A few weeks ago during dinner my wife and I asked our children (ages 12, 10, and 7) if there were any Christmas traditions that they were anticipating. For the past few years we have tried to develop some practices to celebrate the season and unite us as family. Particularly in the weeks before Christmas, our embodied practices help point to the reality of an embodied God, the Word made flesh, the miracle of the incarnation. Lately I’ve been thinking about Christmas traditions within Richmond, City Church, and within our own family.
There are various ways to celebrate Christmas and the holidays in Richmond: the Christmas Parade, the Grand Illumination, a Tacky Light Tour (I’ve been told the house on the Laburnum is the place to go this year), and the Weird Boat Thing on the JamesTM.
For many years, when our kids were a bit younger, our family made sure to visit the Lewis Ginter Festival of Lights. Richmond’s botanical garden is transformed with thousands of lights. More recently the Richmond tradition that our family has come to cherish is Christmas Tea at the Jefferson. We all get dressed up. We “ooh” and “ahh” at all the lobby decorations. We act like we’re fancy people (pinkies out). We drink tea flavored with so much cinnamon that it tastes like Christmas. Reservations are a must (Each year at 6am on September 1st the Jefferson begins taking reservations for Christmas Tea. Set a reminder!)
City Church Traditions
As a pastor part of of Christmas tradition includes events at church. I’m pleased to see the ways that City Church events have become central and anticipated parts of the Christmas season for my family. Tireless work by staff and volunteers makes these traditions easy points of entry for both families and individuals—whether it’s Art for Advent, Advent calendars, or caroling at the Randolph Center.
My family has particularly enjoyed The City Church Christmas Pageant and Sing-Along—now four years old! Who knew that first year in the basement fellowship hall that our humble efforts would grow into a smoothly run (and adorable!) telling of the Song of the Stars? [Link to photos and to video]
The Family Christmas Eve Service is a scene of sheer joy—the joy of Christmas. I used to describe it as organized chaos, but now I’m going to describe it as a foretaste of shalom. In a recent Advent sermon I described the kind of peace Jesus came to bring. I explained that real peace isn’t always quiet and calm. Sometimes it’s loud and active and thriving. Just like our Family Christmas Eve Service, with no nursery and full of the sounds of life our Savior came to bring.
In contrast, the 11pm Christmas Eve Service is mysterious and quiet. Ever since high school when I found a nearby church that held a late night Christmas Eve service I’ve loved preparing for Christmas by retracing the Biblical narrative of Jesus through lessons and carols. Singing songs taught by angels, our voices piercing the otherwise still night, helps concentrate on the wonder of the Christ Child born of Mary, described by John Donne as “immensity cloistered in thy own dear womb.”
One of the challenges of every marriage is combining the practices and habits of two different families of origin. Nowhere is that challenge felt more than at the holidays. Growing up Sarah’s family opened Christmas presents on Christmas Eve. Mine didn’t. In fact, I frequently explain (usually to incredulous faces) how my family observed the 12 Days of Christmas by opening one present per day, beginning on Christmas and stretching through Epiphany (January 6th).
Another tradition I inherited from my family is listening to A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the King's College Cambridge Chapel. Performed every year since 1918, the service always opens with the carol "Once in Royal David’s City". It begins on Christmas Eve at 3pm in Cambridge, which is 10am Eastern time. Public radio usually broadcasts it, and every year it proves that Scripture simply sounds better read witha British accent.
One thing our combined family agrees on is food. And when (a few years ago) Sarah began making homemade cinnamon rolls on Christmas no one complained. They are comfort food. And they feel decadent. The labor that goes into baking them is a gift that points us to God’s greater gift.
Does your family have Christmas traditions—embodied practices that connect you to the great news of God becoming man in order to rescue us? It’s not too late to begin a new tradition this year. Start small. Do something. Take one of our suggestions or (better yet) develop some of your own.