Keeping Christmas

You know that Christmas is over for most of the world because the outdoor Christmas decorations are coming down, and Christmas trees already are set out by the curb for pickup with the trash.

It’s sad how quickly Christmas disappears every year. It’s also sad how few people celebrate Christmas throughout the entire 12‑day season.

If the birth of Jesus is the monumental event we proclaim it to be, then one day is hardly enough to celebrate it. If the birth of Jesus is the history-changing event we proclaim it to be, even a season of 12 days seems inadequate.

What we really need is a lifetime of celebration, a way to keep Christmas the whole year round, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

How can we do that? How do we keep the Christmas spirit alive in us not only for a day and not only for a season but for an entire lifetime?

One of my favorite secular texts for Christmas is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. As the book opens, Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserable skinflint. By the story’s end he is a new man. He vows: “I will keep Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” Dickens concludes: “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Dickens never explains how Scrooge kept Christmas well, let alone how we might do it. I explore some ways we might try in my new book, titled Keeping Christmas. I’ve also assembled a list of things we can do to keep Christmas the whole year. This list is probably 20 years old, but it hasn’t changed much since I first put it together.

There are 12 days of Christmas, so here are 12 ways to keep Christmas alive.

No. 1 is simple and easy. Keep a favorite Christmas decoration (perhaps a small Nativity scene) out all year long. You probably do this by accident already. You’ve got all the boxes of decorations tucked away in the far corner of the attic or basement, and you discover something you missed. Why not keep one out on purpose, just to remind you of the season of joy?

No. 2. Sing a joyous song. Just as the angels sang glory to God, sing a Christmas carol, or listen to Christmas music, whenever you feel like it, even in July. I don’t mean “Frosty the Snowman” or other winter songs, but rather the songs of Christmas, songs of faith and hope and love and joy and peace.

One small church that I once served had no choir, so in place of the choir we had a brief hymn sing every Sunday. People would call out the name or number of songs that they wanted to sing. Two or three times year, whatever the season, someone would choose a Christmas carol. We all chuckled every time, but we still cherished those songs, no matter what time of year we sang them.

No. 3. In the tradition of Saint Nicholas, be a “secret Santa” to someone whose spirits you can lift with a simple service or gift. According to legend, Saint Nick was careful to give in secret, partly so that no one would feel indebted to him. It’s a great example to follow. One way to do it is to continue our Advent and Christmas Challenge through the next several days. Do something good for someone, and leave a card saying why you did it.

In other seasons, you wouldn’t want to use the card, but you might add a simple note that says, “From a friend,” or “Wishing you the best,” and leave it at that.

No. 4. Just as Jesus bore our sorrows, help others bear their sorrow over a significant loss. Send a card, make a call, drop by. Find some small way to let others know you care, and you share their loss, even if it does not directly affect you.

No. 5. Just as Jesus came to forgive, find it in your heart to forgive someone who has wronged you. Forgiveness is the essence of Christian life. It’s also very hard. We in the church don’t often model forgiveness very well, so the rest of the world lacks a good example to follow. Other people might understand forgiveness better it if we practiced it better.

No. 6. Just as Jesus came to heal, visit someone who is ill to ease their misery and speed their recovery. There are times when people aren’t up to visits and don’t want to be visited, and those are good times to stay away. But if you’ve ever spent more than a day in a hospital bed or sick at home, you know how boring it is, how quickly the experience saps hope from you, and how good it is to be visited by someone who cares.

No. 7. Bake cookies to help someone celebrate a special occasion, or take a meal to someone who is sick or moving or mourning. Sharing food is a good way of helping in many situations. Just be sure you don’t take cashew chicken to someone with a nut allergy!

No. 8. Bring a friend to worship the King whose coming you celebrate at Christmas. Notice that I said “bring” a friend. Don’t just “invite” a friend. Inviting someone is good, but you’ll have more success getting them to church if you offer to pick them up, and maybe even take them out to brunch afterward. It’s an easy and effective form of evangelism.

No. 9. When someone’s name or face crosses your thoughts, send the person a card or note to say, “I’m thinking of you.” That fleeting thought that reminds you of someone may be the Holy Spirit’s way of nudging you to get involved. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been glad I followed such nudgings, and how many times I’ve been sad because I failed to follow through. Maybe instead of a note or a card, you should simply make a phone call or arrange a visit in person. Do whatever the Spirit seems to be hinting.

No. 10 could have been No. 1. The best way to keep Christmas all year is to keep on celebrating. One of my favorite movies of the season is “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” a musical version of the Dickens story. Paul Williams wrote a song for it titled “Thankful Heart.”

It says we should live so that every evening will end and every day will start with a grateful prayer and a thankful heart. Whenever you wake up and whenever you go to bed, say, “Thank you, Jesus for coming into my life.”

No. 11 continues the thought. Let every sunrise and every sunset remind you that each day is a gift from God. Life is a gift. Cherish and celebrate it.

Finally, No. 12, above all else, live for Jesus in all you do. As another Paul Williams song from that movie says, use every breath you take to sing God’s praise.

Or as our text from the letter to the Colossians puts it, clothe yourselves with love and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts – and whatever you do, in word, or deed, do it in the name of Jesus.

That is the spirit that inspires these final thoughts from Henry van Dyke, an American clergyman and educator who may be best known for his story “The Fourth Wise Man.” This is called “Keeping Christmas.”

There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.

            Are you willing…

  • to forget what you have done for other people and to remember what other people have done for you;
    • to ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world;
    • to put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distance, and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground;
    • to see that other men and women are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy;
    • to own up to the fact that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life;
    • to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness.

            Are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

            Are you willing…

  • to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children;
    • to remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old;
    • to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough;
    • to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts;
    • to try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you;
    • to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you;
    • to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open—

Are you willing to do these things, even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world — stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death — and that the blessed life that began in Bethlehem two thousand years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love?

Then you can keep Christmas. And if you can keep it for a day, why not always? But you can never keep it alone. Don’t even try to keep it alone. But keep it, if you can, the whole year round.

May you continue to have a blessed Christmas season.

The message “Keeping Christmas” was delivered at Edgerton United Methodist Church on Dec. 29, 2019, by the Rev. James Hopwood. The text for the day was Colossians 3:12-17.

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