December 10, 2016

A simple season

Photo by Maliz Ong

I spent a decade trying to convince my family not to give me material gifts for Christmas. Every December, I would craft an e-mail with a detailed case for buying nothing at Christmas—philosophical, theological, and cultural cases for my newfound commitment and, when that didn’t seem to convince them, an annotated list of alternative gift suggestions. It did not work.

After years of receiving the annual e-mail plea, my grandmother finally responded with a short, firm reply: “Dana Beth, I love you very much. Giving gifts at Christmas is a way I show that love, and I’m not going to stop.”

Fair enough.

I gave up the proselytizing attempts after that, but I haven’t given up the attempt at simplicity during the holiday season. Especially in the life of a congregation, November and December may fade into a blurry parade of parties, events, and celebrations. There are Sunday school parties and special choir concerts, a children’s play and caroling. There are presents to buy, desserts to bake, gatherings to host, and visits to plan.

In the rush of the season, it can feel impossible to sit still, to watch and wait, to savor the anticipation of the coming Christ.

But if we look more closely at the scriptures that lead us toward Christmas, and allow ourselves to ponder the magnitude of what it is we are preparing ourselves for . . . it might be enough to make us set aside the wrapping paper and mixing bowls and take a very deep breath.

During these weeks, we anticipate an earth-shattering event. A divine incarnation. A rupture in time itself. A cosmic moment of salvation. No gift buying or cookie baking will ever live up to the immense meaning contained in the birth of the Christ.

What can we do to savor this season? How can we allow ourselves time to breathe deeply and live a bit more simply?

Here are a few things I’ve found helpful:

Build in more time for prayer and contemplation.

I’m not suggesting extra, super-special worship services, but small, simple, contemplative times of prayer and meditation. These can be respites from the hustle and bustle, set-apart hours to be still and silent, to rest in God’s presence and God’s promise.

Take stock of the monthly calendar, all the parties and special events.

What’s necessary? What’s life-giving? Are there things you do out of obligation or a blind adherence to tradition? Does it bring joy? Does it contribute to the coming Kingdom of God’s mercy and justice? Or is it an unnecessary drain of energy and resources?

And, finally, you do you.

Changing your own practices around Christmas won’t necessarily change the culture, the church, or even the way your own family does things. Like I (slowly) learned with my own buy-nothing evangelism, we are all called to different expressions of faithfulness, different ways of showing love.

These days, instead of trying to change my family’s practices, I’ve started putting more time and energy into changing my own. It’s not perfect. It’s not easy. But it is simpler.

Dana Cassell is pastor of Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren in Durham, North Carolina. She also writes at