When I was a child, I often found myself a little disappointed after Christmas. Has that ever happened to you? All of that anticipation and excitement, and then, suddenly, it was over. I couldn’t help but feel a little sad. And if I am honest, I have to admit that there have been times as an adult when I have also found myself a little disappointed after Christmas.
I was reminded of this when I came across a surprising passage in the Old Testament that gave me new insight into my Christmas disappointments. It is a passage in Jeremiah, which was obviously written long before the birth of Christ, and even longer before we began celebrating Christmas, but when I read it I couldn’t help but think about our Christmas traditions. Here is the passage:
Thus says the Lord: Do not learn the way of the nations, or be dismayed at the signs of the heavens; for the nations are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan; people deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor is it in them to do good.Jeremiah 10
Obviously Jeremiah is not referring to Christmas trees, but it sure sounds like it, doesn’t it? Our family has often gone into a forest (or a Christmas tree farm) to cut down a tree, deck it with silver and gold, and fasten it so that it can’t move. Maybe you have, too. I have many fond memories of doing just that.
There was the Christmas we spent in West Virginia when I was an intern. My wife and our two small children had a wonderful year there, but we were living in a very small rental home. At Christmas time, we went and found a beautiful tree, on a gorgeous snowy day in West Virginia. We proudly cut down our tree, brought it back to our little house, and were surprised when we brought it inside to discover that it took up most of our family room!
And then there was the Christmas in Florida when my wife and our two still small children went to cut down a tree from a local Christmas tree farm. The tree fell right on our very active toddler son, who bounced right up and exclaimed in surprise, “That tree went ‘timber’ on me!”
These are wonderful memories, and I still look forward to putting up our Christmas tree every year. Allergies in our family now require us to use an artificial tree – things change, as they must – but it is still a beloved tradition.
But the tree isn’t what makes Christmas special. I was reminded of that a couple of Christmases ago, when our family was going through a very difficult time. My wife and I got out our Christmas tree that year, but our hearts really weren’t in it. We put the tree up anyway, got the lights on it, and the star, but then we stopped. We just didn’t have it in us to put up all the ornaments. And that is the way the tree stayed throughout that Christmas season. But you know what? Christmas still came. As our modern-day prophet, Dr. Seuss, put it through one of his most memorable characters: “It came without presents. It came without tags. It came without ribbons, boxes or bags … Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more?” Yes, indeed.
To go back to Jeremiah and those strangely prophetic words about our modern-day Christmas trees, what Jeremiah is warning us about is replacing God with an idol. And that is still a relevant message, because we are still tempted to replace God with idols. And what always happens when we replace God with idols is that they end up disappointing us. In fact, if you ask me, that is the best way to discover whether we have made an idol of something. Does it disappoint us?
Looking back, I can see that I have sometimes made an idol of Christmas itself. I am pretty sure that it corresponds to the years that I found Christmas disappointing. Those were the years when I made Christmas about something other than the birth of our Savior.
Jeremiah goes on to make one more point about idols: “they have to be carried, for they cannot walk.” And that is the other way to tell if we have made something an idol: if we have to carry it.
And so, here is something to ponder: Are you trying to carry Christmas? Or are you letting Christmas carry you? If you are trying to carry the burden of this holiday; if you are trying by your own effort to make it special, it is bound to disappoint you. Instead, let Christmas carry you. Respond to the invitation from the one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas to come to him, all who are carrying heavy burdens, and find rest for your weary souls.
Don’t decorate the tree, if it is too much of a burden. Don’t make the extra batch of cookies. Don’t try to make Christmas more than it is. Don’t carry the burden of this season. Instead, let Christmas carry you. Let the child born for us carry you. Cast your anxiety, your burdens, and your cares on him, for he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)
Christmas can be the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be disappointing, stressful, and exhausting. Which will it be for you this year?
May the child born for us, the son given to us, the prince of peace, be your prince of peace this year, so that the peace that surpasses all understanding guard your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus. Amen