On Christmas Eve, my immediate family of four will gather together as we do every year. Dinner will no doubt be delicious, culminating in a special cake for dessert. Our carols will reach their climax in the most important song of the evening—an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” sang to the Christ child. We will all have one special gift—not to open, but to offer to the One whose birthday we celebrate.
When our boys were little, we started a family tradition of offering a symbolic gift to Christ on Christmas Eve. Though it isn’t typically purchased, it is carefully selected. This “gift” is a token of our devotion, a representation of our intention for the upcoming year. We offer it to Christ as a way of tangibly following the Greatest Commandment to “love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”
For example, someone may offer a watch to symbolize time offered to spiritual attentiveness in the coming year. Another person might offer a tool to symbolize some form of work done in devotion and service to Christ. Yet another family member might offer a favorite possession to symbolize bringing our very best to Christ. The gift itself is much less important than the intent behind it.
Traditions such as this are important. They serve to root us and keep us grounded in the values that are most important to us. They prevent the shifting sands of circumstance from having the final word by reminding each of us that we are connected to a larger community and a larger story than we might realize.
This year, I suspect that many of our traditions will look quite different. Family gatherings may be smaller than in previous years. They may be shorter in length, held outdoors, or done virtually to better keep vulnerable family members safe. Many will likely travel less and call more.
Even though we may be forced to reinvent them and imaginatively reinterpret them for 2020, we need traditions to remind ourselves who we are. Our friends and family members need them to undermine the sense of isolation they’ve felt. Our community needs them to remind us that November’s enemies are still December’s neighbors.
For example, if your family usually attends a Christmas Eve service, find one that you can watch together online. Do you typically open presents together? Try casting the video chat feed onto the television so that you can still enjoy the sheer wonder of a child’s face opening presents. Drive around and look at Christmas lights—there are a lot more to enjoy this year. Change up your caroling by putting your favorite album on the radio, rolling down the windows, and slowly driving through the neighborhood singing.
Whatever form your traditions take, use this time to connect with family, with neighbors, and with community. In contrast to the ceaseless reminders of the division and isolation around us, may the babe in the manger draw our hearts together and remind us of the true meaning of Christmas.