HOLIDAY BLESSINGS, Chapter 6

Holiday Blessings:  Faith, Family, Festivals, Food, & Fun  —

Chapter 6: Christmas and its Entourage

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.  (Matthew 1:21)

handels-messiah.sheet-music-with-lyrics

CHRISTMAS AND  ITS  ENTOURAGE

For many, Christmas is the greatest holy day of all. Because it honors the Lord Jesus Christ, in His first redemptive visit to planet Earth as a human, unbelievers have provided distracting substitutes for celebrating this time of the year, including Ramadan, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa.  But this book, authored by a Bible-believing Christian, will mostly ignore that Christmas-substitutes, except some attention will be given (later) to Hanukkah, due to that feast being alluded to within the New Testament.

 

Faith Foundations for Celebrating Christmas

Imagine the idiocy of a secular critic who whined about Christians who insist on worshipping Christ during the Christmas season: “now ‘happy holidays’ isn’t good enough  –  they are trying to impose all this talk about Jesus on Christmas!”  Just as there was no room for Christ to be born in the Bethlehem inn, there is no room afforded to Christ in the hearts of most people during the holiday that bears His holy name.  (Having a Christmas party that ignores the Lord Jesus Christ is like having a birthday party without inviting the birthday boy or birthday whose birthday is supposedly being celebrated!)

But like it or not, Christmas is the holiday (and the holiday season) that commemorates the arrival of God incarnate as a newborn baby, in fulfillment of the Hebrew prophet’s prediction that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah:

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.  (Micah 5:2)

Interestingly, when the magi inquired as to where the newborn King of the Jews was born, the spineless Jewish scholars censored the phrase (foretold by the prophet Micah) that indicates the newborn King’s divine nature. This is evidence from the factually perfect report Matthew provides of this amazing history, when Gentiles trekked to worship the newborn King of kings:

1Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 6 “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel [notice that the rest of this sentence, where it refers to the Messiah being “from everlasting”, is omitted when the Jewish scribes quote it to Herod].” Then Herod, when he had privately called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. 13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. 14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: 15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt have I called My Son”.  (Matthew 2:1-15)

In other words, the original Christmas was the holy day when the eternal God, in a human baby’s life, emerged from His then-virgin mother’s womb, into the outside world that He Himself had earlier created, about 4,000 years earlier!

What about the shepherds, who visited (and worshiped) the newborn King of kings, in Bethlehem, on that first Christmas night? It is Luke who reports on that aspect of the original Christmas.

1And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David), To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. 21 And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. 22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; 23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) 24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. 25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. 26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, 28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, 29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: 30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, 31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; 32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. 33 And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. 34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; 35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. 36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; 37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. 38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. 39 And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.  (Luke 2:1-39)

micah5.2-manger

Consider also, for a fuller perspective, Luke’s detail-loaded report of the earlier historic events that led up to and included the first Christmas in Bethlehem:

26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. 29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. 30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. 34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible. 38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her. 39 And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah; 40 And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. 41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the Babe [Jesus] leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit: 42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. 43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. 45 And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord. 46 And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, 47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour [notice thqat Mary, as a human sinner, needed God as her own personal Savior]. 48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. 49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. 51 He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. 52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. 53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. 54 He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; 55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever. 56 And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her own house. 57 Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. 58 And her neighbors and her cousins heard how the Lord had showed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her. 59 And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. 60 And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. 61 And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. 62 And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. 63 And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marveled all. 64 And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. 65 And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. 66 And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him. 67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying, 68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, 69 And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; 70 As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: 71 That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; 72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; 73 The oath which he swore to our father Abraham, 74 That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, 75 In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. 76 And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; 77 To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, 78 Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, 79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:26-79)

Thus, the First Advent of the Lord Jesus Christ was foretold (see, e.g., Isaiah 7:14 & 9:6; Micah 5:2) and it occurred as prophesied, in the fullness of God’s providential timing.  So Jesus is the real Reason for the Christmas Season.  Any failure to appreciate that is a failure to adequately appreciate the incarnation of Emmanuel   —   “God with us”   —   more than 2,000 years ago (John 1:14).

Interestingly, Jewish shepherds first came to worship the newborn Jesus Christ; later Gentile magi came to worship Jesus.  JESUS offered Himself first to the Jewish people; thereafter He offered Himself to all the Gentile peoples of the world.

For a Christmas sermon (recorded in Tampa, Florida) that explores this historic reality, see “CHRISTMAS NEWS FOR JEWS AND GENTILES“, posted at:

http://bcctampa.sermon.net/main/main/20569204

The year of the first Christmas is the historic Event that Earth time is now calendared by —  all of our years are marked form Christ’s arrival at Christmas:  “B.C.” means “before Christ” and “A.D.” means “after Christ” (literally “anno Domini” = “year of our Lord”).[1]   “Christmas” is the annual celebration of Christ’s coming to Earth as a human, the unique human Who was and is (and always shall be) the Lord Jesus Christ.  No wonder the Lord Jesus most frequently called Himself “the Son of Man”, because His decision to become a perfect human (while continuing to be divine, i.e., God the Son) and His commitment to continue to be that God-man, forever, was the perhaps most unusual event in all time and eternity!  Consider how Christ’s willingness, decision, and action as the incarnate Son of God (Psalm 2), to become a Kinsman-Redeemer in and for Adam’s race, has earned Him the name above all other names, as the apostle Paul explains:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: 10 That at the name of JESUS every knee should [and shall] bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; 11 And that every tongue should [and shall] confess that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9)

Yet the way Christmas is routinely celebrated, in the world today (and even at many Christian church “Christmas” parties), the celebration ignores the Birthday Boy, as if He was not the focus of His own birthday party. Shame on us humans! —  if and whenever we forget what Christmas is really about, as we distractedly busy ourselves with the commercialized (and otherwise secularized) transmogrification of Christ’s First Coming, by gift-giving (and gift-getting), toys, tinsel, treats, and whatever else decoys us from the Biblical record of Matthew chapter 2 and Luke chapter 1.

The magi were good role-models: wise men still seek(and worship) Him!

wise-men-still-seek-jesus.silhouette

Christmas Festivities Celebrated Near and Far

As noted above, Christmas is often celebrated in ways that detract from the divine-yet-human Birthday Boy, with secular commotion and confusion about “Santa Claus”, North Pole elves, candy canes, holiday shopping, and a red-nosed reindeer. But those Christ-discounting customs will not concern us here, as we review a few examples of how the Christmas season (including the “twelve days of Christmas”, Magi Day (i.e., “Wise Men’s Day” or “Three Kings Days”), the season of Advent, Little Christmas Eve, Christmas Eve, and Christmas itself) is fêted in some of the Christianity-professing parts of the globe.

The Advent season is the timeframe leading up to, and thus preparing for, Christmas Day. In Norway, a country famous for appreciating beautiful decorations and festive edibles, the Advent season is traditionally recognized as beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day (i.e., the Sunday nearest the last day of November).  During the Sundays of Advent season devout Norwegian homes often observe the lighting of Advent candles and a family member recites a sentence or two about the purpose of Christmas, preparing the hearts of family members to honor the Lords’ First Advent (Coming) to Earth as its unique Savior (Kinsman-Redeemer).

In Trondheim, Norway, Advent has a customary celebration.  Trondheim was established by the Christianizing Viking king, Olaf Tryggvason (who successfully evangelized Leif Eiriksson, Iceland’s Kjartan, and many other Vikings).  According to Astrid Karlsen Scott’s “Christmas in Norway”[2], on the first Sunday of Advent the modern Tronds gather outside, to watch the lighting of a huge Christmas tree, singing, followed by a holiday speech by the mayor of Trondheim.  In private homes, many devout Scandinavian Lutherans prepare an Advent wreath, with four colored candles (e.g., solid red or solid purple), representing the four Sundays before Christmas. Children recite solemn sentences (about the true meaning of Christmas) at the lighting of each candle, one Sunday at a time.  Also, during the Advent season, many Norwegians blend holiday traditions with preparing for winter eating needs, including stockpiling flatbread, cured fish, cured meats, and varieties of cookies (such as pepper cookies).  For some Scandinavians, and some Americans who cling to Scandinavian heritage customs, the controversial lye-soaked lutefisk preparation of Atlantic codfish (loved by many, yet despised by many more!) is appreciated during the Christmas season.

Saint Lucia’s Day is a Christmas season-related holiday in Scandinavia (and in Italy), celebrated 12 day before Christmas (i.e., December 13th,, the winter solstice). Saint Lucia festivities often include a choir of young people, dressed in white robes, who carry candles (or battery-powered) lights as they parade while signing, sometimes providing edible treats to special guests.  It is customary for one girl to be selected to portray Lucia, as a singer whose head is garlanded by a circle of lit candles.  Nowadays the candles are lit by small batteries, a much safer custom than the traditional fire-lit candles of old!

Little Christmas Eve” (December 24th) is celebrated in Norway and Sweden, as the day before the day before Christmas. Little Christmas Eve (“Lillejulaften”) immediately follows the darkest day of the solar year, December 23rd, so it is the beginning of the seasonal trend toward more daylight.  Little Christmas Eve is a traditional time for Christmas decorations, with special attention to selecting, erecting, and decorating the family Christmas tree.  (In other lands it is customary to prepare the family’s Christmas tree long before two days before Christmas!)  Norwegians often choose a pine tree or a spruce tree.  Spruce trees are often preferred for their user-friendly shape, but some prefer pine trees, saying that they shed their needle-leaves less.  Up until this day Norwegians have been preparing for Little Christmas Eve with decorations, often home-made, and tree selection.

“Christmas Eve” refers to the day before Christmas. For many this is the day of family visiting and gift exchanges, in order to reserve Christmas Day for worship and focusing on the real meaning of Christmas.  However, for most people, Christmas is the day of gift exchanges and visiting, with the Birthday Boy being almost entirely ignored on His on “birthday”.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a phrase that refers to the timeframe of days including Christmas and immediately following, ending on the 5th of January.

“Magi Day” is a Christmas-related holiday in some lands, in many places celebrated on January 6th (the 12th day after Christmas, also called Twelfth Night. Three Kings Day, or Feast of Epiphany).  For example, in Puerto Rico, children celebrate Three Kings Day, following the extra-biblical tradition of three magi (notwithstanding the fact that the Bible never counts the number of magi who journeyed as pilgrims to worship the newborn King).  The idea of the magi (a/k/a “wise men” or “kings”) being three in number probably harks back to the gifts they presented to the Christ-Child: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

In many Latin American countries (which have been historically and culturally dominated by Roman Catholicism), children write letters to the Magi (similar to American kids who write letters to Santa Claus), to persuade the Magi of how good they have been, hoping that the Magi will reward them with worldly presents. The festive holiday is called Dia de los Reyes Magos (“Day of the Magi-Kings”).  An old tradition of children in Spain is to put animal food, such as straw or grain, for the Magi’s horses (or camels?) into shoes, on the evening before Epiphany, in hopes of being replaced by edible treats (such as cookies and/or candy) which the children discover on the morning of Epiphany. Also, costumed parades with music sometimes feature actors dressed as Magi.  Elsewhere in Europe, such as in what was once Czechoslovakia (e.g., Slovakia and the Czech Republic), children dress in Magi costume and visit houses as Christmas carolers, hoping to be rewarded with compliments and cookies.

Christmas caroling (called Julebukk in Norway) is a vocal Christmas tradition that is centuries old.  As a boy I routinely went “a-caroling” with my church friends, but this custom has waned in America, so much so that I almost terrified a non-Christian neighbor (a few years ago), when I tried to sing a Christmas carol at his front door, offering his family edible treats my wife has prepared as part of our Christmas celebration.  In Norway many attend a caroling service, at a local Lutheran church, on Christmas Eve.

Christmas trees — decorating evergreen trees especially for Christmas — are a Yuletide tradition all over the world, though their historical origin traces back to the centuries of Europe’s Protestant Reformation.

Christmas cuisine is a tradition that predates the Protestant Reformation, in many lands. Along the western coast of Norway the Christmas cod was a Christmas tradition.  Many other Scandinavians enjoy an lavish Christ-fest[3] smörgåsbord banquet, mixing an above-and-beyond variety of hot and cold foods, including hams and herrings, fowl and fruit, venison and vegetables, salmon and salads, dairy products and desserts, along with hold and cold drinks.

Christmas cards, family newsletters, and gift giving often accompany the month of December, with Christmas cards and family newsletters sometimes being serving as the only regular written communication with distant friends and family, especially prior to the advent of email. (Because gift giving has become so commercialized there is no need to accentuate that holiday custom here.)  Christmas cards are a unique opportunity for providing a witness of reverence and appreciation for the Lord Jesus Christ, in a fairly “unthreatening” way.   A Christmas card can always be customized to its recipient(s) by the addition of a handwritten message to go with the signature of the card’s sender(s).  Christmas cards can also be used as a reminder to pray for people who send or receive such holiday greetings.[4]

Christmas music, in variously recorded forms, is often played during the month of December. Irreverent sols prefer the seasonal tunes that avoid revering the Lord Jesus Christ (such as “Jingle Bells”, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”).  However, those who treasure the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Kinsman-Redeemer prefer songs that stick with the Reason for the Season (such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “Joy to the World”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne”, and the lyrics from HANDEL’S MESSIAH).

“Reading the Christmas story” (from Matthew and/or Luke) is a habit in some households. Because the coming of the Christ-Child is the real meaning of Christmas, it is a shame that so few families still observe this Christmas custom.

handels-messiah.sheet-music-with-lyrics

Christmas drama programs and Christmas music concerts are useful activities that blend worship and joy with seasonal festivity. The quintessential Christmas concert is a symphonic presentation of HANDEL’S MESSIAH. Surely HANDEL’S MESSIAH will be often performed by the heavenly choir for eons and eons to come!  (The lyrics to HANDEL’S MESSIAH guarantee that it is blessed of God, because God is well-pleased with His beloved Son (Matthew 3:17), and God honors His holy Scriptures even moreso than His holy name (Psalm 138:2).

When you were a small child, how did you and your family celebrate Christmas?  Was there a special Christmas meal, or other Christmas foods, that you family enjoyed during the Christmas season? Did you have a Christmas tree?  Did you decorate your house with festive Christmas decorations?  Did you sing Christmas carols?  Did your family play recorded Christmas music during December? Did your family send out Christmas cards, or a family newsletter?  Did you give and received gifts at Christmas?  Did you attend a Christmas drama, or a special Christmas music program, at a local church?  Did your family “read the Christmas story” on or before Christmas Day? What did your family do during Christmastime?

Compare your childhood experiences with your present life experiences. Have you carried forward Christmas celebration traditions that you knew as a child? Or do you practice Christmas traditions that you learned from your spouse (which derive from your spouse’s childhood experiences)?

Nowadays, how do you and your family celebrate Christmas? When a couple marries, their respective family traditions have an opportunity to blend, producing a hybrid of family traditions (which may include traditions not acquired from either spouse’s childhood experiences). Does your present family (whether that be nuclear family or extended family, if Christmas is a time for family reunions) have a special Christmas meal, or other Christmas foods, that you anticipate and enjoy during the Christmas season? Do you have a Christmas tree? Do you decorate your house with festive Christmas decorations?  Did you sing Christmas carols?  Do you sing Christmas carols?  Does your family play recorded Christmas music during December? Does your family send out Christmas cards, or a family newsletter?  Do you give and received gifts at Christmas?  Do you attend a Christmas drama, or a special Christmas music program, at a local church?  Does your family “read the Christmas story” on or before Christmas Day? What does your family do during Christmastime?  Which of these practices do you still do during the Christmas season nowadays?  Can you imagine the experience of the Bethlehem shepherds?  Or the Magi?

A multi-volume series of books could be written on the customs of observing (and celebrating) Christmas, around the world, in the past and in the present. Above a few examples are noted, just to illustrate a small perspective on how Christmas can be (and sometimes is) celebrated, near and far.  But the most important aspect to keep, in whatever festivities are involved, is a reverent and appreciative endorsement of the Reason for the Season”:  the Lord Jesus Christ!  As the great Wesleyan hymn-carol exhorts, “Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King!”

wesley-hark-herald-angels-sing.songbook

Family, Friends, Fellowship, and Fun

It is customary in many extended families, especially those where kinfolk live within driving distance of one another, to have some kind of Christmas get-together on or near Christmas Day. Often the adult members (of an extended family) will take turns as to who will host the get-together (“you host Thanksgiving, and I’ll host Christmas”), and divide the labor so that no one is burdened with all of the responsibilities of providing the event’s meal.  In theory this is a great way to prepare a diversified buffet dinner, with lots of food and lots of variety.  In most families, however, the division of labor is somewhat lopsided, depending on who is good at preparing salads or desserts or meat entrees.  (Also, it is not a rare situation where some extended family members attend as lazy free-loaders, whose parasitic practices somewhat darken what is otherwise a bright time of family fun and fellowship.)

Christmastime family get-togethers are a convenient time for gift-giving, but this does not guarantee that a good time will be had by all who attend – because humans who want gifts are prone to discontentment. All-too-often gift exchanges convert what should be an event of appreciating Christ’s First Advent into a time of temporal greed, envy, and disappointment. (If you have been there, you know what this means.)  Probably you can remember a Christmas of two where you felt slighted, especially as you compared your gifts to those of someone else.  This is not what Christmas is really about.  Christmas is a time to appreciate how God came to Earth as Jesus, to save Adam’s fallen race of failing sinners from a terrible destiny  — Christmas is a time to remember and focus on God’s wonderful redemptive grace in the Lord Jesus Christ – and that is the Gift of all gifts, from our Creator God Who taught us that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Here is an experiment to illustrate how much our Christmas get-togethers have become secularized. After all of the family members have visited with one another for a while, try suggesting that everyone listen to a reading of Matthew chapter 2, followed by everyone singing some Christ-honoring Christmas carols (“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” or “Joy to the World” or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”), followed by everyone taking turns, in a prayer circle, to thank the Lord for providing His Son at Bethlehem, so that we humans could have the Savior we all need.

Since Christmas is supposed to be about celebrating the Birthday of Jesus, isn’t it fitting that the Birthday Boy be honored with joyful singing?

Expect awkwardness at such a festive “program” was introduced before the gift exchange occurs, even with extended families in which all profess to be Christians.   But no one should be surprised at this,[5] because the Lord Jesus Himself forewarned us that He Himself would be the cause of division within families (Matthew 10:34-37).

 

Foods to Match the Christmas Season and its Festivities

Many books are composed and published about Christmas cuisine (such as Christmas ham in Sweden, Christmas cod in Norway, Manx Queenies on the Isle of Man, etc.), so this topic will only be lightly illustrated by a few examples here.

For starters consider this famous Swedish dish, Jansson’s Fretelse (“Jansson’s Temptation”), a creamy casserole dominated by anchovy, potatoes, and yellow onions.

janssons-temptation.swedish-cuisine

Jansson’s Temptation

To serve 4 to 6.

  • 7 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into strips 2 inches long and ¼ inch thick

  • 2½ tablespoons butter   [for melting — do not substitute margarine!]

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil   [you might try olive oil]

  • 2 to 3 large yellow onions, thinly sliced   (4 cups)

  • 16 flat anchovy fillets, drained

  • White pepper   [use your own discretion]

  • 2 tablespoons fine dry bread crumbs

  • 2 tablespoons butter, cut into 1/4 –inch bits

  • 1 cup heavy cream

  • ½ cup milkWith a pastry brush or paper towel, spread a 1½ -to-2-quart soufflé dish or baking dish with the remaining half tablespoon of butter.   Drain the potatoes and pat them dry with paper towels. Arrange a layer of potatoes on the bottom of the [baking] dish and then alternate layers of onions and anchovies [similar to layering lasagna], ending with potatoes. Sprinkle each layer with a little white pepper. Scatter bread crumbs over the top layer of potatoes and dot the casserole with the 2 tablespoons of butter cut into bits. In a small saucepan, heat the milk and cream until it barely simmers, then pour over the potatoes. Bake in the center of the oven for 454 minute, or until the potatoes are tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife and the liquid is nearly absorbed.[6]

Another Swedish classic (often featured on the Jul-fest menu at IKEA stores when they host a ticketed Swedish Jul-smörgåsbord) is a honeyed ham, seasoned with peppercorns, as the following “simple” recipe illustrates.            Serves 6

 

christmas-ham-swedish.gettyimages

            Christmas Ham                (Honungsgriljerad julskinka)

This is truly a Swedish cuisine classic, for a cold day or night, so it is perfect for Christmas!

Preheat the oven to 400o. Place the potato strips in cold water to keep them from discoloring. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of oil in a 10-to-12-inch skillet; when the foam subsides, add the [sliced] onions and cook 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until they are soft but not brown.

  • 1 salted ham   (approx. 4½ lb / 2 kg)
  • 10 allspice berries
  • 10 peppercorns
  • 8 cloves
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp mustard
  • 3 tbsp breadcrumbs
  • 2 tbsp honey
  1. Put the ham in a large pot with the fat side up and add water to cover it. Bring to a boil, skim [off the floating layer of fat], and add the spices and bay leaf. Cook the ham over medium heat for about 1 hour 30 minutes. Remove the rind carefully and allow the ham to cool in the cooking liquid.

  2. Preheat the oven to 390oF / 200oC. Combine the egg, mustard, breadcrumbs, and honey, and coat the fat side of the ham with it.

  3. Allow the ham to brown in the oven. Carve into slices and serve. Mashed potatoes make a good complement.[7]

lutefisk-supper-road-sign.photo-by-jjsj

Lutefisk in lefse

For another Scandinavian Christmas cuisine tradition, consider this blend of two traditional foods, lutefisk and lefse, modified by a non-Scandinavian alternative: Mexican flour tortilla wraps (if Norwegian lefse is unavailable)!            Lutefisk [a lye-soaked,-then-thoroughly-rinsed-and-boiled form of cod fillet] is a traditional dish from Gudbrandsdalen and is an important contribution to our [Norwegian] heritage. In addition to the traditional recipe we also have some tips for a more modern twist.

Ingredients   (4 portions)

300 g boiled lutefisk

  • 4 tbs bacon bits
  • 2 potatoes
  • 4 potato lefser [i.e., 4 sheets of lefse]
  • 2 tbs sour cream
  • Salt and pepper
  • Steps
  1. Arrange the boiled lutefisk, fried bacon bits, and boiled potato [pieces, e.g., diced or otherwise cut into small pieces] in the lefse.

  2. Add sour cream and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

  3. Fold it together and eat it with a good appetite!(If genuine lutefisk is unavailable, you may need to substitute “regular” boiled cod filets.)

Tip: A modern twist would be to use tortilla wraps [in lieu of lefse wraps]. Add the boiled lutefisk, boiled potato, slices of brunost (brown goat cheese) and top it with sour cream and soy sauce. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.[8]

Even in Texas, where some notable Norwegian emigrants settled during the mid-19th century (AD), Christmas lutefisk banquets are enthusiastically observed.

Perhaps the most famous example of this custom, in a Norwegian-settled region of Texas, is the annual lutefisk banquet in Cranfills Gap (Bosque County), Texas, hosted at the local high school. A few miles away from Cranfills Gap, in the Norse Historic District of Bosque County, Our Savior’s Lutheran women provide an annual Norwegian smörgåsbord banquet, featuring many Norwegian cuisine wonders (including Norwegian meatballs, lefse, brunost cheese, kransekake cookies, etc.) This is like a Julbord (Christmas table), though it is served shortly before the Christmas season, — as is reported in the devotional titled “Choreographed Choir on the Wing: Birds of a Feather Flock Together”, posted at http://leesbird.com/2015/11/29/choreographed-choir-on-the-wing-birds-of-a-feather-flock-together/ .

All of creation should appreciate Christ’s coming, because He is the Creator of all creation! (See John chapter 1; Hebrews chapter 1; Colossians chapter 1; etc.) What an appropriate way to appreciate how the Creator Who came to Earth, as the Messiah to redeem Adam’s fallen race, is the same Creator Who made the birds we enjoy to look at and listen to!

Accordingly, in Norway (and in some other lands), for many generations, it has been a custom to provide some kind of bird-food on a pole, on Little Christmas Eve. For example, a stalk of oats (or some other grain that birds like to eat) is tied to a pole. A large branch can be installed in the snow-covered earth if a regular pole (or pole-like structure, such as a street-lamp) is not available. (For folks with no easy access to stalks of oats, yet who want to treat the local birds to something edible in celebration of Christ’ birth, morsels of bread, cracker crumbs, or seeds will do.)

Another Scandinavian Christmas tradition should here be noted: the Christmas nek, (a/k/a jul-nek, pronounced “Yule-neck”) for festively feeding local birds on Little Christmas Eve. Why?

For a devotional that includes a detailed description of the Cranfills Gap lutefisk supper, titled “Bluebirds of Happiness, Plus Enjoying a Lutefisk Banquet posted at http://leesbird.com/2015/12/11/bluebirds-of-happiness-plus-enjoying-a-lutefisk-banquet/ .

bethlehemstar-magi.silhouette

Final Thoughts on Christmas

What a wonderful Savior Jesus is! First, we should thank Him for making creation—including each of us—in the first place. Second, we should thank Him for coming to Earth, to be born in Bethlehem, to achieve redemption for us needy sinners. And third, we should thank Him for His promised Return to Earth, in power and glory!

With Grateful Joy We Celebrate Christ’s Birth at Bethlehem                  

With Grateful Joy We Celebrate Christ’s Birth at Bethlehem

Promised from Eden was Jesus’ birth;

                   God, as Man-Child, born upon Earth!

                             So Adam’s kin has cause to cheer,

                             ’Tis by Christ’s birth, mark we each year;

                   Hark, herald humans:  carol Christ’s birth! [9]

Christmas is a time to rejoice in God’s decision and action to be our Savior, to come to Earth as the infant Emmanuel, so that those who believe in Him can (and shall) have everlasting life, as we learn from John 3:16, the Holy Bible’s best-loved verse.

rosemaling-plate.jjsj

References

[1] There is a blasphemous custom promoted by some unsaved Jews and Gentiles, to replace the year marker “B.C.” with “B.C.E.” (meaning “before the Christian Era” or “before the common era”), and to replace the year marker “A.D.” with “C.E.” (meaning “Christian Era” or “common era”), and all those who deny Christ in this life will answer to Him for it in the hereafter.  Even so, people all over the world (even the atheists of communist China and the Messiah-rejecting Jews of Israel) know in their hearts and minds that this ubiquitous chronology dichotomy is historically defined by Christ’s coming to Earth.

[2] Astrid Karlsen Scott, Christmas in Norway: A Timeless Tradition (Olympia, Washington: Nordic Adventures, n.d.), videotape.

[3] Secularizing trends in pre-WWII Europe, forcefully led by the anti-Christian Nazi ethnology of racist-evolutionist Adolph Hitler, replaced Christ’s name with the seasonal word “Jul” (“Yule” as in Yuletide). The German word Christbaum (Christ-tree) is not common today.  Likewise, in Scandinavian circles the terms Juletrefest (Jule tree festival/celebration), and Julfest (Yuletide festival/feast/celebration), God Jul (“Good Yule”, a secularized greeting comparable to the Christian salutation “Merry Christmas”) are now common.  This secularization is much like the non-Christian terms “happy holidays” and “holiday tree”.

[4] For an example of ideas that connect family prayers with Christmas cards, see “Christmas Card Activities”, in Gloria Gaither & Shirley Dobson, Let’s Make a Memory: Great Ideas for Building Family Traditions and Togetherness (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994), page 55.

[5] Family divisions due to some being believers, and some not, is nothing new – it occurred in the first human family, as is illustrated by unbeliever Cain killing believer Abel, his own brother.

[6] Recipe for “Jansson’s Frestele”, in Dale Brown, The Cooking of Scandinavia (New York: Time-Life Books, 1968), page 100.

[7] Sylvia Winnewisser, Swedish Cooking (Cologne, Germany:  Naumann & Göbel Verlagsgesellschaft, 2007), page 88-89.

[8] Anne C. Wangberg, “A Fishy Tradition (Serving Fish for Christmas)”, Norwegians Worldwide, f/k/a The Norseman (Oslo, Norway: Nordmanns-Forbundet), December 2012 issue, pages 14-15.

[9] Limerick reprinted from James J. S. Johnson, “With Grateful Joy We Celebrate Christ’s Birth at Bethlehem”, Limerick Legacy series (Cross Timbers Institute, Short Paper # AD2013-08-08-C; © AD2013 James J. S. Johnson, used by permission).


 

 

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