felt like I failed pretty spectacularly at keeping Christmas this year. I’m not telling you what to do; I’m sharing what I feel convicted to do … and, yes, hoping it helps you too.
If you read my blog regularly or know me personally, please hold me accountable to these principles. Expect to see concrete steps from me to protect a sacred space for Christmas… not just starting after finals next year, but starting now.
“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, ‘God bless us, every one!'”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol