Shortly after getting married, my late ex-husband, Steve, and I knew our Christmas traditions were going to have to change.
Growing up, I had always gone to Winnipeg for a large family gathering on Christmas Eve. In my first parish, we went to Steve’s family farm on Christmas Eve, since it was only a few miles from the church I was serving. But the simple reality was that when we moved to North Dakota, we were almost four hours from either family, and I had a job that required my presence on both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
With deliberateness and intentionality, Steve and I settled on a new family tradition that was a bold departure from the boisterous family gatherings we had both known throughout our lives. We were looking for something simple. So after Christmas Eve worship, we toured Casselton to look at the lights and sing Christmas carols, and then we would return home for a meal, we would read the Christmas story, open a few gifts and head for bed. At the center of the tradition was our meal — a simple soup supper with bread.
As the kids grew up, we added a few things — reading “The Grinch that Stole Christmas” and “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” tracking Santa on NORAD, and preparing a plate of goodies for Santa, along with the requisite note. But it still remained simple.
After my divorce, I was especially grateful for the simplicity of the meal. It was something I could do over my lunch hour, when I ran home on what is probably one of the busiest days of the year for a pastor (to say nothing of a single mom). I would toss the ingredients together in a slow cooker, stir and then return home hours later to piping hot soup that satisfies my hunger in a way few things do.
I am someone who, as a rule, does things up BIG for Christmas. When I lived in North Dakota, I put up a lot of lights outside, along with a menagerie of assorted creatures from the North Pole (and the occasional lost penguin) on one side and the Nativity on the other. I deck the halls, windows, kitchen, bathroom, living and dining room with boughs of not just holly but also my nativity collection and other Christmas decorations. I put enough lights on my tree so that it probably can be seen from the moon, and I bake more Christmas cookies than anyone I know. The kid in me just gets an incredible amount of joy from all of the festivities.
But this year, it is going to be different for me and for so many of us. No travel, no family gatherings, no large celebrations. I won’t even be able to bake, thanks to COVID, or do much of what I used to do to prep, although I am grateful I got my decorating done before I got sick. As a result, I am incredibly grateful for the simplicity of our Christmas Eve traditions.
Because at the heart of the celebration, for all of the tinsel and wrap and viewings of “Elf,” is something very simple. A baby. In a manger. With a star. In the midst of a hustling and bustling city, these few ingredients were stirred together on a night in Bethlehem. And when we return to them, years later, they give us a savior who, through his offer of forgiveness and love, truly satisfies our deepest hunger with the simplest yet most profound message of all. That Emanuel is here, and God truly is with us.
Great God in heaven, thank you for the joy and the celebration, the happiness that comes from knowing your gift that brings joy to the world. And thank you for the simple but profound message you gave us in the form of your son, Jesus, as the baby Emanuel, whose name means God with us. Thank you for being with us then in Bethlehem, and thank you for being with us now and always. In Christ’s name, Amen.