Our Christmas Rituals

By Greg Craven

Christmas is a central event in the religious and secular calendars of the West. For people of Christian faith, Christmas marks the point where the Divine plan for creation became manifest. The birth of Jesus is the point where the Divine being commits to humanity in an irrevocable manner – God joins with humanity forever altering our fundamental understanding of what it means to be God and what it means to be human.

This celebration of the Incarnation is one of the poles of the Christian year around which all other Christian beliefs centre (the other being the Easter Triduum). In the Incarnation we see a point where the human and the divine intersect in dramatic fashion. For all people the birth of a child is a great wonder and usually a great joy. It is a peak occasion in the unfolding of the human story – writ small in the case of individuals and families, writ large in the story of nations and peoples. It is not surprising then that the occasion is one filled with ritual. As well as the gathering of families and the exchange of gifts, the rituals of Christmas are also a vital part of educating children in deeper truths.

The significance of the Christmas celebration has not been lost in history or simply confined to church – it was a frequent day for the crowning of monarchs, in particular the Holy Roman Emperors and William the Conqueror in England. As with any significant event, ritual provides the structure and language to illustrate how human beings engage with the world. Ritual observances like Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter are good to note within families to assist children with the idea that points in the year require preparation; that anticipation of the event helps us to understand the event itself.

The rituals we now associate with Advent and Christmas – Advent Calendars, the Christmas crib scenes, Christmas trees and gift giving have some biblical and historical basis. There real import is that they are part of the Christian tradition’s way of enculturating the central mystery of the Incarnation. Through the traditional rituals – made new in new contexts – we are linked to our own story, the story to which Jesus linked himself. To illustrate the importance of this faith event, St Francis brought the Christmas Crib scene to life; St Nicholas handed out gifts; and, from northern Europe, we gained a tradition of greenery to indicate new life and opportunity. Each of these are ways of communicating to each other that life is precious; that people have an inherent dignity; that each of us is worthy of love.

Through rituals children learn that human life is to be celebrated but that there are also periods of highs and lows – there is the ordinary and mundane that are necessary to give significance to the extraordinary and special. Not every day can be Christmas, but the preparations for Christmas and the rituals that we as a family and a faith have developed to celebrate it are vital for understanding its true import – that God has joined with us and that the human story is now the divine story. That every day is important because ‘God-is-with-Us’. As a result every day is special, not only those peaks times when we seek to actively remember their importance. Christmas, for people of faith, is not a single event – it is a way of thinking about the world and other people.

This Christmas it might be well worthwhile encouraging a return to a more traditional set of rituals – not to mire ourselves in the past but to remind ourselves and our children that our God of love so values and esteems humanity that God joined with us. For this reason we have obligations to look on each other as special, as beings with dignity and worthy of celebration. These are good things for our children to be gifted at Christmas.