We must ask the question if there is there any meaningful benefit in tradition. What actually is the value of the tree and all the lights? Is the holiday simply an excuse for excessive consumerism? If so, and if these traditions have no true and lasting value, how are we to change them? How are we to alter their flow or even stop the current completely? Should we even attempt to do this?
But coming at this from another perspective, if there is some benefit to our traditions, how are we to gain from them? How are we to cut through the distractions of the non-essentials to get to the core value of what the traditions can teach us?
Having said what I did in the previous two sermons concerning some misplaced emphases on certain perspectives of Christmas, I would now like to allay some fears that some may have, perhaps thinking that I am suggesting that we throw off all previous vestiges of our Christmas celebrations. “Cast out the traditions!—no trees, no lights, no presents!”
I do not say that, and in this sermon, I would like to offer a small defense of the traditions of Christmas.
Adhering to Tradition
If there ever is a time when we are reminded of traditions, it is at Christmas. Every family has them. At this time of year, it sometimes seems as if every move is governed by tradition. There are Christmas time customs that tell us where, when and how we should decorate the tree; where, when and how we are to have the Christmas meal; and where, when and how we are to open the gifts.
There is the traditional Christmas program that we all must attend. We sit in the darkened church, watching the little children recite the lines that they so laboriously memorized with the help of their moms. Sympathetically, everyone in the crowd silently prompts these shy performers as they try to remember the next word. Throughout the hushed audience, unspeaking lips move, hoping that their silent utterances will somehow help this tender little one through his or her piece.
Of course, not all the children are so inhibited. Some kids grab the microphone as if they grew up under the tutelage of Sir Winston Churchill himself, and bellow out their lines as if they had just learned that everyone in the church had discovered that their hearing aid batteries had gone dead. Then, as a final flourish, these little performers finish with a grand bow.
We sing the traditional hymns. We snack on traditional munchies. We find great comfort in tradition.
It is not everyone who likes tradition, however. Some find it boring and unimaginative. Some secretly delight in upsetting tradition. They find excitement in the new and unique.
Each has his own perspective. But as one who grew up in a family with many traditions at Christmas time, but who, in my adult years living with my wife and children in various locations overseas, have found it more difficult to have one Christmas even remotely like the past one, I would like to say a few words in defense of tradition.
Rural Life = Tradition
Of course, you must understand from where I come. Growing up on a dairy farm is the very seedbed of tradition. As kids, we would wish for a little variety. But farm life does not lend itself to variety. Cows do not understand the words “doing things a little differently tonight.” It is the very sameness of their day-to-day existence that translates into good milk production. If their schedule is altered in some way, it is noticed in how much milk the cows give during the evening chores.
Because of this and other farm-life realities, our Christmas activities when I was a child could never vary too much from one year to the next. Even as if in some made-for-TV Christmas miracle, enough money suddenly found its way into my parent’s bank account, we could never have winged or driven our way off to some distant location to celebrate a special Christmas. Who would do the chores?
So it was that our Christmases were very much the same from year to year. They were very traditional and very predictable.
After I had grown and had my own family, the life of my own children has been quite the opposite of what life was for me when I was their age. Our Christmases in my own family have usually never been the same as the year before. During some periods of our lives, our home was in a different country in various years: Venezuela, Wisconsin, Guatemala, New Zealand. As our four sons graduated from high school and left home, sometimes they were able to be with the family and sometimes not.
In some ways, the changes in routine can be enjoyable. It is interesting to see how Christmas is celebrated in other parts of the world and in other families. But do not imagine that we preferred it this way. What I would have chosen if the choice had been entirely my own, would have been the opportunity to build some family Christmas traditions with the whole family together every year. There is something about tradition that is comfortable.
The False Value of Tradition
It is true that we often find comfort in doing things in a traditional way, but this can be more of a danger than it is valuable. If we cling to our yearly rituals simply because we feel it is “the way things ought to be done,” we have lost the importance of tradition.
So then what is the value of tradition? Is its value only in knowing that in custom and ritual we are comfortable? Is it that in tradition we are not asked to change or even to think?
At this point, our customs simply become a security blanket. We feel sheltered in our tradition, but we do not know why.
Rather, the strength of tradition is to be found elsewhere. The true value of tradition is that it can be a means of helping us to remember what is important. Comfort and security come not only because we do things in the same manner every year. Rather, our security comes because we are reminded of what is essential.
The Essentials of Christmas Traditions
What is important at Christmas? As we do things together as a family, we should remember that it is not the family traditions that are critical. It is the family itself that is important.
Likewise, as we attend the Christmas programs and sing the Christmas songs, we should remember that it is not that all the children performed well that is important (although every child I have ever seen do their part in the Christmas program has always done very well). It is not that the choir sang the Christmas cantata flawlessly. It is not that the pastor had a good sermon.
What is important is that these traditions help us remember what is essential and true: A King was born to us 2000 years ago. So great was His coming to us that we still celebrate it.
Jesus rebuked some Pharisees and scribes who held on to traditions but had lost all meaning of their significance.
“And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?... You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’” (Matthew 15:3-8 NIV).
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the embodiment of the misuse of tradition. The traditions that they had established to regulate their daily lives had become so important to them that the customs exceeded even the written commandments of God. Their own practices distorted and even changed completely the significance of God’s intentions in the traditions that he had established. All meaning and all significance of what was truly important was lost to the Pharisees. It was only the outward actions and outward appearances that mattered to them.
This was also the Apostle Paul’s concern for the churches that he had founded. He warned the church in the city of Colossae that they should “see to it that no one takes [them] captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men…rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8 NAS).
Paul spoke from experience, since he had been brought up and educated in the tradition of these Pharisees who had distorted what was real. “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely jealous for my ancestral traditions,” Paul said (Galatians 1:14 NAS).
The True Value of Tradition
But the negative aspects of tradition was not all that Paul had to say on that subject. He knew that if we retain the true meaning of our actions, there is actually great value in tradition.
Paul wrote to another church, the one in Thessalonica, “And it was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thessalonians. 2:14-15 NAS).
In this case, the traditions were not something simply passed on from one generation to another as the way that things “ought to be done,” but without any understanding of the reason for it. Instead, Paul was speaking of traditions that had real meaning, and which were passed from one generation to the next as an aid to the process of teaching what is essential.
Paul said the same thing to yet another church about the value of the traditions that held meaning: “I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2 NAS).
In fact, so important had these traditions become that Paul warned the Christians to “keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6b NAS).
The Lord of Tradition
Indeed, God Himself is the Originator of many traditions. The Old Testament Jewish calendar is replete with feasts and festivals that commemorate various acts of God. The feast of the Passover, for instance, was the first of these festivals on the yearly calendar. God initiated the feast of the Passover to commemorate the exodus of the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.
At the time of the exodus, the Jewish people were instructed to smear the blood of a sacrificial lamb on the doorposts and lintel of the door in their homes. The Lord told Moses that on that night, God would go through the land of Egypt and strike down the firstborn of every household. It was only those homes that had the blood of the sacrificial lamb on the frame of the door that God would pass over so that the firstborn would not die.
Then God initiated the traditions involved with the history of the Passover night. “This day will be a memorial to you,” God told Moses, “And you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance” (Exodus 12:14 NAS).
God gave the people instructions as to how they were to observe the day. The instructions included many traditions, including the abstention of the eating of leavened bread for the seven days of the feast and even the removal of all leaven from the houses.
The reasons for such traditions were clear, as Moses later told the people:
You shall observe this event as an ordinance for you and your children forever. When you enter the land, which the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite.
And when your children say to you, “What does this rite mean to you?” you shall say, “It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes” (Exodus 12:24-27a NAS).
Certainly, these events were the beginning of strong traditions, but they were not empty or hollow traditions. They were traditions that had meanings that were to be passed on from generation to generation.
What is more, these traditions were not to be observed simply because “it was the way things ought to be done” without understanding why they were done. Instead, they were intended to cause the children of Israel to turn their adoration to God.
Indeed, after Moses instructed the people in these traditions, we read, “And the people bowed low and worshiped” (Exodus 12:27b NAS).
Traditions as a Means to Preserve the Significance of the Events
In our Christmas Eve sermon, we learned about the dangers of carrying out traditions based simply on the emotional impact that they have on us. These traditions of Passover however, were meant to be a means of keeping the story alive of what happened that eventful night in Egypt, and how God rescued the people of Israel not only from the death of each firstborn, but how he brought them out of that land of slavery.
Keeping the history alive of God’s deeds is the true purpose of traditions, and it is the reason that Paul told the Thessalonians, “Brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.”
Proper Christmas Traditions
If our own observations of traditions in our homes lack meaning for us, it is not that it is the traditions that are always at fault. More often than not, it is the way that we approach the traditions.
The same is true in regard to the traditions of Christmas. This year, I encourage you in your traditions, but as you do so, keep the meaning of what you are doing alive. This year, as you decorate and wrap, cook and eat, sing and listen, remember why we are doing these things.
A King was born to us 2000 years ago. So great was His coming to us, we still celebrate His birth.