20: how Santa draws us to Christ

One of the joys of this blog is being able to share stuff with you which is far, far better than what I’m writing, so it’s a privilege today to point you all in the direction of The Life-Changing Magic of an Untidy Christmas, which was published yesterday over on Desiring God. It has little to do with what I’m going to write about, but was too damned good not to pass on. Have a read, see what you think.

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A friend asked me yesterday whether I had any advice on speaking to small children about Santa, and since our day was also punctuated in other ways by Santa (Monkey and Meerkat had a visit from the Big Man at their preschool Christmas party – and were constantly talking about hanging up stockings on Christmas Eve), he seems a good topic for today’s reflection.

There is so much which is fun about Santa. He’s a novelty – someone who turns up just once a year, but is friendly and kind, and delivers exactly the presents you’ve asked for, all wrapped up in a stocking. How fun is that? And he doesn’t just do this for you, but – somehow, miraculously – for all the children around the world.

The real ‘Santa’, St Nicholas, was also a kind, friendly, generous man – he loved God, and from that relationship came a heart for the poor and vulnerable around him. The legend of him dropping three bags of gold into the slippers of three young women in his village whose father was too poor to afford their dowries – even if it may have been embellished down the years – shows a heart which was sacrifically generous.

During Advent, we have always taught our children that Santa was a real person, St Nicholas, and we tell them this story about his generosity. We use this book, but one which has been recommended to me by a lot of Christian parents is Just Nicholas (we don’t yet have it ourselves). Doing this, our kids have always known that Santa – as we celebrate him today – is not alive today, but that he was based on a real person. (We’ve also told them not to tell their classmates!)

This has not killed the magic for our family – on the contrary, I believe it has added a rich significance which merely believing in ‘Santa’ does not. Because Santa also has his failings. He only rewards you if you’re good. He watches what you do through the year, and keeps a list of your wrongdoings. He’s not interested in a relationship with you.

In short – Santa is only human. To base our Christmas around him would end in huge disappointment.

But celebrating ‘Santa’ as St Nicholas each Christmas is a way of pointing to Jesus in our celebrations. St Nicholas gave freely and sacrificially because he’d received freely and sacrificially from Jesus’ death and resurrection. The baby Jesus who we celebrate at Christmas grew up to be our Rescuer – the One who would put us right with God forever. He would not keep a record of our wrongdoings, but forgive us freely – and His gift would be available to all, regardless of how ‘good’ we were. As we remember St Nicholas, the gracious man who gave of his money, time and energy, we are more able to look up to the God who inspired him.

I genuinely feel that celebrating Santa can be a hugely significant part of our festivities. But elevating him to a position above Jesus is so easy to do – and, although we may not realise it, over-indulging in Santa at Christmas really muddies the waters for our young children. They don’t realise who or what they’re celebrating – nor why. Or else, the sacred and the secular celebrations (Jesus and Santa being celebrated equally, but separately) represent two parallel, but unrelated, Christmas traditions.

In Zechariah’s day, God’s people felt disappointed by their return to Israel. It wasn’t all they had expected, so they started to grumble, and turned to idols. But, through Zechariah, God made it very clear that these idols had no power whatsoever – His people needed to return to Him, who was able to do all things:

Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime;
    it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms.
He gives showers of rain to all people,
    and plants of the field to everyone.
The idols speak deceitfully,
    diviners see visions that lie;
they tell dreams that are false,
    they give comfort in vain.
Therefore the people wander like sheep
    oppressed for lack of a shepherd. (Zechariah 10:1-2)

In today’s terms, an ‘idol’ is anything which diverts our attention from God. Perhaps this sounds a little dramatic for something as innocent as Santa. Or perhaps it’s the innocuous parts of our culture which have the most potential to draw us away from Jesus.

* If you have children, think back over the last few weeks. How many of your activities/celebrations have been about Santa? How many about Jesus? Or do you combine the two?

* As an adult, what are the secular Christmas traditions (like Santa) which threaten to draw your attention from Jesus?

Lord God, you’ve commanded me not to make idols – and yet I do it unthinkingly in so many ways, not least at Christmas when so many festivities claim my attention and focus. Please re-orientate my gaze onto You, trusting in You for the satisfaction I can’t find elsewhere. Amen.

random advent

I am the Queen of unrealistic ambitions.

Approximately every five days I have a new business idea, or personal goal, or family-related plan which I will never – I repeat, NEVER – be able to see into action.

And so, it’s fully understandable that I began this year with the aim of writing an Advent devotional ready for this Advent.

I mean – what was I thinking??? I have four kids who each present their own set of challenges. A husband who presents more. I’m a school governor and chair of the PTA. I lead a house group, help run a toddler group, am on the Sunday kids work rota and occasionally lead worship. If I’m in bed before midnight, I count it as a minor miracle – and that’s with a pile of dirty laundry dumped by the machine, pots sitting unwashed, emails unreplied to and our bedroom still resembling the aftermath of a hurricane. (Still. After I’ve spent the whole year trying to get round to tidying it.)

So no. The Advent devotional didn’t happen. But then I realised something. I always begin Advent full of good intentions about sticking to a devotional, focusing my mind in the busy lead-up to Christmas. And it lasts for two weeks, max, before I lose the habit and drift off. Just like my over-ambitious life plans, even trying to read something for 10 minutes a day for 25 days is an unachievable goal.

Now it struck me that if I’m like this, maybe others are too. And doesn’t this, in itself, bring us back to the Christmas story? Our good intentions, our ambitions, our desire to get things right – we can’t possibly keep this up. And when it inevitably falls flat on its face – in life, or in the stresses peculiar to December – we are left with a small baby in an animal feeding trough, born as a refugee into a political unstable country. His vulnerability, at birth and at death, would become our strength.

So here’s what I’m planning to do: write a little thought here on the blog every day this Advent. I’ll share anecdotes from my day, or things I’ve been thinking about – and I’ll try and include a short Bible passage too. You’ll bump along with the Desert household as we carry out our Christmas traditions and enjoy the season – but, inevitably, you’ll be the first to know when things don’t go to plan.

If you’re looking for exegesis or coherent thought, then this probably won’t be for you. If you like the idea of ‘doing Advent’ alongside another desert wanderer, then please join me. I’m going to call it ‘Random Advent’ – I did think of joining the words together in some overly fashionable way, but #randvent just sounds like the wrong kind of hashtag. This is not that kind of blog.

I’ll be updating on Facebook and Twitter, obvs, so please like/follow me on those media if you don’t already, but the easiest, surefire way of receiving each Advent thought is to sign up to email alerts. You can do that on the right-hand column of this blog – just type your email address and click on ‘follow’.

I’m not promising it’ll be anything profound, but perhaps as we offer God our mundane and simple, He will do something extraordinary. It worked for Mary and Joseph.

adoption and advent: coming home

img_20161130_212013Advent, for our family, is a season full of traditions. I’d love to say that it was a time for increased spiritual growth, as I lead our young family in meaningful Bible reflections every morning – but, in reality, I love present-wrapping, Christmas markets and Slade just as much as carol services, lighting our Advent candle and sharing the Christmas story together. For all of December our house is full of mess and creativity: mince pies, boxes of decorations, 100 Carols for Choirs, wreaths, Nativity figures, Lebkuchen (is there anything better?), glitter, paint, wrapping paper and ribbon. There is nothing about either the secular or religious versions of Advent that I don’t embrace with arms open wide.

But this year, we have a new tradition. You see, last year’s Advent was rather different. The presents had been chosen, bought, wrapped and sent by mid-November. On 1st December 2015, our two youngest boys came home, and thus our Advent was taken up with learning how to care for toddlers again, whilst working out how to meet the needs of – no longer two, but – four children.

It was a magical time in many ways. My husband spent most of December off work or working largely reduced hours. Kind friends provided evening meals for us right through the month. The excitement of Christmas kept cranking up for our older two, whilst our younger two gradually got used to their new environment, exploring and playing with increased confidence. And all four children enjoyed the novelty of having each other around for the first time, after months of waiting. I figured that January would bring more challenges (it did), but we enjoyed December while it lasted.

So this Advent, and every Advent, we will add a new celebration to our traditions. Advent means ‘coming’ and we will always remember our boys ‘coming home’ at this time of year. It reminds us that Advent is not merely about the anticipation of Christmas, the first coming, but the anticipation of the second coming – when Jesus will come again, and we, like our boys last year, will also come home – to our rightful home, in God’s kingdom, with God forever, never to be separated again.

Advent, like adoption, opens our eyes to a new place, a better place, where the sin and suffering of the last place are no more. Advent, like adoption, reminds us not to cling to our old home, not to get too settled here, as it’s not where we belong. Advent, like adoption, tells us that the tragedies of life are not supposed to bring us down, but to cause us even more to look upwards, waiting and hoping more desperately for a future in which destruction, lies, corruption, ill-health and death don’t exist. Advent, like adoption, brings hope and a new start and a secure future. Advent, like adoption, prepares us for that glorious day when we will be with our true, heavenly Father.

Advent will never be the same, now that I have a special anniversary to remember, one which reminds me what Advent is all about. Fixing my eyes upwards, my December of roasted chestnuts, hot chocolate, hampers and tinsel has become the celebration which will one day be surpassed by an infinitely grander celebration: that when all God’s children come home.

“In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” Ephesians 1:4-6

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the grace of receiving an unwanted gift

As Christmas approaches, I find myself mulling over something which is starting to make me just a little uncomfortable: the possibility of eliminating giving from our Christmas celebrations.

Let me backtrack a little: I often hear people say, or even say myself, variants of “We won’t do presents this year”, “Let’s just give to the kids – we adults don’t need anything” and “Why don’t we do a Secret Santa instead?” Now, don’t get me wrong, there is plenty that is very good about the sentiments beneath these suggestions. Most of us can’t afford to give something exquisite to everyone we know – or even just everyone in our family – and we’re clear that Christmas is about something more meaningful than racking up credit card debt. Also, we know we don’t need more Stuff. So attempts to decrease this buying (which we can’t afford) of presents (which aren’t needed or wanted) can be very sensible.

But there’s a problem when we connect the giving of gifts purely with the accumulation of material possessions.

See, Christmas is about giving. Whether you celebrate Jesus’ birth or not, it’s clear that this is a story all about giving: the giving of God’s son to His people; the giving of Mary in pregnancy and labour; the giving of Joseph in reputation; the giving of the innkeeper in the stable; the giving of the shepherds in adoration and worship; the giving of the wise men in their extravagant gifts. Our tradition of giving stems from this story – and we lose a sense of what Christmas is really about when we stop giving.

One reason we can be keen to eliminate gifts at Christmas is the fear of getting the wrong thing. I know that as I get older, I become more sure of what I like and what I don’t, what I’ll wear and what I won’t, what I’ll display in my home and what I won’t. To be honest, the thought of being given something I dislike does fill me with a sense of futility about the whole procedure. Surely it would have been better to give the money to the poor, I muse, echoing the complaint of Jesus’ onlookers, when a woman gave him, to put it bluntly, a very impractical gift (Matthew 26, Mark 14, John 12). For what do you get for the man who has no home, and no possessions other than those he wears? Perhaps a new robe or a new pair of sandals? Definitely not a jar of expensive perfume. And yet this was exactly the right gift, for it came with the love of its giver.

Gift-giving is not an exact science. We will not get it right every year, with every person we buy for. And neither will they always hit the mark with us. Gift-giving is not an exact science – but neither should it be. Gifts are there to express how we feel about our family and our friends – sure, the product itself might not always be a brilliant choice, but the act of giving it says “I thought of you – I took some time to think of you as I shopped for, or made, your gift”.

Next week, I can pretty much guarantee that all of us will receive some things we don’t like. Perhaps things we hate. How can we receive them graciously, looking not to the unwrapped package, in all its hideous glory, but to the eyes of the giver, and what that person means to us? We invest a lot of time in teaching our children not to be greedy, to be content, that gifts aren’t the main event at Christmas – but it’ll only take them a few seconds to glance at our faces showing obvious disappointment at a gift, and all that will be undone. How can we teach contentment, when we so clearly show that we’re unhappy with our own gifts?

This Christmas, my prayer is to be more gracious – more Christ-like – in the receiving of gifts. I’m not going to lie, but perhaps my response to an unwanted gift might be more focussed on the giver, and not on the gift itself. “That was so kind of you”, “You’re so thoughtful”, “Thanks for thinking of me”. I want to use it as an opportunity to deepen my relationships with those I give to and receive from.

Jesus came to earth as a tangible expression of the relationship God seeks with each one of us. I hope and pray that each one of us can grow in our relationships with each other this Christmas.

the art of the christmas round-robin

Way back before Facebook, the human race had another way of sharing inane details about their lives with those they loved the most: the Christmas round-robin. We still receive a few of these each year, and I have to say they make entertaining reading, although perhaps not always intentionally. This year, we’ve rattled one off for the first time in ages – so if you’re returning to tradition like us and planning to send your news by snail mail, let me offer you a few words of wisdom:

1) Two A4 sides. Absolute max. And don’t be thinking you can shrink the font lower than 11pt and get away with it.

2) Photos. Lots of them. 90% of round-robin readers say they don’t read the text anyway. (This statistic may or may not be true.) The pictures have to tell a story.

3) Hide the evidence. Every employer knows that their staff will use the company photocopier to reel off their Christmas round-robins in full colour – it’s kind of a done deal. But at least you can be discreet and take the master copy with you when finished. I got some interesting gossip from a newsletter left by the machine when I went to do mine.

4) I’m not interested in why you didn’t renovate the bathroom as planned, how you’ve ended up with six cats, or a lowdown of all the possible schools your little one could have gone to, with all their pros and cons. If you want to write this sort of info, do us all a favour and start a blog, where you can drone on about it to your heart’s content, and at least we can ignore you.

5) By all means embarrass your kids if it’ll entertain your readers – after all, you’re writing it for them, not your offspring. Think of it as premature revenge for the hell they’re going to put you through in their teenage years.

6) Add a bit of gloss (and I’m not talking about the photos). Lying? Not at all. It’s merely a bit of ‘artistic license’ – this is an actual Thing that writers use, you know. It elevates your writing. You need to realise that Christmas round-robins function in much the same way as Facebook: people nosey into your life to see if it’s better than theirs. If you’re going to go to the effort of writing up your year, you might as well provoke a bit of envy.

7) Choose your Christmas cards wisely. Folding your carefully-worded Christmas missive seventeen times to cram it into the tiny little envelope along with its tiny little card will only occur Royal Mail charges – for you or for your recipients. And that is not cool.

So there you have it, readers. Never say I don’t do anything for you. And, if you’re on our Christmas card list, expect your round-robin shortly…

a magical Christmas – but where’s the magic?

I am a sucker for Christmas.

I love my festive season with all its trimmings. I adore stirring the Christmas pud with my kids, making mince pies and constructing a gingerbread house with shaky hands before the gloopy sugar cools and hardens. I love getting out our Advent box full of Christmassy books and toys to enjoy throughout December. My heart skips a beat at the thought of present shopping, wrapping and sending. I can’t get enough of Slade and Band Aid and Wham and all the cheese – and I adore singing the carols (preferably in parts, sinking to alto depths then screeching the descants at top volume just because this is what geeky musoes love to do).

In short, there is nothing I don’t like about Christmas. For me it’s a magical time of year, from start to finish – a time which draws together all my favourite things (family, cooking, baking, music, presents, time off) in celebration of Jesus, my Saviour and friend. What could be better?

Every year I engage in long, meaningful discussions with friends about how we can avoid the ‘trappings’ of a Western, consumerist Christmas, and get back to the simplicity of the original narrative. (I’ve had two such conversations in the last four days.) I spend buggy-pushing time wondering how I can make this Christmas more centred around Christ. I search for Advent reflections to help me make this period count. But, on the whole, I think I can hold all these things in balance fairly successfully – yes, we enjoy the material trappings, but our Christmas is certainly about Christ.

However, I’m not so sure our kids are able to balance it all. What message do I give them when I’m furiously herding them into the kitchen to bake some Christmas goodies, or strictly enforcing Christmas-card-colouring-in time, or banging on about Christingle, or Santa, or Bob Geldof? (Mister must be the only five year old in the country who is more familiar with Sir Bob from his early days as the green-trousered frontman of the Boomtown Rats. Honestly.)

I’m not anti these things – if you’re not convinced, perhaps re-read the opening paragraphs of this post. But, since having kids, I’m realising the need for clarity. I can hold the various elements of Christmas festivity in balance – but they probably can’t, and neither should I expect them to. So, the question is: what are we celebrating this Christmas? Because the narrative which truly gives our Christmas its magic – the story which sparkles infinitely beyond any Christmas myth, film or song – is what I want my kids to remember. It changes us in December – but, more than that, it changes us through the year.

Christmas is a magical time for kids. But if we source that magic from the Disney store, trips to see Santa, Christingle services, tree-decorating or anything temporary, we run the risk of breeding a generation of materialistic, self-centred individuals who know nothing of their place in the most incredible story of all time.

I want my kids to have a magical Christmas. And this starts with telling them the most amazing story ever known: that God should not leave us in our chaos and mess, but send His son to live among us, to understand, to empathise, to die and be resurrected. How our house is decorated will point to this story. The songs we sing will point to this story. The food will celebrate the story. But mainly, we will be telling the story – because this story is the true magic of Christmas, the magic which lasts and doesn’t fade.

* In case any of you are concerned about my use of the word ‘magic’, I offer this disclaimer. No connection to black magic or anything otherwise un-Christian is intended – my use of the word is based on its prominence in the language used around Christmas time. For example, M&S rebrand as ‘Magic and Sparkle’ throughout the Christmas season; parents talk of wanting to make the season ‘magical’ for their children; Christmas activities are marketed as ‘magical’.

If you’re not bothered about my use of the word, forget I ever said any of this.

an idiot’s guide to ethical christmas shopping

Last month, a Facebook status from a friend, asking for ideas as to how to shop more ethically this Christmas, confirmed the desire I’d had for several weeks to blog on this issue. It’s clearly something people want to talk about!

Of course, ‘ethical’ is a sliding scale. We can be ‘more’ or ‘less’ ethical in our lifestyles – but, as a result of sin, we will never be able to live our lives with a zero carbon (or any other) footprint. And it seems that just as we’re trying to be ‘more’ ethical, we hear of yet another company whose ethics are questionable. Earlier this year, even Fair Trade food companies came under fire. I find it helpful to consider how I would justify my decisions before God – He knows of my situation, my limited finances, my knowledge of injustice, as well as my lack of knowledge. So, please, rather than feeling guilty at the word ‘ethical’, instead be encouraged by Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Now, our family lives on a fairly limited budget for most of the year – but Christmas, giving gifts to others, is an excuse to spend some money, to invest in the economy! But there’s a choice here: do I invest in the large companies, the high street shops and supermarkets? Do I contribute to lining the pockets of Amazon directors? Or do I want my money to be invested in businesses where people come first? My pound can do an awful lot of damage – or an awful lot of good. Let’s be encouraged that God has prepared ‘good works’ in advance for us to do, rather than focus on things we aren’t able to be so ethical about. We can actually do some good!

There is no right or wrong approach, I merely offer some ideas from my own experience. I would love to hear yours (please do comment!). And apologies for non-York residents, when I mention local shops; I’ve tried to offer general, nationwide ideas too.

* Firstly, I start with the Fair Trade companies. They have limited gift ranges, so I prioritise their catalogues to maximise the money spent with them. I use the fantastic Fairer World shop here in York, but elsewhere Fair Trade shops can often be found in cathedrals and large churches, or there are one-off fair trade markets and stalls. Shared Earth shops can be found in Liverpool and York (and you can buy online). If you can’t get to a shop, why not look up the Created and Traidcraft catalogues online. Both companies also sell beautiful Christmas decorations which I love.

* Next, I look for other local social enterprises to support. In York, these include the fantastic Bike Rescue Project (which employs and trains ex-offenders and others struggling to get employment and experience), York Disabled Workers Cooperative (beautiful woodwork) and, my personal favourite, Mermaid and Miller – frustratingly not open at the moment, due to change in premises, but still hoping to open later this month 🙂 Mermaid and Miller employ adults with learning disabilities, and train them in a variety of crafts. What they sell is beautiful – and much of it is old second-hand pieces lovingly upcycled into something quirky and different. Very reasonable prices too. Go check them out!

* Then I widen the net to other local, independent businesses. And boy are we blessed with those in York! (Non-Yorkies, feel free to ignore the following paragraph – you’ll have your own local places to support!) I love Shine, Snow Home, Love Cheese, Look What Mum’s Made, Blossom & Walker, Collection Box and York Cocoa House to name but a few. OK, so I don’t know the working conditions of those making the products, or whether the raw materials came from sweatshops overseas (although chances are that most of these products are made in the UK, many even made locally). I do know, however, that the presence of these shops in our towns and cities makes life better. I want to support them. I want the people who make these lovely, unique items to be able to make a living from being creative. And they’re just much nicer gifts! With lots of family and friends living far away, a gift which has ‘York’ on the label, or which simply wouldn’t be found anywhere else in the country, is pretty special in my opinion.

* Finally, when I need to use large retail outlets or websites, I choose carefully. In my family, there are lots of Christmas Lists. Some of the items – specific books, games, DVDs or toys – are impossible to buy from independent businesses. So – what to do? I try to avoid Amazon at all cost. Not always possible, but I try. I like using play.com. Who knows if they’re any better? Again, we do what we can given our circumstances, and trust God’s grace for the rest. For a book I bought recently for a birthday present, I used Waterstone’s online. If I can’t make it into town, at least I can invest some money in a high street retailer by using their website – which I think is preferable to an exclusively online shop. And of course there are companies like John Lewis, known for their ethical values.

Quite often, the ethical choice is pricier than its alternative, something which often drives us to the supermarkets, with its heavily-laden aisles of cheap gifts. But, as someone who’s on a budget (yes, even for Christmas), I want to reassure you that the ethical alternative can and does work. I spend the same as I would have done – but buy less. (Who needs more rubbish at Christmas?) It’s better quality, though, and will probably last longer. There’s more value, I think, in the uniqueness of the present – a gift, after all, should say something about the giver, and the relationship between giver and recipient. This Christmas, let’s make our pounds do some good.