What DO Mennonites do for Christmas?
by Edwin Shank
Joyful Saturday morning, friends!
Dawn and I are moved by the many who made yourselves vulnerable after last week's post. Many of you shared personal stories of childhood experiences... of how betrayed, confused and hurt you felt when you first discovered that grown-ups had intentionally deceived you about Santa. The passion with which you wrote and the time that you invested into your story, spoke to us of the depth of your hurt even after many years.
I wish the rest of you could read them, but it’s not possible. You’d be reading all weekend. One young lady in her 20’s wrote a five page, finely typed missive.
Here are just two snippets (without names, of course).
“Yes, I completely agree. I am one of those children who was affected by this lie. One day at age 9 I went to Mom and asked if she thought that Santa could bring me a particular toy. She replied, "Oh stop, you’re too old to still believe that. There is no Santa Claus." I was stunned and went to my bedroom to lay on my bed where I felt sick and cried as if grieving the death of a loved one. I couldn’t fathom how this lie was told for my entire life by my very own parents who had in the past disciplined me for not being truthful...”
“I remember the shock after hearing that Santa Claus was a lie. I also remember later in high school in religion class about evolution and cave men. Same shock. The whole Bible story got turned around. I speak with God privately now and am still confused. I now don't believe anything unless it is proven and I can read the stats.”
Suffice it to say that even from our relatively small readership, it’s clear that the faith of far too many innocent children is undermined at a very impressionable age by the Santa lie.
It brings to mind Jesus’ words against harming the faith of children in Matthew 18:2-7.
Strong words those. Sobering accountability!
So, now for today’s question:
What DO Mennonites do for Christmas?
I’ve received several questions worded a little like this: “So, no Santa Claus... we understand that, but what DO your people do for Christmas? In your Mennonite homes, is anything different from any other day? Do you do any seasonal decorations or special or traditional foods like a turkey at thanksgiving? I’m guessing no Christmas tree?”
Let's take the Christmas Tree question first.
You are right. Our plain people do not put Christmas trees in our homes. The reason we do not is that we feel it’s a distraction from the story of Jesus' birth. It’s the same way for Christmas lights and even for too much focus on gift giving.
We simply try to keep the focus on remembering the birth of Jesus. It's that simple. We are aware that among non-plain believers, that the evergreen tree, the lights, etc. is sometimes used to symbolize certain spiritual virtues and truths.
We refrain from saying that these are totally wrong in themselves, but we do observe that when the Christmas tree, Christmas lights etc. are used that it seems to soon become a huge distraction, and rather quickly, children especially, will think of all of these other more alluring and enchanting things instead of Jesus' birth when they think of Christmas.
Some of this will have to wait for a separate post, but our plain people are firmly convinced that the cultural forces orchestrating the ‘distract-displace-destroy’ strategy of all significate days of godly remembrance is not a force of light or right.
Think about it: The day of Christ's birth, the day of Christ’s death, the day of His resurrection... What is our popular culture mainly caught up in during those three very spiritually significant days?
Hmm... see what the enemy, 'the father of lies' has done and still is doing? He almost always starts with distraction. We are not ignorant of his devices. (2 Corinthians 2:11)
So that is why we try to be very careful with anything other than the actual commemorating of the birth of Jesus.
"But Edwin, this is what you don’t do... We want to know what you DO do?"
Alright... fair point... I'm getting there! :)
We enjoy Christmas Caroling for our neighbors.
This varies a lot by communities, but for our church, caroling over Christmas season is a highlight that we all look forward to.
Sometimes we will sing Christmas songs and have a few scripture readings for an evening at a local shopping mall. Just last evening our congregation divided up into three small groups. Moms, dads, the little ones, preschoolers, school children, teenagers, singles, grandparents... all of us. We bundled up warm and went around in the dark to nearby neighborhoods to sing Christmas songs for some elderly folks.
Some of the folks invited us into their house and we stood around in their living room to sing, but at some places we just stood on the porch and sang into the frosty air while they listened from their doorway.
We do not sing for long at each place, just about five songs by memory. But it's delightful for all to spread Christmas Joy and God consciousness as we sing: 'Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men.' Silent Night, Joy to the World, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Star of the East, Away in a Manger, O Come all ye Faithful and many more.
Each group sang for four or five different homes, so we had a touch with a nice number of older folks. At some homes they had invited their neighbors also to come, so it was an enjoyable evening for all.
Afterwords each group of carolers went back to the home of one of our church people for homemade cookies, hot chocolate, tea and some good times of visiting and fellowship.
Last Friday evening we hosted 'A Christmas Sing Along' at church.
We invited friends and neighbors and relatives. The song leader was a young man we knew from a sister Mennonite congregation in Bridgewater VA. Aside from a short devotional meditation, also about Christ's birth, we sang Christmas songs all evening... a mixture of children's songs and random Christmas selections given by the audience.
Approximately 120 acapella voices from children to grandparents raised in joyful, uninhibited, four-part harmony does at times remind me a bit of what heaven might sound like!
A special church service on Christmas Day?
Plain churches do not have a cut-and-dried practice on this. Some churches will have a special Christmas day service, but other communities will simply have a Christmas message on the Sunday morning closest to Christmas day. Or they may even have several messages about different parts of the Christmas story over the few weeks before and after Christmas.
All in all, we just make sure to keep the focus on the birth of Jesus... and give the glory and attention to God... because after all, that's what Christmas is about.
And yes, Christmas is a time for family!
And plain folks are no different here. Our children usually have off school for a week or so, and folks travel to visit family over that time.
Dawn and I will have all of our married children and grandchildren here to our home farm. We are very much looking forward to a good time just visiting, reminiscing, reading the Christmas story together from the Bible, welcoming the new ones to the family, maybe playing some games, looking at old pictures, etc.
Our 21-year-old son Roland, and a nice 20-year-old girl, Hannah Garber, from a neighboring church fellowship, have been courting for the last 4 months, so this year will be the first for Hannah to be at our Christmas gathering. We are all looking forward to learning to know Roland's special friend better. :) And I guess, for better or for worse, she'll learn to know us better too!
Do Mennonites give Christmas gifts?
Plain people in general are disturbed and concerned by the blatant commercialization of Christmas. We are also very aware of the distraction that even gifts can bring to remembering Christ's birth. But there is no hard fast rule one way or the other. It is up to the individual families and their communities to decide.
Some of our people have adopted the practice of exchanging gifts over Thanksgiving instead of Christmas. Because it is not like we are opposed to gift giving... it's just that we do not want the gifts to dwarf the real meaning of Christmas.
Our family is one of those. We normally try to do the family gift giving over Thanksgiving. That seems like a good time too. But as I said, it is not a hard fast rule. Sometimes it works best for everyone's plans to exchange the gifts over Christmas. In those times we just do what suits best.
Either way we do it, we keep the gift giving pretty low key and definitely keep the focus still on Jesus' birth. Maybe even using gift giving as a teachable moment that no gift can be given if the one receiving would refuse to accept. Hmm... chew on that one a little!
Special foods and decorations?
Family gatherings of course are always a time of special foods, but at least for our family, there is no exact Christmas foods. Turkey for the main dish sometimes, (I know that's what Dawn is preparing for our family gathering on Monday), but it sometimes may be a ham. Almost always homemade cookies and maybe homemade candy like chocolate covered peanuts... maybe some sort of special Christmas-themed or at least winter-themed cookies, stars, snowmen, gingerbread men, snowflakes... you get the picture.
In the many varied situations of life, there is a verse that our people often quote to one another reminding ourselves of our true north. And it's this:
"Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, DO ALL to the Glory of God." (1 Corinthians 10:31) We truly try our best to live that.
In saying all of the above, I want to make one thing abundantly clear:
We plain people Christians are very human and absolutely do not get everything done to the Glory of God.
We are very mindful of our own failings. Even when we think we are following our true compass to God's glory, too often we get turned around and before we know it, we find ourselves again doing things for our own glory... for our own praise... for our own ambitions.
When we each realize this, it's then that we need to do as the publican from another of Jesus' stories. We need to humbly stand with bowed head before our perfect Father and say, "God, be merciful to me a sinner." (Luke 18:13)
But for the mercy of our gracious God who sent His Son Jesus down to this earth to be born, to live, to teach us how to live and then to die for our sins and to rise again, none of us, no matter how hard we worked would stand even the tiniest chance of salvation.
Let's remember this... and thank God for The Gift of Jesus this Christmas!
We wish you all Peace, Light... and good tidings of Great Joy!
Your Mennonite Christian friends,
Edwin and Dawn Shank and family
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