The Twelve Days of Christmas Part Two:
Santa Claus, Giving, Grief, and Practical Suggestions
by Amanda Gerber
Yesterday I wrote about what Christmas is, why we celebrate, and our struggles with and the importance of feasting. Here are some more thoughts on Christmas and resources my family has found helpful as we celebrate.
In case you didn’t know…
Fun is good.
And lest we forget it — Christmas. Should. Be. Fun. We should love Christmas in every way possible. Don’t over-spiritualize Christmas (like I often do). Just enjoy it. It is not unholy to have fun. This is especially important when it comes to our kids.
Before our children can even understand and articulate fully what Christmas is about, we want them to feel and experience Christmas, to be enchanted by it. By helping them experience it, we essentially say, “This is what God’s love feels like and tastes like, and sounds like.” Christmas isn’t the opportunity for a lecture, but a chance to show our kids, our families, and the world around us the hope and joy that we have. And when they ask, “Why do we do this?” we should have an answer for them.
Is Santa better than Jesus?
Part of Christmas joy for your family might involve Santa Claus (oh, the controversy), and he definitely bears mentioning with the abundance of small children at our church. I used to think it was wrong to do Santa Claus, that it was lying to your kids, and that he just distracted from Jesus’ birth. We didn’t choose to do Santa Claus with our kids, and ironically, I kind of almost wish we had. (Maybe we will with our youngest.) There are all kinds of considerations to make, and I think it can definitely be taken too far, but enchanting those little imaginations is valuable and important. Myths aren’t real but they can be true. As Calah Alexander writes, “Myths are the best way we have of conveying truths that are otherwise inexpressible.” If anything, I think we need to examine the Santa Clauses we’ve imagined and make sure they are truth-telling. (I’m becoming more partial to “Father Christmas” myself.) I think there are good arguments on both sides of the Santa Claus debate. (Feel free to ask me if you want to hear more!)
The real St. Nicholas, the man behind the fictitious Santa Claus, was a bishop in the 3rd century. He was orphaned at a young age and received a large inheritance. He is known for his generosity and his anonymous gift-giving. A children’s book, The Legend of St. Nicholas, says that “he made it his purpose in life to use all of his wealth and strength to help people in need and to glorify the Lord.” The story goes that St. Nick knew of a man who couldn’t afford a dowry for his daughters, so he threw bags of gold through his window at night, possibly saving the girls from being sold into prostitution.
This is a different message than we get from some of our culture’s versions of Santa Claus, which basically paint him as a granter of wishes, with a works-righteousness sort of theology for earning good things. In that version, the emphasis is mostly on what the recipient wants. But St. Nicholas teaches us more about giving than getting. In his giving, he cared deeply about justice for the “least of these.” And he used his wealth to glorify God.
Giving and the Giver
We can also be intentional in our generosity and gift-giving, and not feel guilty when God has given us much in the way of material things. We can be purposeful about what we buy and where it comes from, and care about the people who made it. Being generous to others and blessing them is a huge part of modeling Christ’s love. And I think we can be generous and giving not only to the recipients of our gifts but to those who made the gifts, often those across the world from us who we don’t see or hear about. (Check out this and this and a documentary on Netflix called The True Cost for more thoughts on that.) Instead of feeling guilty we can see this as an invitation into a more beautiful and rich way of living in this world and loving others with the most basic decisions we make. Consider bringing in Christmas traditions from around the world to remind us that we’re part of a global people and that our lives are connected.
Remember that Christmas is as much for a single mother living in poverty in Haiti as it is for a wealthy middle-class American. Examine your Christmas with this as your litmus test. Think of that young mother. If what you’re doing isn’t relevant and applicable to her life, then it isn’t essential. You can let it go. Feel freedom to celebrate as you choose, but don’t burden yourself with unnecessary things that add financial stress and emotional chaos to your life.
It’s one thing to strive with reckless abandon to accumulate more and more, never satisfied, and conveniently disregard how our consumption affects anyone else in the world. But it’s another thing to reject the gifts God has put right in front of us. To ascetically deny ourselves pleasure and good things isn’t what we’re called to. He is a good Father who wants us to enjoy the good things He has made.
Give generously with your money, but don’t stop there. Give yourself. Christmas isn’t the gift of something, it’s the gift of someOne. Give gifts, but also give yourself to those around you. Put aside your to-do list and frenzied rushing about to get things done and just be together. Give your time. And don’t resent your loved ones when they’re not grateful for all you’re giving, kids especially. Right now, our children are in a place of experiencing Christmas through receiving, and we have the privilege of giving it to them. This is a great reflection of God’s unmerited gift of grace of which none of us is worthy and for which none of us is nearly grateful enough.
Giving ourselves is hard, especially when it involves hard people. But hard people aren’t just in your crazy extended family. Sometimes we are the hard people. We can give grace because grace has been given to us. We can love others by giving them the freedom that we’ve been given. This is easier said than done, and sometimes it’s really, really complicated, but let’s not forget that the person across the table from us is a beloved image-bearer of God, too.
And let’s stop expecting perfection. Real life isn’t perfect. Real life has grumpy great-uncles and particular cooks and food allergies and babies who refuse to sleep, even on Christmas Eve. We want to live life in the big moments, in the holidays and the honeymoons and the excitement. We prefer “life with all the dull bits cut out.” But some years, even Christmas can be one of those dull bits. Daily, monotonous, familiar life is where we practice true faithfulness.
What do we actually do during the twelve days of Christmas?
There are a few specified feast days to commemorate during Christmastide, which are:
- The Feast of St. Stephen, December 26. Stephen is remembered for his giving, both in his care for the poor and in giving his life as the first martyr. What better way to follow the abundance of gifts received on Christmas Day than to spend the next day giving back to those less fortunate? There are a number of ways you could do this, such as shopping the Christmas with Rwanda page and deciding as a family how to give. And listen to or sing the song “Good King Wenceslas,” which tells a story about this feast day.
- Honoring the Apostle John, December 27. In contrast to dying a martyr’s death, John lived a full, long life. This is a day for thanking God for the life and health He’s blessed us with, for however long that may be, and it’s a day to celebrate the love He’s given and that we extend to others. It’s traditional to drink wassail or mulled wine on this day. Invite friends to gather with you for dessert and a toast!
- Remembering the Holy Innocents, December 28. This day commemorates the infants who died at the hands of King Herod. (See Matthew 2:16-18.) We remember that in our present time, joy and grief are often intermingled. We can mourn those and other innocent lives that have been lost, and while also celebrating that the most humble and lowly and unseen lives matter. Jesus welcomed the littlest children into His kingdom. You could make this a day for celebrating your children (although arguably this might already happen way too much…) by letting them decide the activities and meals for the day. But definitely skip the English medieval practice of beating your children on this day.
- Feast of the Holy Name/New Year’s Day, Jan 1. This day falls 8 days after Christmas, and on the 8th day Hebrew babies were given a name. (See Luke 2:21.) It was already known that His name would be Jesus (a form of Joshua, meaning “God saves.”) Jesus is referred to by many other names in the Bible too. See how many you can come up with and then compare them to this list. (I’m sure you could make a competition out of it, if that’s the way your family rolls.)It’s interesting to discuss why Jesus was given each of these names, even with our young kids. There are plenty of traditions already in place to celebrate the New Year, but as you reflect on the last year and look forward to the next, do so through the lens of these names that describe Jesus’ character, who He is, what He’s done, and what He’s promised to do.
Other practical ways to celebrate Christmas
- Don’t stop: Leave up your decorations, tree, and nativity through the end of Christmastide.
- Have fun: If you’ve held off on the celebration during Advent, now is the time to go hog wild with all your favorite Christmas traditions and fun! Watch all the movies. Drink all the hot chocolate. Listen to all the music. Eat all the food.
- Gifts: Don’t rush through the celebration. Instead of opening gifts all at once on Christmas Day, spread it out over multiple days! It’s more fun that way.
- Christmas Box: Last year we started a tradition that we call the Christmas Box. This is just a big cardboard box wrapped with wrapping paper, with something different in it each day of Christmas. This could be the method of spreading out your gift giving. Or what goes in the box could be a favorite food, fancy hot chocolate, tickets to a special event, a craft or activity to do as a family, a favorite Christmas movie, Christmas books to read out loud, etc. It doesn’t have to be big and elaborate and planned (you can decide the night before what you want to put in it), but it helps extend the festivities throughout the whole Christmas season. If your kids are young, you can be the one coming up with the surprises. If you have older kids, assign different days to different members of the family.
- Rest: If your job and schedule allow it, make these days the ones you take off from work and other activities so you can truly rest.
- Fellowship: Gather with others. If we’re going to do this twelve-day craziness, we better do it together. Host a party or just a casual dinner. People’s schedules are often a lot more open after Christmas Day. At the very least take some time to sit down and enjoy life together. Talk. Play games. Have fun.
- Light: Light all five candles of your Advent wreath (or other candles) each day. Let light be a symbol in these twelve days of the true Light who has come into our world, illuminating our darkness. Let it remind you that we are called to be His light in this world.
- Music: Now is the time to bring out the joyful Christmas music! Sing these beautiful Christmas carols listed below. (We know you’ve already gotten a hefty dose of “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman.”) If you’re not musical, gather around the computer and pull the songs up on YouTube and sing along! It might be goofy, but it might also become a good memory.
- “What Child Is This?,” “Hark The Herald Angels Sing,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
- If you liked Simple Advent, try this “Simple Christmas” Spotify playlist also curated by Tsh Oxenreider. “Irish Country Christmas” is also a solid choice, and “Carols From King’s” will take you back to your traditional, choral roots.
How can I celebrate when Christmas just brings pain and sadness?
It is easy to feast when life is going well, when we aren’t facing tragedy or unemployment or illness or poverty. We rightly celebrate and thank God for our homes, for our health, for safety, for our food, for warm coats, for loving families, for meaningful work, for the abundance we’ve been given. All of these things are wonderful and worth thanking God for. Outside of God’s blessing and grace, we would have none of these. All good things come from His hand.
But what do we do when all of this is gone? What do we do when Christmas arrives in a torrent of devastation, and it only pours salt on the wound of all that is lacking and all that is wrong in our lives? Or when it brings emotion and the heartache of missing those who are no longer here with us?
To think of ourselves as blessed when things are going well and lacking when they’re not will only lead to despair in the end. Because, inevitably, something will go wrong. We might hold on as tightly as we can to the good things we have, but we have no power ourselves to keep our lives how we want them to be.
The world’s version of celebration might have nothing to offer you this year. But there is a greater truth out there. True blessing isn’t about what we possess, but rather about a relational reality. It’s the overflow of a relationship of favor, which, by grace, is the relationship we have. We are in relationship with the One who desires our flourishing—flourishing beyond what we can fathom — and who desires truly abundant life for us — life beyond our imaginations. This means that hard, devastating things can be blessings because God can use them to draw us to Himself and to cause life and flourishing to spring up. On the other hand, things we consider good can be curses, when they make us to think we’re doing all right on our own, or when they make us think that we’ve done something to earn what we’ve been given. Blessing, in whatever form it comes, is anything God uses to reveal His unfathomable love to us. In the midst of the darkest, most bleak of circumstances, Jesus was born. Light came into the darkness. There is hope, even when all looks hopeless.
Happiness is fleeting. Christmas doesn’t mean you have to fake it and conjure up positive emotions. We can be real about the hurt and pain in our lives. Feasting in the midst of pain says something powerful to the world around us. Without Christ, we have nothing. And by having Christ, we have everything. When we seek God with our hearts, souls, and minds, we find not just things, but a Person; not just momentary pleasures, but eternal joy. Joy given as a gift, joy that no one can take away.
We gaze longingly toward the day when all happiness and joy will be ours to experience in full. But today, whether life feels more like feast or famine, we can rest in the One who not only gives us good things, but gave us Himself.
“Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.”
“The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.”
“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices…”
- Ancient-Future Time by Robert E. Webber
- You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith
- The Annotated Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens with notes by Michael Patrick Kearn
- Some claim that Charles Dickens single-handedly revived Christmas in the 1800s when he wrote A Christmas Carol. (Check out this fascinating blog series for more.