Here's a peek at Christmas traditions and celebrations in the households of some Christian leaders who you may know.
Like the year the turkey did not thaw in time, or the lights that never did turn into a cascade of twinkles like the package promised, Christmas often does not turn out as expected. That can happen to magazines planning a story about Christmas too. Faith Today thought we would contact some well-known Canadian Christians and find out how they share their faith with friends, neighbours and families at Christmas.
"Christmas over the course of my life has always been about family" (Phil Callaway).
What we received instead was one of those unexpected Christmas presents, the ones that are usually even better because you didn't know they were coming.
Our friends shared with us how they use Christmas as a time to nurture faith in the privacy of their homes, and how they celebrate the faith that is alive within their families. They told us how they protect their celebrations from the intrusion of busyness and materialism, just as carefully and deliberately as one places a fragile angel on the top of a crowded evergreen each year.
The gift is an offering of ideas and insight into the contradiction of the time of year that busts at the seams with activities, noise and colour. All the while begging for the quiet and reflection required to remember what all the fuss is actually about.
It is a holiday invitation to kneel and be refreshed by the baby in the manger, and then stand up and follow the Man after all the other presents have been unwrapped and forgotten.
Writer, speaker, novelist and editor of Servant magazine
Christmas must be more about Christ than about us. I struggle often with it. Christmas for me is getting to crash a little and having a few days off. It has always been a season of grace for me. I'm the kid who at ten stole my grandfather's chocolates and ate the whole box. My older brother told me there'd be nothing for me under the Christmas tree and then proceeded to switch all the tags off my gifts. My bow and arrow set had my sister's name on it. But I still got it eventually. It is about grace and unexpected gifts.
Story is one of the ways we bring it to our children. We have teenagers now and we sit around the fire with the lights dimmed and read by the hour. Last Christmas it was The Lord of the Rings. We tell our own stories of childhood Christmas.
Christmas over the course of my life has always been about family. So we do an awful lot of things together as Canadians in the snow. On Christmas Eve we go out to a frozen lake near us with other families and we skate.
That's really what it is all about for me. God stooped. That's incredible. I'll never get over it.
Novelist and speaker
I love nativity scenes. I think the visual picture of the incarnation is brought home to all of us, and especially children, through the crèches. But when I was little I used to get in trouble in church for playing with the ceramic figures in the big nativity scene in the church foyer.
I decided that when I had children of my own, I would have a nativity scene in my house that they could play with. Using a Simplicity pattern I made a stable, manger and beanbag figures out of fabric, scrap and yarn. Mary looked like a Russian babushka and Joseph looked like a hippie, and we could never get the camels to stay on their feet, but my own children were allowed to play with these figures. And they did.
A few years ago, my 29-year-old daughter told me that what she really wanted for Christmas was that old nativity scene that they used to play with, and did I still have it? Yes, I did.
Writer, broadcaster, speaker
There are two versions of how we do Christmas. The first is that we find a homeless person to spend Christmas with us, and we don't give any presents because that would be too materialistic. Actually, that is the way we would love to do it some year. But we haven't yet. The reality is that we spend way too much on the kids.
We start our celebrations with an advent calendar. The tree goes up only the weekend before and we leave it up for the 12 days of Christmas. Jesus doesn't go into the manger until Christmas Day. The Wise Men move slowly towards the nativity scene, unless five-year-old Lizzie gets hold of them. On Boxing Day we play theatre and act out scenes and plays.
Christmas was a wonderful time for me before I was a Christian. It changed enormously for me when I became a Christian. It was always magical. But the magic became much deeper after that.
President of Women Alive Canada
At Christmas we want to focus on quality family time. We keep the gift-giving to a minimum. We share the day with Scripture reading, prayer and reflection, looking back over the year and seeing what God has done in our lives.
A focus on Christmas without the resurrection is meaningless. That baby became our Saviour and is everything to us. We keep it very simple. We try not to have company. I make it clear to my children that I don't want a gift. I want them. You value Christmas not for the gifts you exchange but for what you have in your family: the richness we have in each other and in what Christ means in our family.
John G. Stackhouse Jr.
Writer, professor, speaker
Christmas music is central to our celebration. We fill our home with Christmas music from mid-November until New Year's Eve, pretty much constantly. We own over 100 Christmas CDs. We enjoy secular songs of the "Winter Wonderland" variety, particularly in a jazz idiom. Christmas music is especially terrific for improvisation, but we especially enjoy fresh Christian music, whether revisiting classics or new compositions.
We make music too. Our sons all play Christmas songs on the keyboard, and my wife sits down each evening and plays some Tedd Smith arrangements of carols. I take out my guitar, or plink a bit on the piano myself, to add my little portion to the musical festivities. Christmas music is so wonderfully evocative. Playing it all the time simply puts a joyful pressure on us to remember Christmas. And behave accordingly!
Writer, speaker, director of Christian Impact, World Vision International
Our family was influenced years ago [in the way we celebrate Christmas] when we worked at Inter-Varsity's Banff International Christmas for ten consecutive years. When Christmas break came to universities, everyone abdicated, and it was the international students who were left. Inter-Varsity put on a Canadian Christian Christmas celebration for them, and our whole family became a part of that. Teaching someone to skate who never had, taking someone up the ski hill who had never before seen snow.
After that experience, it was not unusual for our Christmas dinner table to have outsiders present. For about five years we had a graduate student from mainland China. One year her husband joined her, one year her son, and one year her father. The table got extended because of our history of sharing Christmas with people. The first year we didn't do it our kids said, "Well, this is boring."
The other "given" through our celebration has been reading the Christmas story before opening gifts. Beth and I took turns doing it, and then when the kids were old enough, they did it. Then when their spouses came along they were invited to do it. It is an offering of a gift of Scripture or literature that is related to Christmas. Last year our seven-year-old granddaughter did it.
Professor, writer, speaker
Creativity at Christmas is important to me—to live it as a time of celebrating the goodness of God in the created order, and His entry into it by being creative instead of consumers. We fight the good fight against Christmas becoming burdensome with expectations. We have intentionally broken out of things that look like obligatory traditions, whether it's buying so much you're in bondage to debt, or bonded by obligation. One Christmas I was feeling martyred when everyone else was going skating and I was cooking a turkey. We had steak instead that year.
For gifts we pick a small box and fill it with little things inspired by the Christmas shoebox program. We may do a taped reading of a book for a grandchild.
I look for simplicity. We live in a tiny suite. Last year I decorated with a bunch of red berries and a gold bow. We need to celebrate the freedom Christ came to bring us and not be encumbered by the weight of all the "stuff." I look for the simplicity of joy. And the joy comes back.
Vice president of missions, Crossroads Christian Communications, speaker, broadcaster
When I was a child—son of a pastor in Oshawa, Ontario—Christmas day morning was always spent in a special service in church. Scores of pastors, evangelists and missionaries whose roots were in that church came from everywhere. It made Christmas what it really is all about: the family of God, made possible by a 2,000-year-old reality.
Now that I'm a granddad, I approach it differently. Before our Christmas meal, I read Luke, chapter 2—all 52 verses … slowly! One year I put a large star on the top of our television aerial with a fine string of lights all the way down to a well-lit manger scene on our front lawn. I wanted no one to doubt what Christmas meant inside our house.
We lived in Africa for 17 years, and we treated Christmas as it should be treated. One church service lasted from whenever it started on Christmas morning until 40 choirs had sung, and at least three or four preachers had retold the wonderful story. Christmas is not about gifts. It's about The Gift.
Singer, songwriter, recording artist
We have six children ranging in age from four to 15, and we have special needs children thrown in there for good measure. Story is one of the big ways we celebrate Christmas. We look for old books and new ones to sit down with the kids and reinforce that this is the time the Western world has chosen to recognize the birth of Christ.
We sing together, although it is not a very harmonious sound. My daughter pulls out her ukulele and plunks away at it. On December 1st we started a tradition that before bedtime we go into the living room and play two Christmas songs, one upbeat and one more reflective. We turn down the lights and listen by candlelight. If I forget on December 1st my kids remind me.
Through our local church we give to a needy family. Before we had so many kids we used to go to the hospital and sing and pray for the patients. This year, if we can't do that we are going to invite someone in who doesn't have a family to be with at Christmas.
Our four- and 12-year-old boys cannot communicate verbally very much. So we will make a cake and blow out candles and sing happy birthday to Jesus. That helps to orient my sons. They understand birthdays very well.
The biggest thing in the Heppner household is our carol singing. It started in Geneva in 1991. I think they almost kicked us out of Switzerland for being too loud. We have a carol sing every year over two nights. There are 60-70 people each night—friends from various walks of life. We spend a full hour just singing. Usually we spend about 15 minutes of that doing Rudolph-kind of songs, but the rest of the time it is carols and Scripture passages. That is the biggest thing that focuses us on Christmas: the Heppner carol sing has become a family tradition for other families as well.
Christmas morning is just about us, and we spend it watching each other open gifts. We try to make a couple of moments that are just us. We're going to have a whack of people over for Christmas dinner—it's that celebrating part of getting together and feasting. Grace is often sung in our house, especially if there are a lot of voices.
NextLEVEL Leadership for women
Now that our kids are older we have really cut out the baking, visiting, decorating and the tree part. I find the very simple way we spend Christmas very refreshing and meaningful. I love being with people we know for Christmas, but there is something about being among believers we have just met on Christmas Eve. Or being among strangers in a candle lit public garden. Or calling up a church to ask if we can help with their annual Christmas dinner for the homeless. Those things make us rethink a lot of things and reassess what is important.
In some ways I connect more with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem when I am not in my own home or among all my friends and family.
Another thing we have seen and loved is open-house evenings where families move from one friend's house to another, staying for a few moments to chat, and speaking a blessing over each home as they leave. It is amazing how this impacts non-churchgoing people. When our children were younger we made a tree decoration each year on Christmas Eve that represented something significant that had happened to our family that year. We used it as a focal point for giving thanks and praying for the next year.
President of Tyndale University College and Seminary
As a child in a pastor's home in Saskatchewan in the 1940s and '50s, our parents provided an enormous opportunity to celebrate. In the frugality of those times—we didn't know then that we were poor—they celebrated Christmas so that for us children the time was exciting and filled with loving relationships and moments. It's out of that memory that Lily and I celebrate Christmas today.
It is a family day: from the year our first child was born, we decided to have Christmas at home. It begins with our church service, then breakfast, the reading of the text—usually from Luke—and opening of gifts. The challenge we face is between making it a home celebration or one that sees us moving about the community helping in the serving of dinners for the needy. Frankly this polarity leaves me with some discomfort.
Our reason for holding to a family event is that through the year our lives are service driven, agendas written by the work we do. Building memories of Christ's love into the memory banks of our children and now grandchildren has crafted our current pattern of celebration.
Karen Stiller is associate editor of Faith Today.
Originally published in Faith Today, November/December 2003.