What Makes It Christmas?

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you . . . (Luke 2:8-12)

Several years ago pastor and author Eugene Peterson wrote an article titled Christmas Shame.

In his article he recounted the Christmas when he was eight years old, the Christmas his mother decided there would be no Christmas tree in their home.

Seems his mother – a very devout and serious student of the Bible – had recently come across the words of Jeremiah 10:2-4. Here Jeremiah lambasts God’s people for adopting the practices and customs of the surrounding pagan nations. Among those idolatrous practices was the act of cutting down a tree from the forest, adorning it with silver and gold, and fastening it so that it will not totter. Yes, those words are in the text. Go read it for yourself.

No More Tree

Mrs. Peterson was convinced that Jeremiah’s prophetic words were aimed at the prevalent American practice of decorating a tree at Christmas. Peterson, looking back, explains that his mother was a woman who cared far more about scripture than she did about culture. She decided that year that there would be no tree.

A long-standing and much-cherished family tradition was abolished: The search for the perfect tree, the act of cutting it down and getting it in the truck, the shared labor of decorating. The unifying and comforting place of the tree was suddenly vacant. A Bible, opened to the nativity story, occupied that place in the room.

The focus of Peterson’s article isn’t so much on his mother’s decision and the reasons for it, but what that decision did to his experience of Christmas. The eight year old Peterson told lies to his friends and made excuses for why there was no tree in the large window facing the street. Peterson recalls

I was embarrassed—humiliated was more like it—humiliated as only eight-year-olds can be humiliated. Abased. Mortified. I was terrified of what my friends in the neighborhood would think: They would think we were too poor to have a tree. They would think I was being punished for some unspeakable sin and so deprived of a tree. They would think we didn’t care about each other and didn’t have any fun in our house. They would feel sorry for us. They would feel superior to us.

When Something is Missing

For many of us there’s something that captures the essence of Christmas. Generally speaking, this something may fall into one of three categories: A particular place we call home, a people or person we love, a practice we know well. You could just say home, family, and tradition. Of course your Christmas may be defined by all three of these in some combination.

So what do you do when something is missing? For you this year could be the year when one of those things is not what it once was. You can’t get home, or home is now in a strange place. Someone is missing, far away, or no longer among the living. A tradition is getting lost in busyness, or no one seems to cherish it any longer. Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas this year.” Maybe you’ve said it yourself.

Something or someone could be missing, but that doesn’t mean you miss out on Christmas and what it’s about. When the eight year old Eugene Peterson became an adult he looked back on the year they had no tree (it was only that one year) and saw that his sense of awkwardness and embarrassment, his feeling like an outsider, were some of the most authentic Christmas feelings he ever had. Those kinds of feelings are just what Mary and Joseph experienced. Peterson missed the tree. He didn’t miss Christmas.

Our reflections during this Advent season have one simple aim: to help you find Christmas in the middle of the life you have right now. What makes it Christmas? Jesus does, of course. And whatever else we might be missing, Jesus is with us. Don’t miss out on that.


Merciful God, we don’t want to miss Christmas because we’re missing someone or something else. In these days of Advent make us ready and attentive to the presence of your Son among us. Draw us close to you and remind us every day that your presence among us is the deepest joy we can know. We ask this in Jesus’s name. Amen.