Christmas gets forced upon us by shopping malls and TV ads. But in the hustle and bustle of all the demands of the holiday, it is easy not to approach it thoughtfully. Furthermore, there are many challenges that come at holiday celebrations—reminders of what we’ve lost, what we don’t have, how distant we are from loved ones, and so on. At Christmas, we celebrate an incredible miracle: God’s Son took on flesh for us. In this episode, Chase Kuhn speaks with his wife Amy about how they’ve sought to cultivate good traditions together to remind them of this deep truth in order to help them celebrate, even in the face of distance, grief and longing.
Links referred to:
- Treasuring God in Our Traditions (Noël Piper) (This page gives you the option to purchase or download Noël’s book as a PDF.)
- Disciplines of a Godly Family (R Kent and Barbara Hughes)
- Just Nicholas (Anna Kratzsch)
Other helpful resources:
- Good News of Great Joy (John Piper): 25 short devotional readings for Advent. This book can be downloaded as a PDF or purchased using the provided links.
- Jesse Tree Family Devotions from Faithward.org: Advent devotions for families with primary school age kids. (There is also a link to devotions for individuals, which your teens may prefer.)
- The names of Jesus Advent calendar from Missional Mums.
Photo credit: Chase Kuhn.
Runtime: 28:13 min.
Chase Kuhn: It’s October, and of course that means you have that strange experience of walking into the store and seeing Halloween items being sold next to Christmas decorations. Undoubtedly this experience jars us into considering how we’re going to prepare for the season ahead.
I’m sure that early Christmas decorations are for those over-eager preparers—preparers like my wife. In fact, it’s my wife who is my guest today and is here to talk with me about our experience of learning to form new traditions within our family—what it is to celebrate Christmas when we don’t feel it, or how to cope with clashes of culture.
The hope is that our discussion and our journey will be a help to others beginning to prepare for the holidays.
CK: Hello and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast where we seek to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues. My name is Chase Kuhn and I’m coming to you from Moore Theological College here in Sydney, Australia, and today, my guest on the podcast is none other than my beloved wife Amy. Amy, how lovely it is to see you.
Amy Kuhn: Thanks for having me!
CK: And I see you every day—often. But it’s nice to see you like this. Wonderful to be talking with you.
Today we’re talking a little bit about the traditions that we’ve formed in our home, and how we’ve thought about holidays in particular as sojourners and strangers in a foreign land—that is, that you and I are American, we’ve actually moved a number of times in our lives, and we’ve had to reflect as we’ve been building a home and thinking about family how we are going to experience and walk through seasons of life like the Christmas holiday and do that thoughtfully as a Christian family. So I’d love to just hear from you, first of all, what was something in your childhood that you appreciated about what your family did around traditions?
AK: Yeah, my family was a great family to grow up in. My mom was incredibly thoughtful. My mom was thoughtful in the day-to-day things. One thing in particular that she was really thoughtful about was whenever there was a special occasion, she would bring out this red plate that says, “You are special today” and, depending on the day—it wasn’t every day; it was for a birthday or for some kind of small or big achievement—if we won a soccer match or something like that—it made us all feel special. We knew we felt special when that red plate came out.
Another way was she always made “Welcome home!” signs. So if my dad went away for work, he would always get a “Welcome home!” sign, or if we came home from camp, or even if a stranger—that wasn’t a stranger—but if someone was coming to visit us, they always got a “Welcome home!” sign. And she incorporated us in making those. So it was that instilling of helping us to think about how we could be thoughtful.
CK: Yeah, I think that’s one of my favourite things about you. I came from a family that has its own thoughtfulness in other ways, though, but particularly me as a person, I am not a very thoughtful guy. And in our marriage, I think I’ve appreciated the ways you’ve helped me think better about thoughtfulness in certain occasions—whether that with people coming over, gifts that we give or, in particular, the holidays as well, which we’re going to be talking about in a moment. And I’m grateful for what your family taught you for that.
One of the things I remember being around your home was your dad always loved to put out nativity scenes and had even, at once point, hand-painted a nativity scene for us, which we can often associate with trinket-y kinds of Christian goods that you can find in a bookstore, and yet, for us, that became very very special—especially as we had children—being able to tell the story of Jesus’s birth with something quite physical and tangible that we could see and think through and talk about, which was really lovely reminder.
I know, for us, moving around was one of the things that caused reflection on this. And like many married couples, you get married, you bring families together, and you start thinking about what traditions are we going to incorporate, how are we going to celebrate? And you and I, first of all, went to Alabama, we plundered our families’ Christmas decorations, we took them with us in boxes—even had family ship them to us—so we trimmed the tree with our ornaments from our childhood and we even had our old stockings and things that people use at Christmas. And so, Christmas felt in some ways very much the same: it was winter, we had a live tree that smelled of pine in our home, and then, of course, we moved to Australia, and that was a real shock to the system. Tell me about that experience from your perspective in particular.
AK: Yeah, moving Australia was huge. I think that the first couple of years that we moved here, I really grieved Christmas, because it was so incredibly different from anything we had ever experienced. We’d come to a warm climate where Christmas is in summertime, and the city doesn’t do decorations like the US, and there’s no Christmas lights, and people talk about going to the beach and having salads, and I was used to turkey and stuffing, and so I really grieved.
But what it did was it made me and made us as a couple really think through Christmas and does it feel like Christmas still? And I had to keep asking tougher questions like, “Is it still Christmas if we don’t have a live Christmas tree or if there’s not amazing decorations?”—or even if my family wasn’t there—or what happens one day when my family isn’t alive anymore? Will it still be Christmas?
CK: Yeah. And I guess feeling is so important in the middle of that: we often want the feeling of the season—of feeling—that then brings on, I guess, recollections of things, but the question we had to really decide on was “Is the feeling a real reflection of the thing we’re celebrating, and can we celebrate without the feeling?”
CK: I guess this is a bigger picture for the whole Christian life: I mean, how do I keep praying when I don’t feel close to God? Or how do I remain joyful when I’m actually sad or in despair? And the same thing’s true, then, for celebrating holidays in strange contexts. We love Australia, of course—I don’t mean “strange” in a bad way; I just mean “strange” as in not our normal context.
CK: When it’s in American temperatures, you know, high 90s; when it’s in Australian temperatures, high 30s. You know, how do you feel Christmas when you’ve been so used to thinking about cold and—
CK: —snow and bundling up by the fire—
CK: —and all the songs of Christmas cheer—
CK: —are often around that kind of wintery climate?
AK: Yeah. It really made us just really have to think and really have to recentre all the things that we had grown up with. Even if they were good things, we really had to start thinking about the basics of “What is Christmas really about?” And I think that that was probably a life-changing thing for me. “Is that what the heart of Christmas is all about?” And that’s something that we really want to help our kids with as we think about Christmas.
CK: Yeah. So tell me a little bit about how that happened: what were the changes that you made in particular, or we made together?
AK: Yeah. There was a couple of books that really helped me—that I—I’m not a reader, but I did pick up a couple of books. And the first one that I read was Treasuring God in Our Traditions by Noël Piper, and she just spoke about Christmas and a lot of other traditions, and it just got me thinking. And another book that I really loved was Disciplines of a Godly Family by R Kent and Barbara Hughes. And both those books really touched on how to do traditions, how to do Christmas and how to think.
And one way that we have started implementing in our family is we have set up an Advent calendar that’s kind of our own kind of Advent calendar, but we use the Jesse Tree Advent that Barbara and Kent Hughes talk about in their book (pp. 161-188). And it really—to give you a picture of what it looks like for our family, we sit down at dinnertime, if we can—if it’s not too busy—and our kids take turns opening a little box. In each box there is a Bible passage and a little ornament that talks about basically the creation from the beginning until Jesus is born. And it kind of gives a whole big picture story of what God is doing throughout creation and in his promises that he’s keeping, and just getting our kids to be thinking about that kind of thing.
CK: Yeah, it’s effectively a biblical theology that you develop as you hang an ornament on the tree each day. Which is a part of our children building an anticipation—expectation—that sense of surprise and even familiarity. So they’re surprised by what they open, but then they remember what they opened, and year on year, they begin to associate different markers in the biblical story of how God is faithful to his promises. So we can be telling that story well as we’re waiting for Christ together. That’s a lovely, lovely way that we’ve been able to work on that.
I mean, I guess some of this comes back to as well how do we think through secular markers of the season, and how we can almost reshape or refashion these things so it’s very common to have a Christmas tree, and yet we’re using the Christmas tree now not just for sentimental reasons—although we actually have a couple of Christmas trees: we have sentimental ornaments on one—but we’re using that as a chance to trim the tree with the story of Jesus’ coming.
Or, for example, we’ve thought through something, I think, Noël Piper talked about—you know, you tell your kids about Santa Claus; if you tell your kids about Santa Claus and you make Christmas all about this myth, how, then, do you actually get them to think that Jesus isn’t as a myth as well? So how do you get them to disassociate someone they can’t see who sees everything and knows everything, and then you try to tell them something real about Jesus who you can’t see, but sees everything and knows everything? It’s a very difficult move to make, and you almost set yourself up for failure. Not trying to hate on Santa-lovers out there—
CK: —you know, we’ve talked to Santa and had fun about it with our kids. We’ve been very upfront with them—that this a story that’s told, but—
AK: Yeah, and the two of us grew up visiting Santa, as most American kids—even Christian kids in the US—do. But one thing that I came across in Australia—and I don’t know how to pronounce this lady’s last name, but she wrote this beautiful illustrated children’s book called Just Nicholas, and it’s by Annie, and I’m going to have Chase look at this name, ’cause I don’t know how to say it.
AK: Kratzsch. And I think she’s Australian, but she has written this beautiful book that basically talks about this true story of this man who was a Christian and he wanted to give good gifts. And I feel like it was a great way of saying, “Yeah, we can talk about Santa Claus, but we can also trust Christ. It’s not going to ruin our kids.”
CK: It’s like a kids biography of Saint Nicholas—the—
CK: —the Saint Nicholas.
CK: —and how he actually was working from a Christian perspective—
AK: Yeah, that’s right.
CK: —and trying to reframe that in a gospel way. That’s a very helpful way of thinking about it. I guess we’ve tried not to shun, therefore, some of the culture around us, but to try to be more aware of the culture creep that comes into our celebrations. What ways do you think this creates problems for us? I mean, I guess I’m thinking about going back to how we think about feeling.
AK: Yeah, yeah. Well, I guess, now, we’ve lived in Australia for almost 10 years. And now it’s—I’m probably coming to the same problem that I came years ago when we first moved here where I actually absolutely love Christmas in summer now, and I could probably get carried away with the traditions that we set up that could potentially be unhelpful. Like, we—this isn’t helpful, but we will go to church, if COVID allows, this year. And then heading to the beach sounds just amazing. So I think I need to be careful that I don’t slip into the same problems that I had years ago where it’s—I need to make sure that I’m making Christmas about what Christmas is and about celebrating Jesus’ birth. So I think that it’s—that’s a thing that we need to be thinking through still.
CK: Yeah, lovely. So let’s talk about some of the ways that we try to do that, then. I mean, we don’t want to just say that going to the beach is bad—
CK: —which is—I know you’re—not what you’re saying. In fact, that’s one of our highlights now—
CK: —we—we love celebrating Christmas in summer. But how do we then make the main thing the main thing? I mean, one of the things you’ve mentioned is we actually go to church on Christmas day.
CK: I mean, coming from America, American churches don’t meet on Christmas day.
CK: In fact, I think we were home recently where church was cancelled because it was Christmas—
CK: —or even cancelled because it was Christmas Eve or something. So—
CK: —so one of the things we’ve done is meet with God’s people. How has that reshaped the way we’ve even thought about what’s most important—
CK: —at Christmas—going to church?
AK: Well, I think because we meet to go to church, it starts our day off in a really helpful way, where it’s really making us think first thing about Jesus. And it’s hard: I mean, our kids are pumped, they’re excited, they want to open presents, and so, just like every kid is—in fact, Chase is always pretty excited about that too! But we really need to make sure that we open our Bible. I mean, I think that’s a huge thing is making sure we open the Bible and remind ourselves as long—as well as our children—what the day is about, and not letting it get ahead of us. Or not packing the day too full, where you can’t even sit and reflect.
CK: Yeah, I think that that’s one of the hardest tensions I’ve always had as I’ve matured in my Christian life. I mean, you get to something where you’re very excited, and Christmas, you’re excited about, you know, food, you’re excited about family, you’re excited about the presents, of course. And how do you then actually slip into reading the Bible and doing that in a meaningful way or praying with genuine thankfulness for Jesus? And I guess it’s not always comfortable. And in fact, sometimes you go through those motions even when you’ve got something else you’re really wanting. But in some ways, by going through that motion, it’s getting you to stop in the middle of it and say, “This feels like I’m just doing it because I know I should. I’ve got to read the passage here. But this is actually a way for me to kind of get shaken out of what I would otherwise be driven towards.” I have a desire for presents, for example—my children want presents. I’m going to say, “I don’t want presents”, but of course I do. But how do I actually get shaken out of this moment? Well, I sit and read the passage and think, “Do I really believe that this is better—that this is what I really need most?” As much as I want other things, how do I actually think this is the most important thing? And it forces me.
CK: As we take a break from our program, can I encourage listeners to make use of the great resources that we’ve sought to curate at the Centre for Christian Living. If you go to ccl.moore.edu.au, you’ll find a whole host of materials there that will help you for the Christian life. We have brief essays written by thoughtful Christians about different issues you may be facing in your life. We’ve got a whole host of back episodes from our podcast that you can get on and listen to by topic. We have wonderful audio and video resources from our live events that we’ve streamed. And so I would love for you to get on there and check it out. You also can sign up for our enewsletter so that you never miss out on what’s current from the centre. And of course, we’d love for you to subscribe to the podcast. We’ve got some great podcast episodes coming up with some international guests that I think you’ll really benefit from. So please make sure that you make good use of the resources from the Centre for Christian Living. Now let’s get back to our program.
CK: Getting back into this, then, I think one of the things I’ve appreciated about your practice, Ames, is that you have really taken on board approaching the Advent season. Tell me a little bit more about what that’s looked like in your life.
AK: Yeah, well, a couple of years ago when we were at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, I think it was the first time—you might correct me—but I think the church that we went to gave everyone an Advent they could start doing. And I think it was—
CK: An Advent devotional.
AK: Ah yeah, sorry, an Advent devotional. And I think it was so refreshing to just say, “Okay, I’m going to start this season and really start focusing on what I really need to be focusing on, ’cause I know it’s October, but I’m already, like, making my Christmas lists and starting to think about how to ship presents to US and just”—it can get so overwhelming and it can really just distract you that I think that having an Advent devotional is fantastic.
CK: Yeah. What kinds of things have you seen in the Advent devotionals that you’ve been reading? What sorts of passages do you go through and what sorts of movements and expectations is built?
AK: Yeah, well, similar to the kids devotional that we do—the Advent calendar devotional that we do—it can start from Genesis, the creation, and goes all the way to—well, all throughout the Bible, just talking about God’s promises and then ending with Jesus’ birth. So it’s just a great way of reflecting throughout the whole Bible.
CK: Yeah, that’s helpful. It’s a great way of thinking about expectation, more than anything else, and I guess like anything else, something can just happen. And we can go through life quite passively. But this is an Advent devotion or approaching an Advent season as a way of being veryactive—
CK: —in waiting for this coming day—of building an expectancy—
CK: —and I think “expectancy” is the key word here. So we think about the expectation of the coming of Christ through the promises that God has given us, we see all kinds of passages that are making declarations of “This is how I’m going to bring salvation”, and then that way, when you get to Christmas Day, in the midst of everything else that’s happening—
CK: —you get there and you think, “Oh, he’s arrived!”
CK: But there’s something else about the Christian tradition with Advent as well—about building another kind of expectation for Jesus’ second coming.
CK: So how has that featured in your own thinking?
AK: It’s great thinking about it and remembering that Christmas isn’t just about Jesus’ birth, like you just said, but it’s remembering that there’s a greater hope of salvation that’s coming. And I think getting our kids to know that Jesus didn’t just come to this world to be a baby and grow up, but he came to actually save them and save them from the sin that they have in their own life and the sin that we have in ours.
CK: Yeah, and so while we see him making that provision of offering himself in our place, there is that expectation as well that because sin and the curse runs so far and wide, we need a new creation. In other words, we need the whole order to be remade. We need judgement to come. We need justice to be administered. And so, we are waiting for that completion, if you will—that final day when we see the kingdom brought into its fullness. And so we’re longing for that.
So I guess it helps us as well to think that Christmas isn’t just a traditional day of some marker in history. Of course it is: Jesus really came; he really was born as a baby, lowly in a manger. Right? God’s Son took on flesh. But actually that same Son still has flesh and is coming again in fulfilment of a whole range of other promises that are still yet to be completed. And I guess we think because he came then, we know he’ll come again.
CK: It’s a great way for us to be thinking ahead. So I guess that there’s a missed opportunity that we often see at Christmas—that we don’t understand what it is to long. I mean, you and I have been doing—
CK: —pre-marriage counselling with a lot of people recently and I guess, one of the things we’ve try to tell them is, “Look, just like you’re waiting to get married, what if that longing you have for the other, somehow you could frame it in ‘As much as I long for my soon-to-be spouse, how can I long for Jesus’”—
CK: —“‘to come again?’” I guess that’s what the church is supposed to be doing. And how has longing featured even in your life in the midst of grief or distance or anything else?
AK: Yeah. Yeah, if you remember just a couple of minutes ago, I was talking about how “Does it feel like Christmas if people aren’t around?” In particular, I was really nervous about family members not being around. And actually, my dad passed away a couple of years ago. Sorry.
CK: It’s okay. Your dad died a couple of years ago—about three years ago. And not having him at Christmas or not even being able to call him on Christmas creates a real sense of loss.
AK: Yeah, and even thinking about this year with COVID and not having grandmas be able to come and visit, we really need to be able to help our children, even, think about that.
CK: Yeah. I guess what—I know you want to say right now is, as hard it is to say, Christmas can be a real drag if people aren’t able to be with us. And so, some people actually get to Christmas and they think, “How am I going to get through this season?” or “Is it even worth celebrating when so and so isn’t there?”, like your father, or if family can’t be together. But precisely for the opposite reason, we should be celebrating.
CK: Christmas reminds us of all that we are longing for that is still yet to be made right. And the promise that Jesus is coming again means we have a real hope for the future.
CK: And in fact, those moments of pain and grief and even, perhaps, disappointment doesn’t lead us, then, to despair; it leads us to hope in a deeper sense—
CK: —of waiting for what has been promised to us.
CK: I know it’s very difficult to speak about these things and I don’t think we should pretend that it’s not. Well, in thinking about marking out particular seasons, I know some people have felt quite nervous about saying, you know, “Christmas is a special day. Shouldn’t we celebrate Christmas every day?” Likewise, Easter: don’t we celebrate the resurrection of Christ every day? With Christmas, I mean, we think about God’s Son taking on flesh, is that something we should mark out as a special day in the year to celebrate and a special season, if you will?
AK: Yeah, I definitely think we should celebrate it and weshould mark it as a special day. It’s kind of like my mom bringing out the special red plate. You know, she could have told us that we were special every day. But she brought out this plate and it was a reminder to us and it was a reminder that she wanted to make us feel special on that day for our birthday or when we did something really well. And I think similar to Christmas, I think it is a reminder that this is a special day, and that we do celebrate and we do think about Christmas and Jesus coming, and even on Easter, Jesus rising from the dead and saving us. But on that day—on Christmas Day—it’s a great reminder.
CK: Yeah. I know how easy it is for me to get familiar with the truth. And so, I can say that I remember God’s Son took on flesh every day: of course I do in some sense. But for me to mark out a time where I deliberately put my focus on that truth, it’s really important for me. Just like telling our kids they’re special on their birthday, for example: are they special to us every day? Of course they’re special to us every day. But do I actually appreciate them the way that I should? Well, on their birthday, there’s a real opportunity not just for them to feel adored and spoiled and whatever it is, but actually for me to pause again and say, “I am so grateful for this person.”
CK: “I’m so grateful for their place in my life.” Christmas is a chance for us to do that as well.
CK: Ames, as you’re thinking about wrapping up this conversation, how is it that we can encourage people? What would tell people as they’re getting ready for Christmas now?
AK: I would say to be prayerful. I think that it’s an easy statement, but I think it goes a long way. I think praying for yourself—that you have the right motives, that you’re not just trying to make your house look beautiful—but there’s purpose in what you’re doing. So I think through everything that we’re doing in preparation for Christmas. I think we need to be prayerful—prayerful for our spouses, prayerful for our children—that we don’t get carried away in the traditions that are really good, but just making sure that we are—that there’s purpose in what we’re doing.
CK: Yeah. And for somebody that doesn’t have a family—
CK: —perhaps, should they decorate their home if they live alone?
AK: Absolutely! Absolutely! I think it’s a great reminder—even the day-to-day of seeing a little nativity set or an Advent calendar—even if it’s with chocolates. I mean, we, a couple of years ago, did the LEGO Advent. And it had nothing to do about Christmas or about the actual story, but it was a great reminder of the anticipation of Christmas Day—
CK: Something coming.
AK: —and of Jesus’ birth.
CK: Yeah. My question is really, “How soon is too soon to decorate?”
AK: Oh, well, I guess we’re all going to have different answers to that.[Laughter]
CK: The answer is I think decorating in October’s too soon.
CK: So we can’t set up our house now.
AK: No. [Laughter]
CK: My answer is we should be decorating, though, in anticipation of Advent.
CK: So there is a time, maybe, that is too late.
CK: So actually if we can get set up—
CK: —or even begin preparing for setting up into the Advent season, it shows a purposefulness.
CK: And I guess that’s the whole thinking that we’re trying to encourage and just talking about this now is as you’re thinking about your traditions, what is it that you’re building in?
I’ll just finish with this word here: we often think about some of the Old Testament traditions as quite legalistic or something. But something so crucial to the Israelites was the shema—this is the commandment that they’re supposed to hear, right? They say, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one”—this is in Deuteronomy 6—
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut 6:4-9)
This is a way to say that, actually, as you work through life and the rhythms, you need constant reminders. You need to be making sure that the Lord is primary in your vision—that you’re fixing your eyes on him. And I think there are ways that we go through life that we can keep on prodding ourselves to keep the main thing the main thing.
CK: And I think moving into a season like this and the kinds of traditions we cultivate, the question is, are we passively moving through something that gives us all the feels of Christmas, or are we deliberately heading into that season expectant of Christ?
CK: Thanks for the conversation, Ames.
AK: Thanks for having me!
CK: I’ll look forward to seeing you in the kitchen again in a minute.
AK: Yep. [Laughter]
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please subscribe to our podcast and also be sure to visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you can discover many articles, past podcasts and video materials.
You might also like to stay current with what’s happening through the Centre by signing up for our monthly enewsletter. We always benefit from receiving questions and feedback from our listeners, and if you’d like to get in touch, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, I’d like to thank Moore College for making the ministry of the Centre for Christian Living possible, and to extend thanks to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for audio editing and transcribing. Music provided by James West.