“Mama, it doesn’t feel like Christmas,” my five-year-old daughter declared while drinking hot chocolate on a steamy Sydney morning.
“Because we’re eating sweets and it’s hot…and we don’t have a Christmas tree.”
For my North American children, Advent is a time of waiting. We prepare for Christmas with clear seasonal signs. We stop eating sweets. We watch advent candles and Christmas lights twinkle in the dark and frost and snow. And we decorate, preparing our home for the mysterious coming of God that Christians mark each year with the Christmas season. With such practices muted by cultural difference and even turned topsy-turvy by the southern-hemisphere’s summer, my children don’t quite know how to experience Christmas, how to practice the expectant wondrous waiting of the season.
Reflecting on how to foster a fuller sense of Christmas for them—how to help them see Christmas in a different culture and geography—I found myself pondering Christian celebrations and Christmas specifically. The crucifixion and resurrection celebrated during Holy Week occurred during a religious and cultural feast of the Passover. It was, from its beginning, aligned with spiritual preparation and religious observance. But, the first Christmas was hardly a religious affair…..
Jesus was born while his parents were traveling, not for religious reasons but bureaucratic ones. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem to register with the Roman government as part of a census to account for the members of the empire (read: to make sure everyone was accounted for and paying taxes). There was no great spiritual preparation leading up to Jesus’ birth, no ritual of looking for the Messiah that neatly aligned with the star and stable. The only people to even know about the history-altering event were a group of shepherds working the night-shift (to whom God’s angels announced the birth…otherwise they would have been as unaware as everyone else). Three foreign scholars did note the event and journeyed to honor the newborn king but the public seldom pays attention to scholarly research—particularly in areas like religion, history, and literature. And that was it. No great feast, no great time of preparation, no fasting and waiting. In the tired hours of the night, amid government forms and over-crowded inns, unnoticed by all but a few academics and a handful of uneducated farmworkers, God entered human history as a baby.
Christmas away from home—away from the familiar religious and cultural practices of the holiday—gives me and my children a chance to re-enter this sense being utterly startled, taken completely unaware by God rending the heavens and coming to walk among us. Americans don’t expect Christmas among galahs and gum trees, with the hot sun beating down and sand underfoot. But such dissonance is the very point of Christmas. We humans don’t expect the God who spoke creation into existence to come waltzing into the room, sit down on our couch and ask, “how’s it goin’” over a drink.
But that is exactly what God did. One night, in a far-flung, dusty town God became a baby. And that baby became a grown man who walked into many homes, sat down on many cushions and shared many a meal and drink, asking many penetrating questions. That incongruity—God waltzing into your living room and sitting down on your couch—is the very mystery of Christmas.