Getting Ready for Christmas - World Traditions
Getting Ready for Christmas—
Around the World
Christmas is coming! We say it as boxes and shopping bags, wrapping paper and ribbon, scissors and tape, begin to fill up the spare bedroom and every inch of excess storage space in the hall closet. We gather these things as we prepare to express our affection, our love, by giving gifts to those closest to us.
Christmas is coming! We say it as butter (real butter!) and flour, sugar and spices, candied fruit and semisweet chocolate begin to invade the kitchen and take up every nook and cranny in the refrigerator. We gather these goodies as we prepare to welcome guests, to entertain friends, to share our laughter and joy with loved ones.
Christmas is coming! We say it as wreaths and candles, trees and tinsel, lights and lawn ornaments begin to overrun our homes and fill every table, window ledge, and most of the family room floor. We display these decorations year after year as we prepare to celebrate, to mark this season as unique, and to take a few days to rest, away from the daily-ness of our customary lives.
What Are You Preparing For?
We prepare for gift giving, for family gatherings, for office parties, and, sometimes, for the overtime work our job may demand this time of year. If this is all we do, if we let these outward trappings of the season take center stage in our Christmas preparation, January will find us spiritually empty. Worse, we will have failed to honor a holy, giving God. We will have neglected the greatest gifts he intends for this season to bring to our hearts.
Christmas is coming! Advent says it with us. In fact, we derive the word Advent from a Latin word that means “coming”. In many churches, the word names the four-week season of spiritual preparation for Christmas.
Whether you use the term advent or not, the weeks before Christmas can be a time of rich spiritual blessing, of deep spiritual growth, of Christ-honoring worship for individuals and families who use it to cultivate their relationships with one another and, most importantly, with Christ Jesus himself.
For at least 10 centuries, Christians have used the weeks before Christmas as a time of mindful meditation on two facts:
- In love, God came into our world at the first Christmas. He invaded our planet in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, a baby born in Bethlehem to be the world’s Savior (Galatians 4:3–5). Christians call this the incarnation.
- In love, God will come into our world again at the Last Judgment. Christ Jesus will gather all believers to live forever in the joy of the new heaven and new earth he is even now preparing for us (Isaiah 65:16–18; 2 Peter 3:12–14; Revelation 21:1–3).
Christ has come! We prepare during Advent to celebrate the love he has shown us in that coming—in his birth and in the cruel death and triumphant resurrection that marked his first coming.
Christ will come again! We prepare to welcome him at his return, turning from our sins to live instead, lives of love and service—lives that glorify God and benefit those around us. Yes, Christmas is coming. But more important, Christ himself is coming! That makes all the difference.
How Are You Preparing?
Christians down through the ages and across the globe have adopted an array of Advent customs. Perhaps your family or church will find some of these outward customs—new and old—intriguing and helpful as you draw on the Holy Spirit’s power to prepare inwardly to receive your Redeemer!
United States—Our national day of Thanksgiving stands as an unofficial gateway to the holiday—Holy Day—season. What better way to begin the celebration than to recall with grateful hearts all the blessings, spiritual and material, we have enjoyed throughout the past year? As you and your guests rest after the turkey and before digging into the pumpkin pie, give each person around the table a chance to name three blessings, large or small, for which they want to thank God.
Sweden—Families with Scandinavian roots sometimes bake braided bread during Advent. The loaves, long and oval in shape, resemble the baby Jesus all wrapped up in swaddling clothes. Families with older children could adopt this custom, working together to make the bread. As it bakes, light a candle and sit near it, pondering the wonder that the eternal, all-powerful Creator-God became a vulnerable baby so he could die to take away our sins. You might read 1 John 4:9–11 to guide your thinking, discussion, and worship.
Germany—Many families and individuals find the Advent wreath, a German custom, helpful in their Christmas preparation. These wreaths have four candles, three purple to signify repentance and one pink to signify hope. Arranged in a circle and surrounded with evergreens, the wreath itself symbolizes the eternal victory that Jesus won for us in his birth, death, and resurrection (read about “crown of life” in Revelation 2:10). The candles are lit in succession—one the first week in Advent, two the second week, and so on, until all four shine out into the darkness. The candles are said to represent hope, peace, joy, and love. The pink candle, the joy candle, is customarily lit on the third week. Other lights in the room are often turned off as the Advent candles burn and an appropriate Scripture or devotional selection is read. Sometimes a white candle is added on Christmas Eve. It is placed in the center of the wreath and stands for Jesus, the Light of the World.
In addition to the Advent wreath that began in Germany, so did this helpful custom: on the first Sunday in Advent, children write a letter—not to Santa Claus—but to the Christ Child. How spiritually meaningful this activity could be if adults joined the children in our families or Sunday school classes, individually or as a group, composing a message that tells Jesus all that his relationship with us means year round, and especially, as we consider his promised return.
Poland—Crèches (manger scenes) are common to Christians around the world. Polish households sometimes compete to see which family in the community can build the best one. Some families today assemble crèches but add the pieces one or two each day throughout Advent, reading brief Bible passages as they do so. Sometimes the manger is added first, but a question is raised as to where is the straw to soften the bed for the Christ Child. Young children in the family receive one slip of straw for each kind or selfless thing they do during the season so that by Christmas Eve, the baby Jesus figurine has a soft manger bed on which to rest.
Mexico—Las Posadas mark Advent celebrations in many Latino countries. Beginning on December 16, nine consecutive evenings of candlelight processions and lively parties teach children the Christmas narrative. A procession headed by a young Virgin Mary threads its way through the streets each evening. In many towns and villages, she rides a live burro led by a young St. Joseph. Other children follow, representing angels, the three Magi, and often a whole troop of shepherds, all wearing homemade costumes and carrying brightly decorated walking staffs or paper lanterns.
This parade of holy pilgrims stops at a designated house to sing a traditional prayer and ask for shelter for the night. Those inside the house turn them away. The children move on to a second house to repeat the scene. Again, they are turned away. They move to a third house where they are told there is no room in the posada (the inn), but they may find refuge in the stable. At this point, the doors of the home fly open and a party follows, complete with piñatas, fruit, peanuts, and candies.
How might your church adapt this custom so as to share with the children in your neighborhood the story of Jesus’ birth and the forgiveness he came to bring to all people on earth?
Denmark—In one common Danish tradition, families light one large “calendar candle” on December 1. It reminds everyone in the household of Jesus, the Light of the World (John 8:12). This candle is marked with 24 lines and is burned each day for 24 days in December. As it burns down to the next day’s line, families or individuals pause for quiet devotion and reflection.
“Give Me Your Heart!”
Whatever Advent traditions you and your family already observe, whatever new customs you decide to adopt, plan ways to use this holy season in spiritually meaningful ways. Hear afresh your Lord’s invitation, “My son, [my daughter], give me your heart.” (Proverbs 23:26 NIV®). As you do that, may the Christ Child draw you closer to his heart and give you the joy and peace he came from heaven to bring.
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