Thanksgiving fell quite late in the calendar this year, but stores and radio began preparing us for Christmas even before Halloween, trotting out their decorations and playing seasonal music much earlier than the day after Thanksgiving that was once the traditional beginning of the Christmas season in the past. For families and individuals who want a less commercial and more spiritual period of preparation, here are a few ideas, some arising from long-standing Christian traditions and practice and others having developed from our own family’s practical experience.
Decorating . . . with a Purpose
It is no secret that so many of our traditional Christmas decorations actually have pre-Christian antecedents. While few today look at Christmas trees, lights, mistletoe, and Yule logs and think of the early pagan midwinter festivals and practices they came from, these decorations can be more than just festive if we take the time to think and talk about the Christian meanings that we have since given them.
While stores use a month (or more) to prepare us to shop for Christmas, we try to use that month as a season of spiritual preparation. Many Christian traditions have long used the four weeks as a period to celebrate the Advent, or coming, of Jesus Christ into the world. While celebrating Advent is not a common Latter-day Saint practice, many with German or Scandinavian roots or those who are converts from other faiths may be familiar with the practice of using the four Sundays before Christmas as a special time to gather and look forward to the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Advent can also look forward to his glorious Second Coming that still lies ahead.
In 2002, our family decided to add a modified version of Advent to our Christmas traditions. Like many who observe Advent more formally, we purchased a simple green wreath and set in its circle four candles and placed a single white candle in the middle. On the fourth Sunday before Christmas we light the first candle, and each Sunday thereafter we light another until Christmas Eve, when we light the center candle as well.
Lighting these candles each Sunday of Advent and then again on Christmas Eve provides us with an opportunity to hold a family devotional that helps us keep our Christmas focused on the birth of Jesus and the joyful hope of his return. One tradition holds that these candles represent the Advent themes of hope, love, joy, and peace, so on each of the four Sundays before Christmas we read selections from the scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, and talk about how they relate to those themes. After singing a seasonal song, we have our family prayer and then move to more fun traditions, such as opening that day’s pocket in our Advent calendar and then sharing a treat together.
Having a Scripture-Centered Holiday
Reading scriptural passages together on each of the Sundays of Advent is only one of the ways we have tried to keep the scriptures the center of our holiday season. Borrowing ideas from others, we have put together a list of scriptures about the coming of Christ and use it together with a collection of Christmas stories and carols that we draw upon for each of the days in December leading up to Christmas Eve. Before our family prayer each night during that month, we gather to read a story, read a scripture, and sing. These daily Christmas devotionals have done much to keep all the commercialism and other festive holiday practices from squeezing out the true meaning of Christmas. The scriptures, carol suggestions, and many of the stories appear on my Christmas Resource Guide.
But in addition to this use of the scriptures with my family, I have found that in-depth personal study of the coming of Jesus Christ does more than anything else to bring the Spirit into my life and help me focus on the meaning of Jesus’ birth—and his later suffering, death, and resurrection. There are four weeks in the Advent season, and there also happen to be four chapters in the so-called Infancy Narratives of Mathew and Luke. So part of my personal study each December is to read, study, and think about Matthew 1 the first week, Luke 1 the second, Luke 2 the third, and finally Matthew 2 the fourth. When I do this, I am better able to teach and bear testimony of what Christmas is all about when we finally arrive at Christmas Eve. I published much of my research and many of my thoughts about these texts in 2011 as Good Tidings of Great Joy: An Advent Celebration of the Lord's Birth.
Remember What the Gifts Are All About
The happy custom of exchanging gifts first and foremost is a recollection of how God so loved the world that he gave us the greatest gift, the gift of his only Begotten Son (see John 3:16–17), and how Jesus so loved us that he was willing to die, and rise, for us (see John 15:13). Like many, we use the story of the wise men bringing gifts as a precedent for our own gift-giving (Matthew 2:11), but in addition to thoughtfully making or purchasing gifts for our loved ones as a way of showing our love, we also talk about what gifts we can offer our Savior that year. A few years ago we adopted the tradition of some friends who hand out a small card with a picture of Mary or Joseph with the Baby Jesus to each member of the family on Christmas Eve. We then take time to write on the back of that card what we can offer the Savior that year in return for His love and mercy.
The True Meaning of Christmas
Finally, just as I make the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke the focus of special study during the four weeks before Christmas, I also read with them beautiful prophecies about the coming of Christ from the Book of Mormon such as 1 Nephi 11:12–33, Mosiah 3:1–13, Alma 7:9–14, Helaman 14:1–8, and 3 Nephi 1:1–21. These passages not only talk about birth of Jesus, they also tie it directly to his atoning sacrifice and Resurrection, making the “good tidings of great joy” of the Christmas story as much about the “glad tidings of great joy” of Easter.
|See my book Good Tidings of Great Joy for a study of the Infancy Narratives|
- Celebrating Advent (updated 12/5/13)
- First Advent: Hope (updated 12/5/13)
- Second Advent: Love
- Third Advent: Joy
- Fourth Advent: Peace
- Christmas Eve
- The Focus of Advent and Christmas: Salvation
- Daily December Christmas Devotionals (A Family Resource Guide) (updated 12/3/13)
- Christmas throughout the Year
- "Celebrating Advent: Keeping Jesus Christ the Focus of the Season," Deseret News article
"Glad Tidings of Great Joy' Celebrates the Advent of of the Birth of Christ All Month," Cricket and Seagull interview with Steven Kapp Perry
- Daily Christmas Devotionals about Jesus Christ, as printed in The Deseret News and taken from Good Tidings of Great Joy, 143-147
- Mormon Identities episode, "Christmas in the Holy Land": Professor, speaker, and author Andy Skinner reviews the places and events of the first Christmas story in an interview done in Jerusalem.
- Mormon Identities episode, "History of Christmas Music": Listen as Mormon Tabernacle Choir organist Richard Elliott and director Ryan Murphy tell us where some of the most beloved Christmas songs came from. Then hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform them in this episode.
- Mormon Identities episode, "Biblical Christmas": In this episode, Gaye Strathearn, associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU, and Alonzo Gaskill, associate professor of Church history and doctrine and author of The Nativity, join our host, Eric Huntsman, to discuss the biblical story of Christmas. They discuss the similarities and differences between the narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 and end by focusing on the vital truths that these accounts share with each other and Book of Mormon prophecies of Jesus' birth. Listen to this episode and discover how the scriptural account is sometimes different than the scenes we imagine.
- Mormon Identities episode, "Christmas with the Prophets": Join us for this interview with Laura F. Willis, author of Christmas with the Prophets. This interesting, richly illustrated holiday book examines the Christmas traditions and teachings of each President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sister Willis shares some of her favorite and inspiring stories about the prophets, focusing on how they each taught of the importance of our Savior's birth.