A View from the Pew: Family vs. Faith Traditions on Christmas Eve

There are two kinds of families in this world: those who open gifts on Christmas Eve and those who wait until Christmas morning.

I have been blessed to have been a part of both.

As a child, waiting for the joy of gifts on Christmas was agonizing. The best remedy for the longing to see what bounty of G.I. Joes, Star Wars action figures, or Atari video games Santa left under the tree was to exchange gifts between family and friends on Christmas Eve.

Practically, it meant clearing out space under the tree, leaving Santa more room to work his magic for my brothers and me. Emotionally, this tradition gave us an extended high-point beginning after dinner on Christmas Eve and lasting all the way through breakfast on Christmas morning.

Those were glorious family memories, and though I was too engrossed in my own gifts to really notice, the benefit of hindsight now that I’m going on 19 years as a parent has shown me that my joy gave my parents joy. Those were important times of closeness and connection as a family.

Christmas inevitably changes as we age into adulthood. Some of the hardest Christmases emotionally are for young adults who have one foot in childhood and one in adulthood. Part of that natural process of maturation is building your own traditions, including and especially during the Christmas season.

For me, that meant discovering Advent. I learned that I am a person who enjoys delayed gratification. I tell my kids frequently, “The anticipation of a thing is often better than the thing itself.” I learned that the four Sundays of anticipating Christmas morning when we light candles of hope, peace, joy, and love before lighting the Christ candle signifying Jesus’ birth heightens the entire season for me. Christmas has the most meaning when I am able to sit with my church family in worship on Christmas Eve, hear the words of the real Christmas story, partake in the Lord’s Supper, and sing “Silent Night” in a dimly-lit sanctuary. Christmas Eve service became an important time of closeness and connection with my church family.

I am profoundly grateful that as I near 50 years of observing this holiday, Christmas Eve has become a beautiful blend of family and faith traditions. It’s with sadistic glee that I make my own children wait until Christmas morning to open presents. I smile broadly every year on Christmas Eve when they rush to the car after the service, trying to will Christmas’ arrival while my wife spends extra time catching up with those she only gets to see that one night of the year.

And our Christmas mornings are glorious. My children anticipate them mightily, and perhaps more so that Santa has to share space with the gifts of loved ones that overflow around the tree.

I understand families who have traditions on Christmas Eve that preclude their participation in a worship service. I was one of those families. And I respond viscerally to seeing families reunite from all corners of the country to worship together one night a year. It is an important night of closeness and connection for my family.

So whether you participate in Christmas Eve worship or not and whether you spend the waning hours of Advent before waking to a joyous Christmas morning with biological or theological family, my prayer is that you will experience a full measure of hope, peace, joy, and love as you celebrate the arrival of the Light of the World.

Have a blessed Advent and merry Christmas.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications.

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