Christmastime – at its core – is nostalgic. Many of us remember the Christmases of our childhood and long to pass on traditions, recreate memories, and relive the past through a familiar and well-known story. It’s the time of year we feel the pressure to do things just like we did last year, whether it be grandma’s Christmas cookie recipe, candlelight Christmas eve service at 11 pm, stringing popcorn on the tree, or serving the homeless a warm meal. Deterring from the way we have always done things would mean a betrayal of tradition. Some of us even rate our holiday experience based on how closely we follow the map passed down to us.
Beyond family traditions, we often wrestle with expectations of accomplishing all the holiday rituals. Throughout the year we have been counting down days, and now that “the best time of the year” is here, we have only a hasty thirty-one days to pack in all the fun. A meaningful holiday season means we have fit in a visit to the holiday train, an evening at the Nutcracker, school musicals, Christmas light displays, and holiday parties. We want those lovely photos, whether it be with our boots and winter hats at the Christmas tree farm (ideally with a few flakes of snow softly falling), matching jammies in front of the flickering fireplace, or a cheeky baby plopped onto Santa’s lap.
With people in our communities feeling the pressure of fulfilling so many personal seasonal goals, and with so many plans already set in stone, how does the ministry of the church fit in? How do we connect meaningfully with people for whom meaning making is defined by doing what they have always done? In some instances – when church is part of the family tradition – this works in our favor as ministry leaders. Memories may draw people in who haven’t been to church since Easter. The advent calendars, manger scenes, and virtuous desire to remember the “reason for the season” create a natural yearning for the divine.
On the other hand, it can be challenging to interest anyone in studies, events, or worship services that don’t already fit into their age-old, established patterns. In such situations, rather than trying in vain to compete, it often makes more sense to meet them where they are – amid their ongoing traditions. For instance, a selfie station with Santa at the church building gives you an opportunity to teach generosity through the history of Saint Nicholas. It doesn’t require a new event or study to go with it, and it allows people to participate while they are already there.
There is also an opportunity to focus on people who are facing challenges this time of year. With folks in these situations, there is usually an openness to new rhythms and new meaning-making. When family traditions are crumbling in front of their eyes, they re-evaluate everything and there is room to create new traditions. Even people without happy family memories are sometimes motivated by a lack of nostalgia to create fresh traditions for a new generation. Show up for them with an opportunity like Blue Christmas worship to acknowledge life isn’t always jolly in December coupled with a non-threatening tradition starter experience like an Advent wreath kit. Though the lure of traditions may be strong, there are always opportunities for the church to offer relevant ministry to our communities. After all, nothing beats holding up a glowing candle in the darkness on Christmas Eve night.
Anne Williams has served as a Pastor at Resurrection since 2011. She and her husband Eric raise two sons, Jude, and Reid. Follow her social media or blog for devotions connecting real life with faith.