“Boy it must suck to be a pastor in December,” a friend once said to me. He was thinking—funerals in December, too many devotionals and sermons to give, too many Christmas events to attend, four Christmas Eve services, little time for family on Christmas eve, and being exhausted on Christmas Day. “Who would want to do that?” he said, as he offered this commentary on my December.
Well, it is certainly busy. In fact, it’s crazy busy. In fact, if we are not careful, it can be disastrous personally and for my family. But it doesn’t “suck.” It is challenging. It is crammed. Yet it’s an extraordinary season of the year, filled with immense spiritual opportunities.
But after failing at December for too many years, through experience I managed to come up with a number of “coping mechanisms” that helped keep this month both sane and meaningful for me and my family.
One thing Christina and I did was take a weekend away from the church just before Advent. We usually spent a night or two at a hotel. It was my time to tell her I loved her and warn her yet again of the rush of December for those in ministry. We had quiet time and planned our family schedule for the Advent-Christmas season. This helped put us on the same page.
But even better than that was coming up with what we called “The Four Days of Christmas.” Four—not twelve? I know it sounds odd. Hear me out.
Like everybody else, in the early years of our family with four young children, we tried to cram too much Christmas into one Christmas Day. You know how it goes: the kids would get up early and tumble down the stairs head first. They opened stockings. By the time we got to the gifts, a numbness had already set in. They were over-saturated. When our cousins gathered for dinner, if they happened to bring gifts, I knew we were in trouble. My kids were glassy-eyed, over-stimulated and ungrateful. The next day, we went through the morning after Christmas syndrome like everyone else, and couldn’t believe how quickly the whole thing was over. It was too much for one day. We were all exhausted.
Of course, all this is complicated for a pastor’s family because you have to prepare a message and be at church on Christmas Eve. Throw in multiple services on December 24th and there is no time for much of anything on that day but church. For instance, I had four Christmas Eve services: 4.00, 5.30, 7.30 and 9.30. For our family, it was even more complex, because my wife is a violinist, and musicians play a lot in December—including Christmas Eve. We both got home around midnight!
Granted, most people don’t have to deal with ministry obligations like this. But I am convinced that for those who do, there are wiser, more sane ways to “do Christmas” than we typically do. So what we did was stretch out Christmas to four days!
There is good precedent for this. After all, in the history of the church, Christmas is a season, not just a day. The Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, as the 25th has is sometimes called, is part of the larger season of Christmastide, which, for some, lasts twelve days. You’ve heard of “the twelve days of Christmas,” haven’t you?
So how did we cope with the rush of Christmas? We stretched it out for four days. We did our family Christmas Eve on the evening of December 23rd. The kids called it “Christmas Adam.” (“You know dad,” they would say, “the 24th is ‘Christmas Eve’ the 23rd can be ‘Christmas Adam.’”). Okay, I relented. So, with just our family, we had a special dinner on the 23rd, and usually watched a movie afterwards. That is our first day of Christmas—our family Christmas eve.
The second day of Christmas is the 24th. The 24th for our family is church day. We encourage everyone to be active in services on Christmas Eve. Our children were inevitably involved in some of the services, either singing in choirs or doing public readings of Scripture. But they all know mom and dad have lots of responsibilities that day. We encourage them to participate as well. This has the wonderful effect of putting the spotlight on Jesus that day.
On Christmas Day, (the third day of Christmas) our kids get their stockings only. In the afternoon, we usually have dinner with grandparents and cousins.
It is the day after Christmas, (known as Boxing Day in England) that we all open our presents. This is our fourth day of Christmas.
Now, you may think that this is cruel and unusual punishment to children—i.e. that we do not allow them to open their gifts on Christmas Day. Truth is, they got used to it quickly. Our children still prefer it this way. They like that mom and dad have slowed Christmas down, without cutting church out, or family time. We actually have more time celebrating the holiday than we used to.
I’ll admit, for those who are not in ministry, this plan may sound rather strange. But for those who are, you will recognize it not only as one person’s creative road out of Christmas chaos, but also as a wonderful way to distress the day. It actually gives us more Christmas in Christmas, more family time, ample church time, and on the evening of the 25th, when it was over for most people, we have more to come.
True, it’s not exactly The Twelve Days of Christmas. But it did move our family in the right direction.
May I commend a similar creative wisdom to you if you find your Christmases too chaotic?