Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Preparing Our Hearts for Christmas

When my children were small, Christmas was an exciting and hectic season. But very early on, the focus shifted from the true meaning of the celebration, as is typical of human nature, to a focus on the stuff of the celebration. It became a rush to get just the right presents, cook just the right foods, decide which house to visit for Christmas Eve and which to visit for Christmas Day. Thanksgiving Day just became just a big family meal...get through this and then hold on as we zoom through to the New Year.

I soon came to dread the time change at the end of October that signaled a frantic November and December. Every year I thought, "I hate Christmas!" The stress became too much for me and I was one of the millions depressed by the holidays. I was not a fun person to be around. Think of the cliché, "If momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy!" That was our family's mantra as soon as November 1st dawned. And Momma was certainly not happy...

...Until one October afternoon in 1993. I knew that my attitude toward the holidays was not fair to my family and not worthy of my calling as a daughter of the King of Heaven. After all, it was His birthday we were supposed to be celebrating. I went to a Christian bookstore in search of something to make the holidays easier on me (note again the focus on myself). I came across an Advent devotion booklet. This had devotions for every day from the Sunday after Thanksgiving to Christmas Day, all focused on celebrating the arrival of the baby Jesus.

Now, my first thought was, "No way do I want to think about Christmas every single day for the next month!" But I read a couple pages into the devotional and my heart was broken as I was reminded of the real purpose of bring forth the Savior that died for me. Over the course of the next few weeks, I studied more about Advent celebrations and the kids and I worked on an Advent wreath for our kitchen table. Thanksgiving that year was spent at home, just the five of us. It was a beautiful time of being thankful for the blessings God had brought to us throughout the year. We had a wonderful meal and started putting up some of our Christmas decorations.

Our tradition was on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when we got home from church in the evening, we put up the Christmas tree. The year before this, I stalled until two weeks before Christmas to put up the tree. This year we all sat around the kitchen table, Steve read a devotion from our Advent devotional, we discussed its meaning with the kids, and prayed -thanking God for giving us Jesus. Then we all got up and started decorating the Christmas tree.

And, from that evening on, each night leading up to Christmas morning, we had Advent devotions. That Christmas was the beginning of the most meaningful Christmases of our lives, because God changed my attitude by reminding me of why we celebrate in the first place. From then on it didn't matter where we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day...the pressure was off because our Advent devotions went with us.

In a few years, as everyone grew up and got busy outside the home, our devotions had to be done just on the Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. But they became all the richer as our children started writing their own devotions and leading our family worship each Sunday evening. And they especially love being the one whose turn it is to light the Jesus candle on Christmas Day!

How, you ask, did I keep the children's attention during devotions every single night of Advent in those beginning years? (They were 9, 7, and 4 years old that first year.) You must be Super Mom, you say! No...every night we do Advent devotions, everyone gets a small gift at the end of our prayer. On the weeknights & Saturdays it's something as simple as a piece of Christmas candy. On the Sundays it might be a pair of slipper socks or a hot chocolate mug. On Christmas Eve, the traditional Advent gift is a new pair of pajamas- so everyone looks nice on the Christmas video!!

It might sound like I bribed my kids to sit quietly...but the idea for me was to give them a little tangible reason to be thankful for the holidays each day. But if you ask them now, they'll each tell you that they look forward most to lighting the candles and talking about what God has done for us in sending His Son as our Savior. And this year, I think we'll put up the Christmas tree before Thanksgiving...and use it to hang little notes of thankfulness to God as decorations. We'll read them at the table on Thanksgiving Day and "worship His Name with thanksgiving in our hearts." Then we'll get out the ornaments and decorate our tree as the beginning of our month-long celebration of the coming of the Christ-child.

Advent begins on November 27, but we can really prepare for the coming of the Christ-child by starting with celebrating the gift of Christ the Savior on Thanksgiving Day.

First printed November 2005 in The Freedom Reader, a publication of Spring Valley Freedom Bapist Church, Huntington, WV.