From the beginning, my husband, Dana, and I planned to keep Christmas simple. Yes, we hung stockings, decorated a tree, and celebrated with gifts. But there were no extravagant wish lists. No blockbuster toys under the tree. No credit card bills lingering into spring.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. I love watching ridiculously sentimental movies, snuggled on the couch with my husband and any of our five kids who may join us. I love hunting for a few simple gifts. I love the holiday lights, warmth, and time to reflect on that greatest light that came into the world and warmed all of creation with God’s love for eternity.

But, the excess, stress, and overspending, I try to avoid. It was pretty easy with just one child. When our oldest was a baby, we bought him a stuffed lion and a brightly painted wooden rattle. As our family grew, so did the pile of gifts under the tree. Still, we fought to keep it simple with books, wooden trucks, handmade superhero capes, and yes, the occasional Playmobile ® or Lego ® set along with gifts from grandparents.

The way I figured it, the less we bought, the less they’d expect and the more they’d appreciate the true meaning of Christmas. Right?

Having grown up on a 10-acre sheep farm, my brother’s and my Christmases were equally simple. There was the rusty bicycle my single mom scavenged from a neighbor’s hay field and painted red so that it would look new to me. There were garage-sale finds, home-sewn dresses, and quilted cowboy shirts wrapped in funny pages from newspapers saved just for this purpose.

Early in my childhood, my family didn’t know Christ. We simply didn’t have much money to spend on gifts. Where Christmas once consisted of stringing nuts and beads on a forest-cut tree before attending a midnight church service, this year, the National Retail Federation projects that the average American will spend $935 on food and gifts—a nearly an all-time high.

Even in my own family, with kids who now range in age from 19 to 3, I’ve had an increasingly difficult time reigning in the expectations and keeping Christmas about Christ. In a world overwhelmed with suffering, how we spend our money matters. But honoring Christ at Christmas isn’t just about how much cash we spend; it is about how our celebrations reflect our relationship with Christ, the greatest gift.

One reason we give Christmas presents is in memory of the gifts given to Jesus by the Wise Men: Frankincense (a perfume used in Jewish worship), Gold (which is associated with kings), and Myrrh (used to anoint dead bodies and signifying this child’s future death). It is also in recognition of God’s gift to us, Jesus himself.

Emanuel. God with us.

So, how do we do this? In a culture obsessed with temporary and garish displays of wealth and excess, how can we celebrate Christmas in a way that honors Christ? For clues, I explored the second chapter of Luke. Granted, Christmas wasn’t officially celebrated as a Christian holiday until 300 years after Luke wrote this familiar passage. But, the first Christmas story offers six guiding gems for those of us seeking to live out our own Christmas story.

  1.  Reconnect with family. “All went to their own towns to be registered,” Luke 2:3 (NRSV) says. Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem wasn’t voluntary. A Roman census required them to travel to the ancestral home of Joseph’s oldest living relative—likely his father or grandfather. From the beginning, Christmas was a family occasion. Plan a holiday trip, write special cards, or make a phone call to embrace your own distant family.
  1.  Practice radical hospitality. After arriving in Bethlehem, Mary laid the newborn Christ in a manger because “there was no place for them” in any of the houses to rent a room (Luke 2:7 NRSV). Worn and weary, Mary and Joseph likely found shelter in a cave used for animals. Many people today are without adequate shelter—including 11 million Syrian refugees. Rather than drop a load of cash on the latest tech gadget, give that same money to a charitable organization instead. Imagine you are giving up your own room—or desires—for Christ. Another idea, invite someone over who is alone or away from home. Begin a new friendship.
  1.  Share the Good News. After Christ’s birth, an angel appeared to the shepherds, sitting on a dark hillside, and told them not to fear. “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people,” the angel announced (Luke 2:10 NRSV). Many people live in fear today, sitting in darkness: Friends, coworkers, or neighbors. Find a creative way to spread the good news of Christ’s birth. Invite neighborhood kids to a Christ-themed Christmas party. Include the gospel story in your Christmas cards. Invite friends to church.
  1.  Seek Christ. “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger,” (Luke 2:16 NRSV). After hearing the good news of Christ’s birth, the shepherds intentionally set out to find him. Rather than letting shopping and holiday events dictate your schedule, intentionally spend time in the Scriptures with others, searching for prophetic verses about Christ in the Old Testament and discover where they are fulfilled in the New Testament—easy to do with an Internet search or an Advent book.
  1.  Take time to contemplate. With all the excitement surrounding Christ’s birth, Luke said that “Mary treasured all these words [spoken of Christ] and pondered them in her heart,” (Luke 2:19 NRSV). The holidays are full of buzz; to feel fully rested and refreshed, schedule quiet time alone to ponder the meaning of Christ’s presence in your life and God’s great love for you. Make a date with just yourself, your Bible, a journal, and God.
  1.  Prioritize worship. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20 NRSV). Not only did the angels praise God for Christ’s birth (Luke 2:13), the shepherds did, too. Invite friends over for a candlelit worship service. Carol to your neighbors. Set aside time as a family or congregation for a special night of praise. Thank God for the gift of Christ.

How we spend our money matters. But, honoring Christ in Christmas is about more than what gifts are under the tree; it is about prioritizing people over packages; it is about sharing our homes, hearts, and God’s light with those living in fear and darkness; it is about magnifying and appreciating the presence of Christ.

Rather than letting the latest shopping craze dictate your celebration, leaving you exhausted, in debt, and unsatisfied, search the second chapter of Luke for your own gems of wisdom. Then get ready to celebrate Christmas in a way that truly honors Christ.

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