My parents cultivated and preserved a particular kind of joy in my childhood that I have carried into my adult life. That particular joy is this: I do not want to unwrap any presents on Christmas morning. I just want to go to church.
How did they do it? How did my parents raise an American who expects (and even wants) to sit around a chancel rather than a lighted tree every Christmas dawn? They did it by never having me and my sisters open presents as a family the morning of December 25.
This novelty came about partly for practical reasons. In my earliest years, my immediate family lived a few hours from my extended family, and my parents made a priority of our being in my grandparents’ home by eventide of every Christmas Eve for an overnight visit. We were packed and on the road long before Santa could make his promised delivery to our hearth. And rather than stretch a tall tale into an even taller tale, my parents decided to forgo all creative tropes on the Santa saga and simply tell us the truth: Our gifts were lovingly chosen, purchased and wrapped by them, and they were given to us in thanks and praise for Christ’s gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation to us all.
Thus freed from all time constraints demanded by secular lore, my sisters and I had great fun watching those wrapped packages collect one by one under our tree for the weeks leading up to the Christmas season. We would pick up each gift, speculate what was inside, who it was for and so on. We would giggle and tease and — whether we realized it or not at the time — grew in a practical, experiential knowledge of how family relates to one another in such a singular way: “I give gifts to her, and she gives gifts to me. We provide for each other in this way. Year after year.” The annual experience bonded us to each other both in real time and now in memory, and that tradition of abiding in the slow-building momentum of gift giving every winter would climax on Christmas Eve morning when my family, for the entirety of my childhood, opened our gifts.
Eyes on Jesus
And here is the genius of it all. My parents’ moving the unwrapping of our gifts away from Christmas morning taught me, over time, to fix my eyes on Jesus instead of on tinsel and bows.
For example, I have a formative memory — perhaps at the age of 7 or 8 — of feeling a terrible, sinful portion of disappointment after having opened my gifts Christmas Eve morning. I may have even cried, though I tried to hide it from my parents. The low I hit was so low, that I remember being alarmed at the strength of my own feelings, even as a child. As I think back, I believe that the Holy Spirit, given to me in Holy Baptism, was revealing to me the idol I had made of consuming mammon and setting my hope on things temporal.
That syncopated, one-day-removed rhythm my parents had created in our family tradition tempered and instructed me that year. For even in the depths of woe, I remembered that the celebration was not entirely over. There was much more good coming my way. That evening, I would get to go to church and participate in a retelling of the nativity, and then I and my family and my aunts and uncles and cousins would gather at my grandparents’ house to feast and open more presents. And the next morning, my parents would wake us with the jubilant strains of some favorite Christmas record, the glorious smell of cinnamon rolls baking and the festive sight of candles lit on the dining table. Then, we would dress in our best and gather in church with our family in Christ to hear the wonderful, blessed, miraculous news of God taking on flesh for our sake.
Christmas morning was reserved for Jesus, and something about that reality drove home for me the eternal point that, while everything else in this world passes away, Christ remains. The resulting joy of that truth is, perhaps, the most precious gift my parents have ever given me, second only to having me baptized into Christ and taking me to church every Sunday.
Today, my husband and I continue the tradition of exchanging and opening presents on Christmas Eve morning, and we love the tone it sets for our celebration that continues through the next twelve, holy days. We also love the time pressure it takes off of Christmas morning, as, being a pastor’s family, the sooner we can get to church to vacuum up the candle wax from the previous evening’s service, the better for everyone.
Thanks, Dad and Mom.
Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford