There is something about saying, “We always do this,” which helps keep the years together. Time is such an elusive thing that if we keep on meaning to do something interesting, but never do it, year would follow year with no special thoughtfulness being expressed in making gifts, surprises, charming table settings, and familiar, favorite food. Tradition is a good gift intended to guard the best gifts. -Edith Schaeffer
Our Preparation for Christmas
Throughout history, Christians have marked the passing of the days, weeks, and months of any given year with the sequential details of the Gospel story—with an anticipation of the coming of Jesus during Advent, His birth at Christmas, His trials, temptations, betrayal, and death during Lent, His resurrection at Easter, the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost, and then the growth and maturity of the church at Kingdomtide, until the cycle is repeated the next year. In other words, the keeping of the seasons is a way for us to retell the Gospel every single year, from start to finish.
For centuries Christians have used the month prior to the celebration of Christ’s incarnation to ready their hearts and their homes for the great festival. While we moderns tend to do a good bit of bustling about in the crowded hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas—shopping for presents, compiling guest lists, mailing holiday greeting cards, perusing catalogs, decorating hearth and home, baking favorite confections, and getting ready for one party after another—that hardly constitutes the kind of preparation Advent calls for.
Indeed, traditionally Advent has been a time of quiet introspection, personal examination, and repentance. It is a time to slow down, to take stock of the things that matter the most, and to do a thorough inner housecleaning. It is a time for fasting, prayer, confession, and reconciliation. All the great Advent stories, hymns, customs, and rituals— from the medieval liturgical antiphons to Scrooge’s “Christmas Carol” are attuned to this notion: the best way to prepare for the coming of the Lord is to make straight His pathway in our hearts.
This season is one of those rare times when even the most spontaneous of us loves to recall old traditions and familiar legacies. We love to sing old carols. We love to break out the old dishes, the old recipes, and the old stories. But, regardless of what particular traditions our individual families celebrate, let’s resolve to enter into a new season of Gospel retelling with great joy, remembering the old paths with new and fresh faith.
Thus, one of the best ways to prepare for Christmas during this season is to simply read the Scriptures. Every household schedule is different, but often the best time for devotions is just before the evening meal: read the verses picked for that day and then pray with thanksgiving. Hopefully, the various passages will spark good dinner table conversations. For the next four weeks, why don’t we take this Biblical journey of preparation together?
Advent Family Devotions
Genesis 3:1-15: The Fall of Man and the first promise of the Messiah is revealed.
Genesis 22:15-18: God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed all nations of the earth shall be blessed.
Isaiah 7:14 & 9:2-7: Christ’s birth and kingdom are foretold by the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 11:1-9: A rod shall come forth from the stem of Jesse.
Micah 5:2-4: The glory of little Bethlehem is foretold by the prophet Micah.
Malachi 4:1-3: The Sun of Righteousness, the Daystar, shall arise.
Numbers 24:15-19; 2 Peter 1:19; Revelation 22:16: The truthfulness of the prophecies is confirmed.
“How proper it is that Christmas should follow Advent. For him who looks toward the future, the manger is situated on Golgotha, and the cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.” -Dag Hammarskjold
Stirring Day or Stir-Up Sunday, as it is sometimes called is the first Sunday before Advent—usually falling on the Sunday after our American Thanksgiving. A holiday borrowed from the Victorians, it provides a wonderful way to make the transition into the Advent season. On this day mothers and grandmothers gather their whole family into the kitchen, assign various chopping, stirring, measuring, and clean-up tasks and bake the Christmas Plum Pudding together. Then, pudding baked and ageing nicely in a cool, dark spot, they relax with the feeling of satisfaction that although the busy Yuletide season is soon to be upon them, at least some of the preparation for Christmas Dinner was completed. The preparation had begun.
Advent begins four Sundays prior to Christmas. For centuries, Christian families have celebrated this season of preparation with the lighting of one candle in a small table-top evergreen wreath each Sunday, accompanied by an appropriate Scripture reading and prayer. The candles vary in color from culture to culture, but generally the first three candles are red or purple and the last one is white or golden. For families that find themselves each year vowing that their celebration of the season will focus more on the real meaning of Christmas and less on the brouhaha, this is the place to begin to set the tone for the holidays.
St. Andrew’s Day
Numbered among the Apostles, the brother of Simon Peter eventually became the revered patron of both Greece and Scotland where his feast day, November 30, remains a kind of national holiday. Andrew (c. 10-60) may well have been, as tradition asserts, the founder of the church at the site of Constantinople, but he was most assuredly the great reconciler, as Scripture asserts. As a result, his memory is celebrated by a day of forgiveness. Services of reconciliation are often followed by a great feast of roasted or smoked beef, the telling of heroic tales, the reciting epic poetry, and the singing of great ballads.
“The Bible teaches that the angels made merry at Christ’s birth.” -Billy Graham
“Merry Christmas.” It is likely that we will both say and hear that phrase more than a few times over the next three weeks. For us as believers, it serves as far more than a simple alternative to “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.” We know only too well that true merriment of the heart depends upon grasping the profound reality that Christ Jesus was born in Bethlehem for our salvation. So, we joyfully declare: “He has come to make His blessings flow as far as the curse is found.”
Merry is a word that usually connotes good humor, cheerfulness, and joy. This is how it is often used in the Bible. In the Book of Proverbs we read, “A merry heart is good medicine.” And, the Prophet Jeremiah declares, “Adorn yourself with tambourines and go forth in the dances of the merry” (Jeremiah 31:4). But, this certainly does not exhaust the word’s meaning.
Originally, merry comes to us from the old Anglo-Saxon word, myryer. It was used in various contexts to mean pleasing, fine, and agreeable. It could also mean melodious, comforting, and sweet. Sometimes it conveyed the idea of bountiful, fruitful, and prosperous. Very often though, it was used to mean illustrious, mighty, and brave.
So, to be merry was not simply to be joyful, cheerful, and gleeful, but often, strong, bold, and gallant as well. It was in this sense that courageous soldiers were called “merry men.” Favorable weather was called “merry weather.” Brisk winds were called a “merry gale.”
Thus, the word merry carries with it the double thought of might and mirth.
As Christians, we are able to engage in spiritual merriment as we remember that, through the redemption wrought by the grace of the Lord Jesus, we have been made “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). So, “God rest ye, merry gentlemen” and merry, merry Christmas!
Advent Family Devotions
Second Sunday in Advent
Exodus 20:1-17: The Law of God which we in our own strength cannot keep.
Joel 2: 12,13: The Lord desires a repentant heart.
Isaiah 40:1-11: Comfort ye my people.
Romans 3:21-28: Righteousness by the Law of Faith through Christ.
Romans 8:1-4: The fulfillment of the Law through Christ.
Isaiah 60:1-4: Arise, shine! for your light has come.
Hebrews 10:1-10: Christ came to fulfill the need for an all-sufficient sacrifice for sins.
“The true Christian religion is incarnational and thus does not begin at the top, as all other religions do; it begins at the bottom. You must run directly to the manger and the mother’s womb, embrace the Infant and Virgin’s Child in your arms and look at Him—born, being nursed, growing up, going about in human society, teaching, dying, rising again, ascending above all the heavens, and having authority over all things.” -Martin Luther
Literally “Knocking Night,” each Thursday in Advent is celebrated throughout German Christian communities by youngsters walking from house to house, beckoning upon the door stoops, singing carols, and offering gifts of fruit and candies. A reversal of the “Trick or Treat” ritual, the Klopfelnachte tradition is a joyous and selfless expression of commitment in a covenantal community—after all, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
St. Nicholas Day
Celebrated on December 6, this day recalls the selfless service of Nicholas of Myra (c. 288-354). The fourth century pastor ultimately inspired the tradition of Santa Claus. In reality, he was a paradigm of graciousness, generosity, and Christian charity. His great love and concern for children drew him into a crusade that ultimately resulted in protective statutes that remained law for more than a thousand years. His feast day is celebrated around the world. In the Netherlands, cookies and gingerbread treats were often placed in the shoes or laid out stockings of sleeping children—which may well have been the origin of Christmas gift and hearthside stockings.
Santa Lucia’s Day
A beautiful and wealthy Sicilian who was martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian, Lucia of Syracuse (c. 304) was known as the patron of light. For her, Advent was always a celebration of the approach of Light and Life. Interestingly, her feast day, held on December 13, is one of the shortest and darkest days of the year. Thus, a great festival of lights is traditionally held in her memory—particularly in Scandinavian cultures. Candles are set into evergreens. Garlands are spread, full of twinkling lights. Torchlight parades are held. And fireworks brighten the evening sky.
“When I think of Christmas Eves, Christmas feasts, Christmas songs, and Christmas stories, I know that they do not represent a short and transient gladness. Instead, they speak of a joy unspeakable and full of glory. God loved the world and sent His Son. Whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life. That is Christmas joy. That is the Christmas spirit.” -Corrie ten Boom
The holiday season—what we generally just call Christmastime—is actually a long sequence of remembrances, revelries, and celebrations that are collectively known as Yuletide. Beginning with Advent, a time of preparation and repentance, proceeding to Christmas, a time of celebration and generosity, and concluding with Epiphany, a time of remembrance and thanksgiving, Yuletide traditions enable us to see out the old year with faith and love while ushering in the new year with hope and joy. It is a season fraught with meaning and significance.
Unfortunately, it is also such a busy season that its meaning and significance can all too easily be obscured either by well-intended materialistic pursuits—frenzied shopping trips to the mall to find just the right Christmas gift—or by the less benign demands, desires, wants, and needs which are little more than grist for human greed. The traditions of Yuletide were intended to guard us against such things—and thus, are actually more relevant today than ever before.
Hilaire Belloc once quipped, “To comprehend the history of a thing is to unlock the mysteries of its present, and more, to disclose the profundities of its future.” Likewise, J.C. Ryle said, “All heaven and earth resound with that subtle and delicately balanced truth that the old paths are the best paths after all.” And, the incomparable G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Weak things must boast of being new, like so many new German philosophies. But strong things can boast of being old. Strong things can boast of being moribund.” Each of these modern wise men point us to the fact that the remembrances and recollections, the celebrations and gatherings of this season can ground us in the things that matter most—especially if we are able to resist the fog of holiday bustle!
May the Lord give us grace to do just that in this season. May we know the fullness of this good news, these glad tidings, this great joy! And may our time in God’s Word be one of the means the Holy Spirit uses to accomplish this. Tolle lege! Take and read!
Advent Family Devotions
Third Sunday in Advent
Luke 1:5-17: The birth of John the Baptist is foretold to Zacharias.
Luke 1:13-25: Zacharias is struck dumb until the fulfillment of Gabriel’s prophecy.
Luke 1:26-38: The angel Gabriel’s annunciation to the Virgin Mary of the Incarnation.
Matthew 1:18-25: The angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream.
Luke 1:39-56: The birth of John the Baptist.
Luke 1: 67-80: Zacharias speaks a prophecy over the infant John.
Matthew 11:1-18: The prophetic ministry of John the Baptist
Many Times, Many Ways
“Although it’s been said many times, many ways: Merry Christmas to you.” Of course, that is the last line of one of the most beloved Christmas songs of all time: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yuletide carols being sung by a choir, and folks dressed up like Eskimos.”
I couldn’t help but think of the song when I saw a meme recently emblazoned with all the many ways we actually do say, “Merry Christmas”: from “Happy Holidays” and “Ho, Ho, Ho” to “Seasons Greetings” and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas;” from “Glad Tidings” and “May Your Days Be Happy and Bright” to “Blessed Yuletide” and “Joy to the World;” We say “Tis the Season to Be Jolly,” “Deck the Halls,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and “Comfort and Joy;” Sometimes we even borrow phrases from other languages: “Feliz Navidad” and “Noel, Noel;” At times we might even be tempted to say “Bah Humbug;”
Indeed, “It’s been said many times, many ways.”
The song was composed almost on a whim by two Hollywood jingle writers—who happened to be Jewish. On a sweltering Southern California afternoon in July 1945, Mel Tormé and Bob Wells joked that perhaps thinking and writing about Christmas would cool them off. They later recalled that they “just started writing down all the mid-wintery things” they could think of. It must have worked. They completed the song in less than forty-five minutes, and it went on to become one of the most frequently performed Christmas songs: first made famous in an iconic recording by Nat King Cole.
Wells later wrote and produced extensively for a wide variety of projects in film and television, working with Dinah Shore, Andy Williams, Patty Duke, Gene Kelly, Henry Mancini, Duke Ellington, and Harry Belafonte.
Tormé would go on to have a storied career, both as a composer and a performer. He wrote a host of torch song classics like “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” “Autumn in New York,” “Born to Be Blue,” “Isn’t It Romantic,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But, the “Christmas Song” about “turkey and some mistletoe” and “tiny tots with their eyes all aglow” has proven to be his single greatest legacy. And, although he said that it was not among his favorite compositions, he acknowledged it as “my annuity.”
In any case, “I’m now offering this simple phrase to kids from one to ninety-two, although it’s been said many times, many ways: Merry Christmas to you.”
O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright! Pour on our souls thy healing light; Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom, And pierce the shadows of the tomb.
Every day, from December 25 to January 6, has traditionally been a part of the Yuletide celebration. Dedicated to mercy and compassion—in light of the incarnation of Heaven’s own mercy and compassion—each of those twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany was to be noted by selfless giving and tender charity. In many cultures, gift giving is not concentrated on a single day, but rather, as in the famous folk song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, spread out through the entire season.
Though theories vary on the origin of the song (it first appears sometime during the advent of Protestantism in Tudor England) it is likely an urban legend that it was intended to be a secret catechism song during those difficult times of persecution.
That fanciful interpretation of the song has attached very specific meanings to the symbols: the partridge in a pear tree, for instance, was taken to be Christ, Himself: He is represented as a mother partridge feigning injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings. The two turtledoves were taken to represent the Old and New Testaments. The three French Hens supposedly symbolized faith, hope, and love. The four calling birds were said to portray either the four Gospels or the four evangelists. The five golden rings were supposed to be the five books of the Old Testament Pentateuch. The six geese a-laying were said to be the six days of creation while the seven swans a- swimming were taken to be the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The eight maids a- milking were supposed to be the eight beatitudes while the nine ladies dancing supposedly represented the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit. The ten lords a-leaping were taken to mean the Ten Commandments. The eleven pipers piping were supposed to be the eleven faithful apostles and the twelve drummers drumming were either the tribes of Israel, the elders of Revelation, or the points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed.
Most of these interpretations are likely dubious legends. For one thing, all of the first seven gifts actually refer to birds of varying types. The fourth day’s gift, for instance, was originally four “colly birds,” not “calling birds” (the word “colly” literally means “black as coal,” and thus these would be blackbirds). The “five golden rings” does not refer to five pieces of jewelry, but to ring-necked pheasants.
But, even though interpretive maximalism likely goes too far, it is equally excessive to assume that the song is “strictly secular,” as one debunking web site dubbed it. Indeed, secularism in 16th century England was altogether unknown. The answer to overly anxious allegoricalism is not the equal and opposite error of overly anxious reductionism. Symbols don’t have to mean everything in order to mean something—nor do they have to mean nothing.
Very likely, this delightful folk song was just intended to generally and joyously portray throughout the Yuletide season the abundant Christian life, the riches of the Church’s covenantal inheritance, the Gospel’s ultimate promise of heaven, and the call for us to give, just as we have received.
Lessons abound for us in this: the holiday season constantly presents us with temptations to either over-read or under-estimate the celebratory expressions all around us. That is why Scripture needs to be our first and surest lens through which to understand everything else.
Advent Family Devotions
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Luke 2:1-7: St. Luke tells of the birth of Jesus.
Micah 4:1-7: All nations shall find peace from the God of Jacob.
Luke 2:8-14: The angels proclaim the birth of Christ to the shepherds.
Psalm 98: The Lord has made known his salvation.
Luke 2:15-20: The shepherds go to the manger.
Philippians 2:5-11: The humility of Christ.
Titus 2:11-3:7: The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.
In Serbia and Croatia, the old stories of Boniface and the sacred grove gave rise to the tradition of taking a stout log, boring out its center, filling it with herbs, oil, and wine, and setting it upon the hearth fire—thus filling the home with the sweet fragrance of scented wood smoke. The Yule Log became a vital part of the Advent celebration for Christians throughout central and eastern Europe.
Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, condoned the use of the old tradition of Christmas trees. Like the Yule Log, the idea for the Christmas tree was derived over time from the tradition of Boniface and was intended to be a reminder that the idols of this world have been rendered moot while the tree of Calvary has become the very hinge of history. Set in the center of the home and adorned with lights, tinsel, decorative baubles, and topped by a herald angel, the tree was to be a visible representation of the story of the Gospel itself.
The little berries of the Mistletoe plant, renowned for their healing powers, became a medieval symbol of God’s provision and grace. Even when the vast northern forests were buried in deep snows and the hardwood trees had lost all their foliage, the Mistletoe continued to bloom—to offer its medicine of hope to the afflicted and the needy. Often, families would decorate their doorways with little sprigs of the plant as reminders of providential love. It became a happy ritual for lovers to kiss beneath the sprigs as a kind of covenantal affirmation of their fealty in the sight of God. A single berry was to be plucked from the sprig for each kiss. Often the bare sprigs were kept as testimony to the couples’ vows.
Holly and Ivy
Throughout the Celtic lands of Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, holly and ivy were symbols of victory won. Holly, representing masculine triumph, and ivy, representing feminine triumph, were often woven together as a sign that men and women need one another. Homes were decorated during Advent with both—often woven together—as a picture of the healthy family under God’s gracious providential hand.