Christmas in a Barn
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It may sound strange but we want to sleep in a barn on Christmas Eve. After Christmas Eve Mass, we would put the children in the car, drive to a friend's farm and sleep in their hayloft, above the cows and sheep. We would leave the presents, decorations, and fancy clothes at home, and experience for ourselves what the birth place of Jesus was like.
Unfortunately, and I can't imagine why, the children aren't as impressed with this idea as we are. For the last three years, they've been yelling "No, No, No" whenever we try to discuss it. Well, yes, we'd miss the Christmas Eve feast at the grandparents, and yes, there'd be no tree with presents in the morning. We could live without that for one year, couldn't we?
"No, NO, NO!"
The only reason we haven't seriously considered it yet is that we've always had a little one too young for winter camping. This year, though, Robert will be nearly three. We think it's time.
So Peter and I started talking about it out loud this summer, to see what the reaction would be this year. One day, I asked;
"What happens at Christmas, kids?"
It was unanimous; "It's Jesus' birthday and we get presents!"
"So which is more important, Jesus' birthday or presents?"
Again a chorus of voices; "Jesus' birthday!"
I'm a bit skeptical when I get an answer that easily, it seems too good to be true. (I wish I could get answers when I want to know who filled the sink with toothpaste.) So I asked the all-important Why?.
"Why is the birthday of Jesus more important than getting toys?"
This time, I got a variety of answers, according to age.
From Jonathon ( a shy 4 years old), "Because Jesus was born from God and toys only come from a store."
From Matthew ( our giggly 7 year old),"Because our toys don't love us."
From Sarah ( an opinionated 9 years old), "We grow out of our toys or they break but Jesus lasts for ever and always loves us."
From Andrew ( our quiet and perceptive 12 year old), "Because presents are only things and Jesus became a person."
"Well, then, why do we give presents?"
Sarah designated herself as spokesman; "Because the Wise Men brought presents, and it helps us to make each other happy."
This still seemed rehearsed, as if they were repeating what they had been taught. So, gradually I brought the subject around to the idea of sleeping in a barn, just like Jesus, Mary and Joseph did.
"Oh, that would be neat! Yeah, it would be just like it was in the olden days. We would understand about Christmas better I think," they chorused.
"So, how about doing it on Christmas Eve itself?"
"No, NO, NO!"
Later I was talking to our delightfully blunt fourteen year old about celebrating Christmas. Tina was eight or nine when, as she puts it, "you guys turned into religious fanatics." Her childhood memories and understanding of Christmas were formed before we "changed everything."
"You know what?" she said, "I liked Christmas better when I was little, with Santa Claus and all that stuff. It was more fun. I can understand what you're doing now and all, but I miss the old way."
It may have been more fun for her, but it was rushed and tense for us. The holiday season wasn't a holiday, and the spirit of Christmas was very hard to find.
Our Christmas celebrations once followed the familiar pattern, just like everyone else on the block. A wreath on the front door, a Christmas tree in the living room, evenings of school concerts and parties, culminating in a two day frenzy of driving through snowstorms, present opening and feasting. Christmas Eve with our in-laws, Christmas morning at home, Christmas Mass, then Christmas dinner with my parents, back to the in-laws on Boxing Day.
On Christmas Eve Peter and I would have to force ourselves to stay awake until our hyped up kids had gone to sleep so that we could bring out the Santa Claus gifts and fill the stockings. We would hope that they would sleep until at least six o'clock so that we could get enough sleep to cope with the mother-and-adult-daughters-in-the-kitchen-making-a-turkey-dinner scene the next day. The next morning it was hard to slow down enough to really pay attention at Christmas Mass, to thank God for the gift he had given to His people in His Son.
We were together as a family in body, but that's about all. Christmas time was always a bit sad because we could tell we were missing something, even though we had no idea of what it was.
The "changing everything" that Tina referred to started about six years ago when Peter and I began praying regularly, and saying evening prayers with the children. We found that regular prayer is like flying in a small airplane. You begin to see things from a different perspective. Familiar objects suddenly have a different orientation.
We became more aware of the discrepancy between the real observance of Christmas and the distortion of Xmas. It bothered us to realize that we had been taking our children to Mass every Sunday, teaching them their catechism, preparing them for the sacraments, praying together, and yet still participating in the secular Xmas routine. We were contradicting ourselves. We had to change.
But children are the original conservatives. Change makes them high strung and irrational, prone to wild conclusions and persecution complexes. We knew we'd have to change gradually, one thing at a time, to avoid a mutiny. So we decided to replace each old tradition with a new one, preferably an activity that the children could participate in.
Without any idea of where we were going, we set out to try to make our Christmas more devout and family-centered. It's been an interesting six years.
As a beginning, we built a Jesse tree. A Jesse tree traces the family tree of Jesus through readings from the Old and New Testaments. There is a reading for each day of Advent. A small picture representing each reading is hung on a "tree".
We collected branches in the woods, thin ones for the stem and arms and one thick branch to slice for the pictures. I drew outlines of the pictures on one side of the slices of wood with a fine black marker, and wrote the reading on the other side. Then the children painted the pictures with acrylic craft paint, and tied embroidery cotton through small holes drilled through the top. We set the finished tree on a small table in the living room.
Peter and I were surprised by the effect of this simple change. We added the Jesse tree reading to our evening prayers. As Advent went on, the genealogical story got closer and closer to Christmas morning and the birth of Jesus. It was exciting. The evening readings put a new perspective on Advent and Christmas. We began to realise that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were real people with histories and ancestors, just like us.
As the children get older they take turns with the readings. Often, they don't think the suggested reading is long enough. Especially the story of Joseph and the coat of many colours, "We can't just leave him there! We have to read on and find out what happens next!" So we do, and travel to Egypt and experience the famine with Joseph's brothers and laugh when they are all reunited.
The next year, we replaced Santa Claus with Saint Nicholas. The feast day of Saint Nicholas is nearly three weeks before Christmas, neatly separating the solemnity of Christmas from the gifts and toys bonanza atmosphere of Santa Claus. (An added benefit is that of course Saint Nicholas has never heard of the Ninja Turtles or anything else that's advertised on T.V!)
A saint in Heaven, a good bishop who lived long ago and is now praying for us makes more sense to children anyway, than some strange story about a fat gentleman who comes down chimneys even when there isn't a chimney on the house. You never have to grow out of believing in Saint Nicholas either.
We say prayers to Saint Nicholas in the evening and hang our stockings on the backs of the kitchen chairs. Tina and I set and decorate the table before we go to bed. In the morning we have a special breakfast and empty our stockings as we eat. In the early morning of December 6th, it's really pleasant to relax and enjoy the children's excited chatter without worrying about a turkey and getting to Mass on time or wondering whether stocking gifts are distracting them from the Nativity.
Taking Santa Claus out of Christmas, and taking the silly red elf suit off Saint Nicholas has been both the easiest and the hardest of our Christmas changes. On the one hand it is easy because it is a single feast day instead of a daily event like the Jesse tree. In addition, the children enjoy the feast day of Saint Nicholas because they get presents before anyone else in their class.
On the other hand, it has been difficult because it doesn't fit what is going on outside the home. Everywhere I go with the children, people ask;
"Have you been a good boy? Are you looking forward to Santa Claus's visit on Christmas Eve?"
At the junior kindergarten Christmas concert last year, (in a Catholic school, mind you) the children sang two Christmas carols, and five songs about elves, reindeer, sleigh bells and Santa Claus. It can be confusing, both for the children and for me. They wonder who's telling them the true story, and I wonder how things ever got so far off track.
The year after we restored Saint Nicholas, we introduced an Advent wreath. This has developed into the kind of family centred activity we were hoping for. The children go out for a walk in the woods with their father and collect evergreen branches for the Advent wreath. Peter helps them find the greenest and bushiest branches. They come back rosy and excited, proud to be helping to celebrate Advent.
I make the wreath by arranging the branches in a bowl filled with wet florist's foam. The florist's foam keeps the branches fresh. I carve four holes in the foam to fit three purple and one pink candle. One candle is lit on the first Sunday of Advent and every evening of that week. Two candles are lit on the second Sunday and so on through the four weeks. The pink candle is lit on the third week.
As the year darkens, the Light of God becomes brighter by contrast. To heighten this contrast, we eat dinner with only the light of our Advent wreath. As we get closer to Christmas the light at the dinner table gets brighter as one more candle is lit each week. Peter and I find the increasing brightness of the Advent wreath complements the growing excitement of theJesse tree readings, so sometimes we do the reading at the dinner table.
We are pleased by what has happened in our family as a result of the changes we've made. The Jesse tree readings refocus the family's attention every day on the coming of the Christ Child. Our Saint Nicholas' day celebrations separate the excitement of gifts from the excitement of the Birth and allow us to enjoy both more clearly. The Advent wreath gives us all a sense of what the coming of the Light of the World means. We are growing closer together as a family and Christmas time is a happier time for us all.
Peter and I have also found that as our Advent and Christmas becomes more family-centred and prayerful, it has been easier to eliminate some Xmas activities than we anticipated. No one objected when I gave away all our Santa decorations. We haven't had a Christmas party for years. The biggest curse of Xmas, the guilt ridden expectations and obligations, has faded away like a bad dream.
In the last few years, we've begun to make our Saint Nicholas and Christmas gifts, to shift the emphasis in gift-giving from size and expense to thought and care. With a couple of years of new traditions successfully established, even the most "conservative" members of the family saw this as a natural next step. We still hear about the classmates who get Ninetendo games or new skis for Christmas, but more often in a tone of pity than of envy.
Tina collects grapevines and makes wreaths. Andrew gets busy in the workroom and makes boats and boxes. Sarah draws marvellous pictures and the three smaller boys help me bake cookies and breads. Peter carves small animals out of wood. We've created some traditions in our gift giving as well. Peter and I always give each child a book. We give my brother-in-law and his wife a homemade Christmas decoration each year. I always give my mother a bell for her collection. We give teachers a jar of jam and a loaf of bread.
Traditions like this keep our gift-giving simple. It helps to remind us that we give gifts to show our love, not to impress the recipient. Homemade gifts take time and thought which in itself is a better gift than anything with a price tag on it. After all, the gift of the first Christmas was one that was beyond price.
Our family needed to learn how to celebrate the great miracle and gift of Christmas, without losing sight of the simple event at the heart of it. The simple event is the birth of a child. The miracle of Christmas is God becoming man in Jesus Christ, bringing salvation and redemption to the world. The gift is that the two are linked together as one of the mysteries of the Church. The last six years have taught us to look closer at the mystery. We are learning to see how simple and how glorious it is.
By stripping away Santa Claus and Jingle Bells, by escorting Xmas out of our house and welcoming Christmas in, by praying together and working together, we are teaching our children what we learned so slowly ourselves. The best Christmas was the first Christmas, a baby born to poor young parents in a barn. They had no decorated tree, no feast, no presents to give each other, not even a bed for the Baby. But in their poverty and simplicity, they welcomed the Light of Christ and gave Christmas to the world.
The chorus of " No, No, No!" gets quieter every year.
'Christmas in a Barn' was first published in " Nazareth:A Catholic Family Journal"