I used to think that Christmas should be divided into two categories—“American Christmas” and “Christian Christmas.” American Christmas involved Santa Claus and presents and eggnog and tinsel. Christian Christmas included the mournful expectation of Advent that led to our celebration of Jesus’ life.

Then one day, Penny comes home from school singing and dancing to “Jingle Bell Rock.” There’s a performance coming up, and she practices daily. She knows every motion, and she sings loud and clear, if somewhat off-key. Her face is aglow with the light of a child who couldn’t be more content or more excited.

It is at that moment that I start to wonder whether American Christmas and Christian Christmas are more closely related than I had suspected.

I think back to the way Jesus’ birth upended traditional assumptions that the spiritual world and the physical world must remain distinct spheres. Jesus’ birth signaled the entrance of God into time and space. And despite Jesus’ condemnation of evil, his life attests to his ongoing affirmation of the goodness of our physical reality.

Christmas celebrates material reality, through gifts and glitter and extravagance. When we place the Nutcracker characters on the branches of our tree, when we bake molasses spice cookies, when we dress up in fancy clothes, we are participating in God’s declaration that this world matters enough to enter into it, to upend the evil within it, to hold tight to the good, forever.

So I begin to think about embracing gift giving, but I’m weary of our stuff. I don’t want my kids to feel entitled to a new bike or book or toy. I don’t want to fill another bin with items to give away. I think perhaps we should all pull names out of a hat and only give one gift apiece, or give the money to charity, or forget about presents altogether.

But I remember that Christmas is also about receiving gifts. Instead of purchasing what I want for myself, I submit to what someone else wants me to have. At least in theory, receiving gifts prompts a recognition of all the things in life that come, not because of hard work or because we deserve it, but simply because we are loved. My children, who have no income, who depend on us for each bite of food and each piece of clothing and toy and book and game, know how to receive gifts. With simple joy. With great delight. With gratitude. The same way I want to receive God’s gifts to me.

When Penny comes home singing “Jingle Bell Rock” with all her heart, I realize there is no dividing line for her. Shaking those sleigh bells and belting out those lyrics are part of the celebration. After all, without Jesus’ birth, there would be no reason to throw a party. For my children, for myself, it’s important to celebrate Christmas, not only through words and hymns and spiritual practices, but through the embodiment of celebration and delight, through cookie swaps and presents around the tree and wreaths on the door. And, yes, through “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Taken from Small Talk by Amy Julia Becker. Copyright ©2014 by Amy Julia Becker. Used by permission of Zondervan www.zondervan.com

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Small Talk: Learning From My Children About What Matters Most
Small Talk: Learning From My Children About What Matters Most
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