How still we see Christmas today

December 20, 2023

This year’s December calendar has created a great deal of discussion on whether churches will have a Christmas Eve service when December 24 is on a Sunday. After Sunday morning worship, would anyone come out again that evening for a traditional service of lessons and carols? Do we combine both services into one on Sunday morning? Candles just don’t flicker as nicely in the morning when we sing, “Silent Night! Holy Night!”

Churches have experienced traumatic changes ever since the pandemic broke out nearly four years ago. Now, how would we maintain our traditions in light of the reality that in the 21st century, even the most devout Christian may not want to come to two services on the same day—especially on Christmas Eve!

The Christmas season is probably the most tradition-kept holiday in the US. Regardless of whether you celebrate it religiously or not, we all celebrate it commercially in one way or another. And when those hard-wired traditions are missed or forgotten, there’s a price to be paid!

One Christmas when we were living in Valley Forge, PA, we traveled to Hawaii for Christmas. We thought it would be a wonderful time escaping winter, but to this day, our children who are real adults now still refer to that Christmas as one of the worst! We went to the beach, but they missed the snow. We rode in a cable car and sang “Mele Kalikimaka,” but they had sour faces on. And when we opened gifts before getting on the plane, they felt it wasn’t the same. After that, we promised to always be home on Christmas Day.

Keeping traditions provides a placeholder for our days. We know the rules and everyone plays their traditional parts. At First Baptist, Boston, where I grew up, we always got this box of hard candies after the lighting of the Christmas tree that appears to reach the heavens. At First Chinese Baptist, San Francisco, where I pastored, I introduced luminaries that we put out on the sidewalk. I don’t think anyone actually came into the church on Christmas Eve because of the luminaries, but they were there for 17 years. It became a tradition on a darkened city street.

Especially on Christmas Eve, we would sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” From a distance, Bethlehem appears to be still, but a part of the story is that the Holy Family needed to travel there to be counted in a Roman declared census. I wonder if Joseph and Mary didn’t have to go to Bethlehem, how would they have celebrated their traditional practices of welcoming a newborn baby in Nazareth?

Whenever we move from one place to another, whatever the reason, we end up letting go of some traditions and adding new ones from the new place we call home. What are some Christmas traditions you used to practice and what are new ones that have gained new meaning?

We might like to dream that Bethlehem is still, but most likely it was teeming with humanity. Even the search for a place to stay like the Las Posadas ritual gives us the impression that maintaining traditions may not be as important as just surviving with food for the night and a safe place to sleep. Before Baby Jesus got into a rhythm of eating and sleeping, they escaped to Egypt because of the massacre of the innocents. There was no time to practice any traditions even if they wanted to!

Whenever we move from one place to another as the result of many reasons, we end up letting go of some traditions and adding new ones from the new place we call home. What are some traditions you used to practice and what are new ones that have gained new meaning?

Americans are among the most mobile people in the world. We relocate for new opportunities. We move into an assisted living facility when that time comes. We resettle for a better educational program. Sometimes, we just want to get away with the hope that a new place will be better than the old one. And every time we move, some traditions disappear and others take their places.

Christmas traditions are sentimentally important. I like to sing Burl Ives’ “Silver and Gold” or try to sing Handel’s Messiah. But when the angels are singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, good will to all people,” that traditional affirmation that God is with us is the only truth worth keeping.

Keeping traditions going with this year’s December calendar may be challenging, but it leads us to focus on the important message of Christmas. Perhaps some traditions are just that, traditions with little to do with Christmas anyway. We just let them go. But when we sing, “Joy to the World! The Lord is come,” we can refocus the true meaning of celebrating Christmas—Christ is with us!

Now, what are you going to do on Sunday, December 31, New Year’s Eve? Will you have a “First Night” service like some churches do after morning service? Whatever we do, the truth of Emmanuel—God with us—will also be with us in 2024!

Rev. Donald Ng was president, American Baptist Churches, USA, 2014-15, the first Asian American to serve in this elected position. For 17 years, he was senior pastor of the historic First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco. He retired from full-time ministry in 2015.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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