by Rachel Campbell
As the days shorten to a few dimly lit hours, our family will wait expectantly for Christmas, and in the final run to the 25th, we will count down the number of sleeps until the day itself. My children are no longer little, but we await that day with an excitement that seems undiminished despite their increased maturity and sophistication. This longing for the day has its origins embedded in my own childhood when my far-from-wealthy parents would make this a very special time of year.
We have an international marriage which straddles both hemispheres, and so we have had the joy of spending memorable Christmases with my husband’s family in the bright warmth of a New Zealand Summer. We have spent time sitting around a solid kauri table with extended family, enjoying freshly caught crayfish, home-reared lamb, waiting until 9 o’clock at night for it to become dark enough to sing carols by candlelight, swimming in the river on Christmas Day and in the sea on Boxing Day, all against a backdrop of the brilliant red pohutukawas, New Zealand Christmas trees.
But more usually we spend Christmas in our modest home in the north of England. A home, some might say, decorated at Christmas to slight excess. We indulge in a real tree that is decorated until there is very little tree to be seen, and the scent invades our home, wafts of reminiscences. As ornaments are hung, we revel in the eclectic mix of the mass produced and the childishly constructed.
Christmas is a pleasantly enforced family time; a time of keeping the heightened emotions of young people, which can stray from joy to frustration when routines are neglected, carefully balanced. It is also a time of managing expectations in the marriage of an extrovert, who wants to fill the house with friends at every opportunity, and an introvert, who yearns a time of rest and tranquillity.
Our family Christmas is encapsulated in the phrase, ‘active memory-making’. As parents we have endeavoured to create memories for our children, and we are rewarded by the frequent use of the treasured phrase, “we always…”. The little traditions we’ve created, which make this time of year so special, transcend consumerism to focus on family and faith.
With just one sleep left, our children are allowed to open a single gift. This appears under the tree after dinner on Christmas Eve, and it is always nightwear. When the children were little this was a not-so-cunning ploy to hasten bedtime. They would run to put on their new pyjamas and then we would gather to read a children’s version of the Christmas story, followed by singing the carol “Away in a Manger”. Then the children would go reluctantly but excitedly to bed. As the years have passed, and attention spans have increased, this time together has evolved into a short family service in which one or more of the children arrange a simple reflection of Bible readings, a carol and prayer.
Christmas is such a precious time of year, made all the more special because of music – from the jovial Christmas songs, inescapable from mid-November on, to the true Joy sung in the words of in old carols that we can come to afresh each year. I don’t consider it Christmas until I have sung “Hark the Herald” at least once! Charles Wesley’s lyrical truths combine with Mendelssohn’s musical genius to lift my soul. There is so much truth and joy to contemplate when singing of the reconciliation of man with God.
Yes, music helps my mind to ‘ponder’ all that Christmas is. In an age that so overvalues celebrity, it is good to dwell on the humility of Christ’s birth with carol lines such as,
“He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,”
“Thou didst leave Thy Throne and Thy Kingly power…”
“Lo, within a manger lies, He who built the starry skies…
Thus to come from heights of bliss,
Down to such a world as this.”
The letter to the Philippians puts it like this,
“Who, being in very nature, God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing…” (Phil 2:6)
Luke chapter 2 is a much-loved Christmas passage, and tucked into that chapter is one of my favourite Scripture verses,
“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
The unique sight before this young mother was one of glory, wonder and humility. Exhausted by giving birth, what was it that Mary pondered? Was it the fulfilment of the Old Testament – the teachings of the prophets, and the promises made to Abraham and David, now wonderfully, gloriously realised? Or, knowing all this, did she ponder the matchless condescension of the Saviour of the world who was wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger before her?
As Mary pondered, so too must we. Christmas is indeed a very special time of year, for personal ponderings, for family memories, and for enjoyment of our rich Christian heritage. This year, as every year, we need to let the renewed realisation of what Christ’s birth means seep into our souls. He is the precious Saviour of the world, the humble incarnation of deity; He is Immanuel, God with us.