Keeping More than Sanity

I was very blessed by reading a column from the “Living Faith” page of an Orthodox Church’s parish website, about how to keep Christmas in a way that is more in keeping with an Orthodox Christian way of life than that of the dominant culture. I can’t bear to leave out any of its very practical and refreshing advice, so I am passing it on in its entirety. If any one of us could implement even one new tradition from these suggestions, the Holy Spirit might enrich us through it.

Dear Baba,

We’re going to begin Nativity Lent [Advent] in just a couple of days. My kids are already bouncing off the walls with excitement about Christmas, the stores are already getting decorated and I’m feeling lost in the holiday madness and we haven’t even started Lent yet. How do we make it to Christmas and keep our sanity? – Overwhelmed

Dear Overwhelmed friend; First of all, come sit down and have a restorative cup of tea and we’ll talk about some of the wonderful ideas that are out there. And please consider chatting with friends from church and see what other ideas they have for keeping things in their proper perspective. Remember as we approach the Nativity of Our Lord, that He was born in a simple cave and laid in a manger. I think it is not by chance that the first gospel reading during Nativity Lent is about the man who built bigger barns for all his possessions. It is a rather sobering start to the Lenten journey don’t you think? We all have started putting such expectations on ourselves for over-the-top extravagance, so let’s see where we lost the message in all that.

  • I have heard it often said that Nativity Lent is a time for us to prepare the cave within us for the coming of the Christ Child. As such, our lives should be simpler, quieter and focused on prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The season has become so very noisy that it is harder and harder to prepare. And yet haven’t you noticed how more and more people crave something besides the chaos? I think the most frustrating is the silliness of people deciding the 12 days of Christmas start December 13. Where on earth did that come from? We celebrate the 12 days of Christmas between the Nativity and Theophany. So here are some ideas to prepare for and then enjoy the 12 days of celebrations:
  • Be warned with children that anything can happen despite our best intentions. I know one mom who worked very hard through all of Nativity Lent to keep the focus on Christ. There was none of the craziness and none of the consumerism. On Christmas Eve when her 4 year old balked at going to church, she thought the lesson surely had taken so she asked him why he thought they were going to church. In all seriousness he replied “so we can pray to Santa for more presents.” Nothing quite like children to keep us humble.
  • So please take all these ideas with a grain of salt remembering to not allow “simplifying” to become a huge, exhausting task. For starters, try to break Nativity preparations into smaller bites. There are many milestones along the journey that will make the Lenten journey meaningful and perhaps not so overwhelming. There are incredible saints commemorated along this journey to the Nativity like St. Andrew, St. Barbara, St. Nicholas, St Herman of Alaska, St. Ignatius and others. These are great stories indeed. Celebrate their feast days. It isn’t a distraction and the focus won’t be lost as their lives point to Christ.
  • Celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6. I know many families who have their children put out their shoes on the December 5. In the morning there are apples, raisins and various treats in their shoes and maybe a small gift. It is simple but a great milestone on the way to the Nativity. Some will do something in honor of St. Nicholas for a charity, perhaps volunteering at a soup kitchen or shelter. This is especially viable with older children.
  • At the beginning of Nativity Lent, I know a family that would set a basket by their icon corner. Pieces of yarn a couple of inches long were piled next to the basket. Over the course of Nativity Lent after evening prayers, the children would put a piece of yarn in the basket for every good deed they did on that particular day. They did so quietly and without fanfare. On Christmas Eve, the family would take the baby Jesus from their manger scene and lay him in the basket – a soft, warm place filled with good deeds for him to lay his head.
  • Pick a family secret pal; I’ve seen it called a Krist Kindl (Christ child). At the beginning of Nativity Lent every member of the family picks a name and it is kept secret. Little ones will need a parent’s help of course. Throughout Nativity Lent they will leave messages of love and support in all sorts of places like in pajama pockets, lunches, in their socks. Getting creative is half the fun. Reacting jubilantly to getting “Krist Kindled” is equally fun. The rule was that even if you figured out who your Krist Kindl was, you wouldn’t let on. On Christmas Eve the Krist Kindl’s were all revealed.
  • You may also consider decorating your house closer to the Nativity and then leave the decorations up and the lights on through the 12 days of Christmas. In the old country, many decorate the house on Christmas Eve day and not before. That may not be feasible but definitely celebrate the full feast not just one blitz of opening packages on Christmas morning. You don’t want to be sick of it all when the 12 days of feasting are just beginning.
  • Speaking of packages. There is almost a nauseating dizziness to ripping open the packages in a single frenzied rush don’t you think? No one lingers over the gifts carefully and lovingly chosen, and then within minutes, they sit back exhausted and Christmas is over. Tragic I think. I know some families who open maybe a gift or so on Christmas Eve, a few more Christmas morning after liturgy and maybe another few Christmas Day night. For those with big hauls, I’ve seen parents spread it out to a gift a day over the 12 days of Christmas or at least a few days. Now granted, the obviously squishy package with socks or a sweater from Aunt Bertha will probably get relegated to last but still, each gift should be lingered over and enjoyed.
  • And absolutely critical to all of this: be in church. You should be there as much as possible throughout Nativity Lent and especially for the vigil on Christmas Eve and for Liturgy on Christmas morning. Put it in perspective and don’t look at it as another thing on your to do list. The services are there to strengthen us, calm our souls and to give us the time to lay aside earthly cares. And best of all, we can commune with Our God. The gifts can wait a bit longer don’t you think? It isn’t all about Santa despite the opinion of a certain 4 year old. It is about the incarnation of Our Lord and Savior when He took on flesh and came and dwelt among us. We can be there. The last Gospel reading before the Sunday of the Genealogy of Our Lord (also known more humorously as the Sunday of the Begets), is about the King who has a banquet and invites many but they all have excuses. Let’s not make shopping, parties and over the top consumerism our excuse to turn down the invitation to the banquet.

I love the words of the Nativity hymn. Nothing else need be said of the nature of the gifts all of creation offers:

What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, Who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man?

Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks;

The angels offer a hymn; The heavens a star; The wise men gifts;

The shepherds, their wonder; The earth, its cave; The wilderness, a manger.

And we offer Thee a virgin mother.

O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!

With enveloping hugs;

Baba

St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church

Written by Brantley Hobbs, 2008

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