Three questions about celebration and an attempt to answer them
It’s December and the month of the year that Christmas is celebrated in all its forms. When I think back to Christmas as a child I remember many different elements - elements in the Church of lighting candles and nativity plays, mince pies and Christmas carols, elements at school with school plays, dozens of Christmas cards, dark mornings and evenings traveling to and from school; elements at home - Christmas tree, chocolate Advent calendars, endless Christmas adverts on the television, stockings left out for Santa, Christmas dinner and of course, presents. Oh, and a continual dashed hope of snow!
Growing up in England there was definitely lots of stuff to crowd in Christmas, but my children growing up in Peru live a different experience of Christmas. Snow is definitely not going to happen unless global warming gets really really weird, and other than in the supermarkets there are hardly any reminders of Christmas anywhere. There are a few Christmas lights, but we are generally at home by the time it gets dark and we don’t watch Peruvian TV and see all the adverts. Much to my children’s dismay there are no chocolate advent calendars here and they don’t recognize most of the Christmas hymns we have begun to sing. Kaleb has a little bit of Peruvian Christmas tradition from his preschool in the form of doing a Christmas show and singing Peruvian Christmas carols (some of the lyrics are as ridiculous as ours - there is one song all about a little donkey going to Bethlehem to whom everyone sings ‘Tuki, tuki’), but otherwise Christmas here is what we decide to make of it. It is entirely how we choose to celebrate.
December we are looking at the spiritual discipline of celebration. So three questions come to mind: ‘what is celebration?’ and ‘how is celebration a spiritual discipline?’ and ‘why bother celebrating?’
Let’s take a look at some ideas:
What is celebration?
Ok, when I say this it is going to be obvious, but I don’t think I have really actually engaged with this answer. Celebration is about remembering or recognizing something joyfully. If you ask people what celebration is, for example, if you ask my 10 year old son or my friend Rafa, he will tell you that celebration is ‘a party’. In fact, you will get lots of answers connected with joy and happiness and happy things like dancing and singing. And they may all be manifestations of celebration, but the point of celebration is actually about focusing on the things you are choosing to remember or recognize. So, really if we are ‘celebrating’ a birthday, we are remembering the gift of that person to us and to the earth! If we are ‘celebrating Christmas’ in the true sense, we are remembering that Jesus came to earth as a gift to all humanity. I think that I have seen celebration more about choosing and doing the traditions faithfully rather than using the traditions as signposts to help me remember what we are actually celebrating!
How is celebration a spiritual discipline?
It is perfectly possible to engage in a load of traditions at each celebration and yet fail to remember and truly recognize the thing or person we are celebrating. It is possible to buy presents and make Christmas cake and fail to recognize and remember the person of Jesus who we are remembering in it all. It is possible to celebrate a birthday and sing happy birthday and yet fail to recognize and remember the gift of that person to us and to the world.
A couple of years ago we celebrated each birthday in our community together with a cake. Honestly, at one point it became a bit overwhelming and a discipline to truly celebrate that person and the gift they were to us rather than just feel like we were meeting together again to eat cake again! In order for celebrations to be truly joyful and not just a going through the motions, it takes discipline. It takes intentionality and effort (I know, we all hate effort!), but the great thing is that the effort is worth it! And it doesn’t have to be burdensome. On our birthday, we really want to be seen and remembered more than to receive all the things on our present list. At least now as an adult, it is less about how my close family and friends remember my birthday but rather just their recognition, however big or small.
And finally, why should we even bother celebrating?
Celebrating was something that God required the Israelites to do in order to help them remember His goodness and to fill them with joy. Celebration, when engaged with as a discipline of intentionally calling to mind the good things God has done, is something that fills us with thanksgiving and joy. Joy gives us strength to face the day and the season that is upon us. Celebration is a God-given way of strengthening our communities, families and ourselves.
Now I know that Christmas and any celebration has it’s relational complications. People are involved and people don’t know how to be kind at times and people fail. I am not saying we should deny the difficulties that surround this season of Christmas. I know that for as many good memories I have of the Christmas season, I can also find some ones that are painful too. If I wanted to I could meditate on those. God doesn’t want us to deny those feelings - He wants to bring restoration and healing to our hearts and sometimes that takes time and a process we do need to engage with. But whilst those things do need time to be engaged with, they do not have to be engaged with continually. God doesn’t want us to dwell on those things all day and all night, but rather to study and meditate on the things that He has done in our lives. To recognize and remember the ways He has been faithful to us in the midst of those difficulties.
This is the first post in a series this month on the spiritual discipline of 'celebration.' It is the fourth month of a year long embracing of grace through different spiritual disciplines. You can read more about the year here.