Celebrate Christ's Birth!
©Copyright 1999 by Gretchen Passantino
The pumpkin nut bread is baking, the carols are playing -- it's time once more to
prepare our hearts and homes for celebrating the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Over
the years, many people have asked how we celebrate Christmas and how the customs and
symbols of Christmas can become a meaningful part of reminding us of the gospel.
Following are just some of the ways you can celebrate a Christ-centered Christmas. The
resources at the end will give you a wealth of other ideas.
Advent. This term signifies the eager anticipation of the world lost in sin for the
coming of God's provision for sin, His Son, Jesus Christ. For the four Sundays before
Christmas, Christians worldwide for nearly 2000 years have focused their worship on
Incarnation. Many churches add a midweek service that chronicles Old Testament
messianic passages and the ministry of John the Baptist. Many families use an advent
calendar. Be sure to get a biblical one, something that has a birth of Christ scene on the
front, and whose tiny paper windows (numbered 1-24 for the days of December) open to
reveal aspects of the birth of Christ story. We have a fabric calendar of a Christmas tree
above 24 small pockets in which are 24 different decorations that symbolize the life of
Christ. The accompanying Advent devotional describes each decoration (like a lamb, a
cross, a crown of thorns, etc.) and its biblical significance. The star crowns the tree on
Christmas Even, December 24. Even our grown children still gather for a few minutes to
add the decoration of the day, read the devotion, and pray. Another Advent activity is
called the Jesus Tree or Jesse Tree. Take a bare branch with many twigs. Read the
human ancestry of Christ listed in Matthew and Luke. Look up some of his ancestors
such as Jesse, David, etc. Design simple paper shapes to remind of his ancestors. This
can help even young children understand some of the Old Testament. (There are much
more complicated forms of this -- see the resources). Another favorite in our house is
the Advent wreath. The circle stands for Christ's divine, eternal nature. The evergreen
stands for eternal life. The four candles around the outside (one is lit each week) stand
for those who looked forward to the birth of Christ (the prophets, the angels, the
shepherds, and the wise men), and the red candle in the center, lit on Christmas Eve,
reminds us that Christ, the light of the world, came as a child, but later shed his blood for
our sins. A manger scene or creche is an important part of Advent. Whether large or
small, elaborate or simple, the manger scene reminds us that Christ's birth was an
historical event in a particular place and time, not simply a subjective spiritual experience
or belief. Most people and churches do not include the Christ child in the manger until
Christmas Eve. That missing figure reminds us throughout the season that all of life
would be meaningless without Christ.
Christmas trees, ornaments, wreaths, and garlands. The custom of bringing
evergreen branches into the home during the dark days of winter predates Christianity and
was a reminder that the sun would return, the snow would melt, and the vegetation cycle
would begin again. Christians took these customs and gave them biblical significance.
Evergreen reminds us of everlasting life, the circular wreath the eternity of God, the red
holly berries the blood of Christ, the triangular shape (an ancient symbol of the Trinity)
of the tree pointing toward heaven. Lights were added to symbolize that Christ is the
Light of the World and that the light of the Gospel shines through us to the world. Our
own tree is not a designer, color coordinated fashion statement. It is covered with
hundreds of ornaments that are especially meaningful to us. The pear reminds us of
Christ as the "partridge in the pear tree" (see below for resources about the Christian
meaning behind what most people assume is a nonsense carol). The red apple reminds us
that Christ came because we fell in Adam when he and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Our
candy canes are always red and white -- the shepherd's crook reminds us of Christ our
Shepherd, the white of his perfect sinlessness, and the red of his blood shed for us. The
red heart reminds us of God's love displayed through His Son's sacrifice. The silver
triangle reminds us of the trinity, the antique brass goose of God's bountiful provisions
for us in Christ, our children's paper-plate angels of those who announced Christ's birth
and whom God has promised us will guard us in our daily lives. Some ornaments are
hand made by our children, some were bought, many are from friends whom we're
reminded of and for whom we pray as we decorate the tree. Our tree is topped with a
cardboard star covered in foil. The star reminds us of the star that guided the wise men to
the Christ child. It was made by my father for Bob's and my first Christmas tree, using
my parent's star as a pattern. My father had made that star for his and my mother's first
Christmas during World War II when they broke a branch from the fir tree in front of
their rooming house and decorated it with the modest star and tin "icicles" from strips of
tin peeled off of tinned meat cans with old fashioned "keys."
Carols and Hymns. In our house, Christmas carols and hymns fill the house from
Thanksgiving through Epiphany (January 6, the traditional date remembering the visit of
the Wise Men and Jesus' dedication in the temple). Most people know the old favorites,
but next time you sing them or listen to them, pay careful attention to the words. The
gospel is expressed in so many different moving, beautiful ways. The angels at Christ's
birth gave us our first hymn (Luke 2:10-14). Check the lyrics of "Good King Wenceslas"
-- perhaps the inspiration for the popular "Footprints in the Sand"? What a type of
Christ and an admonition to us to share the blessings God has given us! Think of the
profound symbolism of "The Holy and the Ivy" -- the white blossom symbolizes the lily,
the flower of resurrection, the red berry reminds us of Christ's blood, the pointed leaf tips
are like the crown of thorns, the bitter bark recalls the bitter gall offered to Christ on the
cross. While we celebrate with joy Christ's birth, we also are reminded of his necessary
suffering and death on our behalf. And "The Twelve Days of Christmas" originated as a
clandestine children's Christian catechism during a time of persecution. Get a collection
of Christmas carols and rediscover the beauty of the gospel in music. We're all familiar
with Hanel's Messiah, a sublime musical rendition of God's plan of redemption in human
history, taken from the Old and New Testaments. However, most of us only remember
the "Hallelujah Chorus." Take time this Christmas season to listen to the entire
composition, reading along the good news of the gospel.
Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas. Almost all cultures have some concept of a
magical figure who brings gifts to the worthy and judgment to the unworthy. As the
Christian church expanded through Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles, these
pagan, mythological figures were supplanted by the Christian gospel. God alone is the
Sovereign, it is from Him that all blessings ultimately flow, and it is His judgment that we
should fear. He gave the greatest gift of all, the life of His Son on our behalf according to
the scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1-4). But the church also took the opportunity to use the life and
death of one of its early leaders as a type of Christ, as an exemplary Christian life or role
model by which we are reminded of what it means to be a Christian. Nicholas, a
Christian bishop in what is now Turkey, came from a wealthy family but gave up his
social position and wealth to dedicate himself to preaching, teaching, and evangelizing
for the Gospel. He lived in the fourth century, was a defender of the orthodox doctrine of
the Trinity at the Council of Nicea against the heretic Arius of Alexandria, and eventually
was martyred for his faith. During his life he repeatedly sacrificed for the sake of others.
One old story told of him is that he secretly paid the doweries of three young women
whose father could not afford to dower them. Tradition tells us that late at night Nicholas
went to the window of the house, from which hung the family stockings to air, and
dropped the dower money through the window into the socks. Nicholas was declared a
special saint long after his death, commended by the church as a fitting role model of
Christian charity and dedication to the gospel. St. Nicholas, who is especially honored at
the beginning of December, became associated with Christmas because his gift-giving
symbolized God's gift of salvation to us in Christ. St. Nicholas became the Santa Claus
with which we are now familiar. On our coffee table each Christmas season we place a
large plaster statue of Santa Claus kneeling before the Christ child in the manger, his cap
off, his hands folded, worshiping His Lord and Savior. Certainly it is not historically
correct, but theologically it is profound.
Christmas blessings. A our house, we fight against being overwhelmed by the
materialism of Christmas by making a conscious effort to be used by the Lord to bless
others. With our church we sponsor Christmas for needy families, asking them for their
greatest needs and then matching the needs with those who can supply them, whether
they need grocery gift certificates, a bed for their toddler, a large skillet to cook in,
business clothes for job interviews, etc. We also go through the neighborhood around our
church singing Christmas carols and inviting our neighbors to church. We visit those
who are homebound in our congregation, and carol through the halls of our local
convalescent hospital. Many of the people are forgotten during the holidays, and our visit
can be the highlight of their day. Each year I am overcome with love and gratitude for
the Lord as I watch patients cry with joy watching the littlest children dance as we sing,
as I listen to ancient cracked voices echo "Joy to the World!," as I hug someone in a
hospital bed who whispers to me, "God bless you!"
Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning. Many churches have special services on
Christmas Eve. Especially meaningful is lighting the church only with candles and
celebrating the Lord's Supper. What a wonder that the child born in an obscure village
would later sacrifice his life for all sinners, and the resurrect from the dead to prove his
supremacy over all! In our home we have a simple dinner of soup and homemade bread,
a welcome respite from the overindulgence of most holiday meals. Christmas Eve is also
the time for us to complete our Christmas gifts for Jesus. All during Advent we have
been praying about what to give Jesus in honor of his birth. Now we write our "gift" on
colored construction paper, decorate it with symbols of the holiday, roll it like a scroll, tie
it with colored ribbon, and place it in the Christmas tree. Christmas morning we have a
birthday cake for Jesus with a large white candle in the center. We sing "Happy
Birthday" to Jesus and then share our "gifts" with our family. A gift might be a promise
to not be disrespectful to parents, a dedication to attend church more regularly, sorrow
and repentance for neglecting the poor, intentions to avoid picking on a little brother or
sister, etc. Each "gift" also includes thanks to Jesus for specific blessings in our lives
over the last year. After we pray together as a family, then we can open our own
presents, reminded now that the gift with eternal significance is God's gift to us in Christ.
An added blessing to our Christmas dinner is that we always include those who don't
have the opportunity to be with their own families for Christmas. We remember that God
called us to join his family even though we were alienated from him by our sin, and we
became his children because Christ died for us and by God's grace we believe in Him.
However your family prepares your hearts and homes for celebrating Christ's
birth, look on this time as an opportunity to highlight the gospel and put Jesus first.
Christmas should not be surrendered to crass commercialism or non-Christian indulgence.
For Further Reading
Anderson, Raymond and Georgene. The Jesse Tree: Stories and Symbols of Advent. Philadelphia: Fortress Press,
Barth, Edna. Holly, Reindeer, and Colored Lights: The Story of Christmas Symbols. New York: Clarion Books,
Bell, Jim and Sue Wavre, compilers. The Joy of Christmas. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.
Church, E. Forrester and Terrence J. Mulry. The Macmillan Book of Earliest Christian Hymns. New York:
Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988.
Emurian, Ernest K. Stories of Christmas Carols. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1967.
Haidle, Helen. The Real 12 Days of Christmas. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1997.
Hibbard, Ann. Family Celebrations for Christmas. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993.
Horn, Edward T., The Christian Year: Days and Seasons of the Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957.
Jones, Charles W. Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1978.
Lambert, David. Celebrating Christmas As If It Really Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House,
Logan, Anna and Ed Koehler. The Jesus Tree and The Jesus Tree Activity Book. St. Louis, MO: Concordia
Publishing House, 1991.
Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. New York: Dover
Publications, Inc., 1912, 1976.
Myra, Harold. Santa: Are You for Real? Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1977.
Passantino, Gretchen. "The Twelve Days of Christmas," "Santa Clause and the Gospel," and "Is God Against
Christmas." Costa Mesa, CA: Answers In Action, also available on the Internet at www.answers.org.
Payne, Donna W. The Handel's Messiah Family Advent Reader. Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.
Royale, Duncan. History of Santa: from 2000 BC to the 20th Century. 1141 S. Acacia Ave., Fullerton, CA: M. E.
Duncan Company, Inc., 1987.
Thomson, Ronald W. Who's Who of Hymn Writers. London: Epworth Press, 1967.
Willcocks, David. Carols for Christmas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983.
Winkler, Rev. Jude. Celebrating Advent with the Jesse Tree. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company,