Keeping the Heart in Our Christmas Traditions
I made spritz cookies the other day — those beautiful cookies that look like Christmas trees and taste like almonds and butter, sprinkled with colored sugar on top. For those of us of Scandanavian or Germanic background these cookies have been a holiday tradition for generations.
However, spritz cookies are also notoriously difficult to make. The butter in the dough (and there is a lot of it) must be neither too warm nor too cold. The dough cannot be refrigerated, the old-fashioned metal press is challenging to work, and the new plastic press can (apparently) break if used with dough that is too cold, or if the press dial isn’t turned the correct direction while pressing the cookies.
Why do I keep making these cookies? I thought to myself, after purchasing a new plastic press. I realized the answer was deceptively simple: It’s a family tradition. Year after year, my mother made these difficult, delicious delicacies at Christmas. Every. Single. Year. My usually patient and gentle mother would mutter something about that silly press, whack her sturdy metal press against the sheet in an effort to get the too-soft dough to stick to the pan, then jimmy the cookies off the press with a knife.
My brothers and I would vacate the kitchen and quickly occupy ourselves because “mom’s making the spritz cookies.” Not wanting to leave my mom alone in the kitchen with only that press, I’d usually return to help mom “decorate” those ridiculous cookies.
I’ve decided that some traditions deserve to be abandoned.
Jesus Taught About Traditions
In Mark 7, the Pharisees and scribes confronted Jesus because his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating and didn’t keep “the tradition of the elders.” Hand-washing, Mark explains, was only one of many traditions that the Jewish elders established — above and beyond the Old Testament law — to maintain ritual purity (Mark 7:3–4).
Jesus had sharp words for them: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Mark 7:6–7). Their traditions did not honor God at all because their hearts were far from him.
What does God want from us this Christmas? Our hearts. Because, as Jesus goes on to explain, it is not dirt entering our bodies that makes us spiritually unclean, but it is “what comes out of a person is what defiles him.” Traditions can never cover a heart that is dirty, or far from God.
Now, I doubt many of us would say our yearly Christmas traditions are on par with Scripture. However, how we approach our own man-made traditions can help us gauge whether or not our hearts are near or far from God this Christmas.
When our traditions help our hearts to draw near to the living God, they are a tool functioning rightly. But when our traditions distract our hearts from the true purpose of Christmas — adoring Christ the Lord — then it is time to reevaluate and perhaps to repent.
Evaluating Our Traditions
So, if our primary goal at Christmas time is to worship Christ from a pure heart, which traditions deserve to be kept or started? And which deserve to be trashed?
Each family will need to determine what works best. Some complicated or time-consuming traditions may be worth keeping, if they increase our joy in Christ and help us spread that joy to others. Perhaps other traditions that we take for granted serve more as distractions. Here are the kinds of questions regarding our traditions that can help us to evaluate our hearts this Christmas.
- Does this tradition help us to value Jesus as the Greatest Gift ever given, or does it turn our hearts toward seeking lesser gifts at the expense of celebrating the Giver?
- Does this tradition cause us to spend an inordinate amount of time, energy, or money on ourselves, and in doing so deplete our joy in Christ?
- Does this tradition increase stress and decrease holiness in our family, or does it increase our joy in God and the relationships we have with those around us?
- Does this tradition turn our hearts in thanksgiving to the God who made us and gave us all things through Christ?
- Does this tradition help us to spread the love and joy of Christ and the gospel to fellow believers and to neighbors who don’t yet know Christ? If not, could it?
- Do my family’s cumulative traditions allow me time for serving and bringing joy to those in the church or neighborhood who are hurting, suffering loss, or lonely during this season?
These questions helped our family have meaningful Christmases during two years of transition. One year we didn’t have a tree or gifts to exchange because we were living out of suitcases preparing to live overseas for a season. The next Christmas, we didn’t decorate the house or even make cookies, since we moved ten days before Christmas.
During these years, the traditions that mattered really stood out: our weekly worship with our church family, our celebration of Jesus through reading Scripture and setting up a small Jesse tree, and singing Christmas hymns (our favorite being “Joy to the World”). Last year, we added two new traditions: a Christmas cookie open house for our neighbors and handmade gifts to pass out in person to friends.
So, where is your heart this Christmas? How full is the measure of your joy in the midst of this season that celebrates his birth? It may be time to abandon an old tradition, or add a new one that will help spread your love for and joy in the Greatest Gift.