~ Matthew 1:18-25 ~
As Linda and I are preparing for our sabbatical to New Zealand in February, I’ve become more aware of how Northern European and English are our celebrations of Christmas. We can hardly conceive of Christmas without references to cold and snow, even here in San Francisco. Fake snow, snowflakes hanging from street lights, ice skating rinks downtown and, of course, Christmas trees.
You see, in New Zealand the disconnect is even more profound. It is the middle of summer there. And yet, New Zealand is populated with Scotts and English who still look to preserve the old country’s traditions. We even have a Christmas song in our hymnal, written by a Kiwi, that speaks to their very unsnowy Christmas celebrations:
Carol our Christmas, an upside-down Christmas:
Snow is not falling and trees are not bare.
Carol the summer and welcome the Christ Child,
Warm in our sunshine and sweetness of air.
The song goes on to speak of the “lure of the beach,” and shepherds on the hillside looking for “sheep to be shorn” (There’s lots of sheep in New Zealand).You could say that Kiwis are seeking to carve out their own Christmas traditions even as they have hundreds of years of Christmas traditions looking over their shoulders.
Two thousand years of Christmas traditions permeate our Christmas celebrations. Sacred and secular meld together. Customs and songs, created in their own particular cultural contexts in years past, find their ways into our present. For the most part we don’t even ask why; we just enjoy the mashup that is Christmas.
True, you might wonder, why would we be featuring obvious secular songs like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, The Christmas Song, and Deck the Halls (which originally was a drinking song). And there would have been a time in my life that I would have been outraged (outraged, I tell you) to hear such songs in a service of worship. Those were the days when we were consumed with the idea that Christ was being taken out of Christmas. We lamented the popular designation, Xmas, not realizing that the X was the Greek symbol for Christ. But in those days, long ago, we weren’t going to let the secularists take over Christmas. Oh, you say, that’s still a thing?
But you know what, I’ve come to realize that all these traditions come together to bring people together, bring joy, bring hope, even “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” OK, maybe we could do with less consumerism, less “buy, buy, buy.” As Lucy in A Charlie Brown Christmas said, “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket.” So, maybe we could do with less of that. Or, as one blogger I read suggested, we should just do away with buying presents for each other all together. Of course, if that happened the US economy would really tank.
Traditions! I say embrace them and enjoy God’s pleasure. You know, even our scripture stories, like the one we heard Hany read about Joseph’s dilemma with a pregnant fiancé, were written to encourage people to grow in faith. Whether Joseph’s dream can be verified or not or shepherds really saw angels in the sky or did magi really follow a star to the manger? Even if we might have doubts about their factuality, embrace their truth.
And the songs, the carols! Even though they come out of the past, they still speak to us today. The song that the band is going to play for us now, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, seems just as relevant today as when it was written in 1849 – maybe more so. Whereas the first verse focuses on Bethlehem, “The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing,” the rest of the song speaks to the composer’s and our contemporary situation. The third verse is especially poignant:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!
Here is the band to play, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.