Our family does not have many Christmas traditions, but one that we do have is cutting down a real tree. This year, on the day after Thanksgiving, our family drove to a Christmas tree farm and arrived right when it opened. In the brisk 24-degree morning we walked around with a hand saw and a sled searching for a tree. Instead of the joyous moments of finding the perfect tree and hauling it back to the car—all the while anticipating hot cocoa—we walked around for an hour and then left with freezing, crying children and no tree. The anticipated activity had not gone as planned. What was so perfect last year did not end up perfect this year.
The Christmas season has a strange power to capture the imaginations of believers and unbelievers alike. Christmas traditions are perfectly fine, though it’s important to avoid the trap of focusing too much on their traditions being perfect. While helpful and appropriate, traditions can sometimes rise to the level of a childhood fantasy. Well-meaning parents can, whether they intend to or not, end up idolizing their children and chasing a fantasy by attempting to reconstruct the Christmases of their childhood—or at least the good parts that they remember. But parents reliving their childhood in an attempt to construct the perfect Christmas experience skews the meaning of Christmas. Christmas isn’t about parents reliving their childhood, but about the incarnation of the Messiah.
When we returned home from our tree-less adventure, I thought I would encourage our family with the notion that we don’t need a real tree to celebrate Christmas (heresy from my wife’s perspective) and that there are many people around the world that don’t cut down evergreen trees and let them slowly die in their living rooms. My daughter protested that we needed a Christmas tree because that is where the presents will go. I told her that Christmas isn’t about gifts and therefore we don’t need a tree. She responded that Christmas is about gifts. The gifts remind us of the greatest gift given to us—Jesus. My daughter was right. Traditions themselves do not give joy, but point to joy.
The real meaning of Christmas is found in Jesus, God incarnate. God became one of us in the flesh (Jn. 1:14). The angels tell of this good news: “But the angel said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: 11 Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord’” (Lk. 2:10-11). The long-awaited Messiah-King had arrived. The message that the angels declared was a message of great joy. When the wise men found Jesus (likely years later) “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matt. 2:10 ESV). Jesus is the true joy of Christmas.
During this advent season we remember the “great joy” through the joy of participating in Christmas traditions like putting up Christmas trees and giving gifts. “God gave us every day joy to accentuate and deepen the experience of great joy. There must be joy before there can be great joy. We must know good before we can know better. God designed his world of joys to prepare us for great joy in his Son.”
Rutledge, Fleming Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 48.
Mathis, David, The Christmas We Didn’t Expect: Daily Devotions for Advent (The Good Book Company) 45.