Ghosts of Christmas past

It’s a beautiful irony of human experience that we work so hard to keep things static, and all the while they are always constantly changing.

By Amy Butler

There is, and has been for many years, a mild but ongoing disagreement within our church staff about Christmas Eve worship.

One camp feels we should always hold a traditional Lessons and Carols service and that anything less formal and solemn is beneath our standards of liturgical worship.

The other side campaigns in favor of what has been a tradition for many years: a live Nativity, complete with stable, squirming baby Jesus and a whole crowd of not-very-heavenly, tinsel-topped angels.

This camp argues that it just wouldn’t be Christmas Eve around here without the chaos up at the front of the sanctuary. We’ve always had a live Nativity with rambunctious shepherds, they argue. And so the Nativity wins out every year, at least so far.

But what the live Nativity’s proponents forget is that we haven’t actually built a stable and dressed in bathrobes every year. This Christmas Eve tradition started about eight years ago, when someone at church had some extra wood in the garage and offered to build a stable.

It was controversial then because (go figure) it wasn’t a traditional Lessons and Carols service. Now it seems to have crystallized into static tradition.

This argument in favor of tradition also happens in our individual lives, especially around this time of year. Nostalgia ramps up and we work extra hard to recreate what, in our memories, was the perfect holiday. This often includes — but is not limited to — extensive travel, special gifts, traditional decorations and favorite foods.

Many times these attempts to recreate memories disappoint. Occasionally they result in situations like the time a friend tried to make a traditional, brandy-soaked Christmas pudding, complete with a tableside live flame, and ended up with a scenario that included a burned dining room chandelier and a tipsy grandmother.

At my house, for example, I wish for the days of pre-dawn Christmas wake-up calls and children enthralled with a Tickle Me Elmo under the Christmas tree. Teenagers, it seems, don’t like to wake up early in the morning. But wasn’t it so easy and sweet and wonderful when they did?

No matter how hard we try to recreate that perfect memory, we can never do it completely because nothing about the human experience ever stays the same. Everything changes. Circumstances and relationships are always shifting.

It’s a beautiful irony of human experience that we work so hard to keep things static and all the while they are always constantly changing. There’s no recreating what we remember as ideal. Anyway, it’s likely the ideal we long for was probably a failed attempt to recreate some other perfect memory.

Even when, for the sake of tradition, we dress the kids up with angel wings for Christmas Eve, the live Nativity changes every year. For one thing, the baby Jesus of eight years ago is now a shepherd.

There’s always something that makes the year unique, different from every year before it. This year it was controversy about whether it would be possible for one of the wise men to bring baby Jesus a live guinea pig as a gift.

While we’re so busy recreating the perfect memory, we can miss out on some of the wonderful newness of each year’s experience. So even though the traditional Christmas Eve live Nativity won out again this year, I’ve determined to stop trying to recreate memories and instead take in all the newness.

It’s actually great to sleep in on Christmas morning, for example. And I think baby Jesus loved the guinea pig.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.