Creating Christmas rituals that restore and transform
By Christine Sine
Robyn was angry and confused. She had known since childhood that Santa was not real. But she had just discovered that her much beloved roly-poly red-robed Santa Claus was a marketing ploy invented in the early 20th century by Coca Cola to encourage consumerism.
She was angry because she had been duped by the commercialization of what should be the most meaningful season of the year. She was also confused because she didn’t know how to break the news to her kids that Santa Claus wasn’t real without destroying their faith in her honesty.
“I hate Christmas,” she told me. “I eat too much, drink too much and rush from one store to another, afraid that I forgot to buy a gift for someone important. They fact that we are celebrating the birth of Christ hardly even registers on my screen.”
Anchoring our souls
When Christmas is over, how many of us look back on the season with the same sense of betrayal that Robyn experienced? An opportunity to model and teach simplicity and the tenets of our Christian faith to our children has become one of the greatest displays of materialism reflecting the values of the consumer society.
We are all people of habit and routine and need spiritual rituals to provide anchors for our souls. When our faith does not provide these rituals the secular culture quickly jumps in with its quasi-spiritual offerings.
Massage therapy, aromatherapy, a day at the local health spa and our increasingly secularized and materialistic approach to Christmas all tantalize us with the promise of peace and relief from our stressed-out lives. Tragically, people of faith are just as likely to be sucked in by these rhythms and ignore the rituals of their faith.
According to Mennonite Brethren missionary and anthropologist Paul Hiebert there are two types of spiritual rituals or routines that we all need in our lives to maintain our spiritual focus and enable us to live at a healthy and balanced pace—restorative rituals and rituals of transformation.
Focusing on what matters
Restorative rituals are those activities we perform on a regular basis to renew our faith in the beliefs that order our lives and to rebuild the religious community in which these beliefs find expression. Daily prayer times, Sunday church and faith-focused celebrations at Christmas, Easter and other important Christian festivals are all restorative rituals that can refocus our priorities on the values of our Christian faith.
Not surprisingly the secular culture provides an increasing array of its own rituals that compete with these. Christmas, with its hyped-up consumerism and partying, constantly seeks to impress on us its belief that “Joy to the World” means eating “heavenly chocolates” or setting up a giant inflatable nativity set in our front yard.
Neither my husband, Tom, nor I grew up in a liturgical church, but in the last few years we have embraced the tradition of the Advent wreath with great enthusiasm. Each morning before breakfast we light the appropriate candles and read the Scriptures for the day from the Book of Common Prayer. It is a wonderful way to focus our lives on the real celebration—the coming of Emmanuel, God with us, God in us, God for us.
We also like to enter into the celebratory aspects of the season—not trying to out party the partygoers but rather to focus our joy and celebration on the true meaning of the season. Each year we hold an annual Advent party that focuses on our anticipation of the return of Christ and the coming of God’s kingdom in all its fullness when all things will be made new.
Changing our priorities
The second type of practice we need in our lives in order to create healthy spiritual rhythms is what Hiebert calls rituals of transformation. These rituals provide a structure that enables us to grow and bring change into our lives. In his book Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, Hiebert explains that these rituals “cut through the established way of doing things and restore a measure of flexibility and personal intimacy.”
Prayer retreats, pilgrimages and mission trips are all transformative rituals that enable us to continue to grow our faith and mature as Christian disciples. Our consumer culture is very intentional about seeking to focus our lives on its materialistic values and we need to be just as intentional in our focus on God’s biblical values in order to stand against these pressures.
Tom and I love to go on a prayer retreat during the Advent season as a time to reflect on our sense of God’s call in our lives and to evaluate the ways in which we have used our time and resources over the last year. We spend time listening to God and set goals that reflect our sense of biblical purpose for the following year—not just for our vocation but for every area of life.
Then throughout the year we take time on Sunday morning before church to journal and to check up on our progress. Out of our prayer retreats has come a whole new rhythm of life that enables us to pace our activities more in sync with our connection to the life, death and resurrection of Christ rather than to the dictates of the secular culture.
Celebrating the real St. Nicholas
Another possibility is to look for ways to transform the symbols of the consumer culture into expressions of our faith. I suggested to Robyn that instead of focusing on Santa Claus she share with her children the story of St. Nicholas who lived in Turkey in the fourth century and was known for his expressions of love for God and for neighbor.
One of the best-known stories involves a poor man who did not have enough money to provide dowries for his three unmarried daughters. As a result they were likely to become prostitutes. Nicholas walked past the house on three successive nights and each time threw in a bag of gold. He became a symbol of anonymous gift giving.
As she shared this story, Robyn was able to encourage her kids to focus their gift giving on those who were really in need at this season and in so doing to remember the one who gave us the greatest gift of all—Christ our Savior. The whole family volunteered to serve Christmas dinner at a local homeless shelter and bought a goat for a poor family in Ethiopia. “It was our most satisfying Christmas ever,” she says.
Before the Christmas season gets started you may like to take some time to really prepare this year. Develop some short rituals for you and your family to use throughout the year that enable you to enter into the joy of Christ’s birth and the wonder of God coming into our world to dwell among us without the overwhelming pressures of consumerism.
Christine Sine is the author of Sacred Rhythms: Finding Peaceful Pace in a Hectic World. She and her spouse, Tom, co-authored Living on Purpose: Developing a Personal Mission Statement.