If you had nothing but the Bible as a guide, what would you do to celebrate Jesus’ birth?
I’m wondering because here in my Middle Eastern country Christmas isn’t celebrated at all. Yes, some of the bigger shops sell lights and fake trees, and Starbucks even serves a gingerbread latte. But the assumption is that it’s all in celebration of the New Year. Very few know that Christmas is celebrated in the west on December 25th, much less that it’s a celebration of Christ’s birth.
So what’s appropriate?
Because much as I love the tree and lights and special foods and carols and gift-giving and “Christmas magic” that builds in anticipation, (and believe me, I *really* love the cultural side of Christmas) that just doesn’t all translate here in the Middle East. And I’m not sure I want it to.
Even more than when I lived in the west, I’m determined to put the focus on Jesus. I would hate to export a cultural, commercialized Christmas, where Jesus is used as an excuse to boost retail sales. Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birth. It’s HIS story. And every year I want to take advantage of the opportunity to share it.
Let’s assume that, like me, you’re ok with co-opting a pagan holiday and arbitrarily celebrating Jesus’ birthday on a particular day. (With a nod to my purist friends!) I’m going to assume you’d like to do something meaningful for you and your family, while also sharing the story with the friends where you live. It’s for you and for others.
For the past two years we’ve celebrated Jesus’ birth by creating a scripture Advent calendar. It’s a simple paper calendar we hang on the wall. I write a scripture each day from the Bible, talk about it with my kids, and they participate by coloring or decorating or creating something that relates.
Since I have kids this becomes part of my parenting, but regardless of if you’re a parent, you can make your own as well! (My type-A personality loves the idea of artistic writing on crisp, non-sticky-fingerprint-ed paper.)
Here’s what’s great about this idea:
- It’s simple. You need paper, markers and a Bible. I’ll give you some ideas of how to “spruce up” your calendar below, but you don’t need to spend any money or buy imported materials.
- It’s about Jesus. Daily chocolate is yum, and paper chains are fun, but I’m looking to make the connection to Jesus’ birth evident. And here’s the thing: as much as this is for our kids and our family, this is also for anyone who visits our house. I’ve had friends come over and exclaim over the wall art, reading the Christmas story directly from the Bible as they do. Those who are a little uncomfortable admire the children’s art and leave it at that, but for some it’s been a great conversation piece. “Oh, Christmas is about the birth of the prophet Jesus – I had no idea!” Which brings me to my favorite thing about this Advent project…
- It works in any language. And any language-learner can do it. Assuming your local culture has a translated Bible, all you have to do is directly copy the verses. Visitors can see the story in their own language! If you’re still in the early stages of language-learning, this helps you familiarize yourself with the vocabulary of the birth narrative.
Here’s how to make your own calendar:
1. Gather supplies. You’ll need a long roll of paper, or as large of a sheet as you can find. We use a roll of paper from IKEA, but taping computer paper together would work just as well. You’ll probably need tape and scissors, as well as markers/crayons to draw the lines.
2. Divide your paper into 25 boxes (we’ve done 24 boxes plus a large one for Christmas Day). An easy way to make straight, even lines is to fold the paper, smooth it out, then draw along the folds.
3. Decorate and hang your calender. I’ve written “Happy Birthday Jesus” across the top here, but you could write “The Story of Jesus’ Birth” or something else appropriate.
4. Add verses daily. The basic idea is to write a verse each day, which can then be decorated or colored or sticker-ed in some way. Last year I found myself meditating on each day’s scripture thoughout the day, referencing it in my conversations, and even humming relevant Christmas scripture songs from GT and the Halo Express. (High five if you know what that is!)
But there’s just one problem. The Bible is a huge story. Which verses do you choose for your calendar? Do you start with “In the beginning was the word?” or the angel appearing to Mary? Do you trace promises through the Old Testament, or zoom in on the events surrounding Jesus’ birth? Do you end with Simeon’s declaration, “My eyes have seen your salvation” or 1 John 4:9, “This is how God showed his love among us?”
This is where flexibility comes in
The first year I just started, plan-less. I got to Jesus being dedicated in the temple and meeting Simeon and Anna with 7 days to go until Christmas. Oops! I also started in English and wished halfway through that I’d started in our local language instead.
Last year worked out much better. I mostly followed the schedule from Truth in the Tinsel. It starts briefly with promises from Isaiah, “For to us a child is born,” and then zooms in on the birth account from Luke and Matthew.
If you’re not familiar with it, Truth in the Tinsel is a daily Advent activity that incorporates crafts and activities for young kids. It’s great if you’re in a country where you can get lots of craft supplies, though we found it too involved for us. But I did really enjoy their easy, inexpensive version where you download a PDF file of daily ornaments. You print them out, and the kids decorate the paper ornament that relates to the day’s scripture. Great for non-messy-craft-loving parents.
The best part for people living cross-culturally is that the paper ornaments work in any context. As you can see from the photos below, I just used the back of the paper to write Jesus’ name in our local language. (Hold up to window to trace).
This set of Advent ornaments made a great gift for a local friend of mine who was a new believer. I translated the list of verses into her language from the Tinsel booklet. Her kids loved coloring the pictures as she told them about Jesus.
Though I haven’t done it myself, I have friends that have adapted Ann Voskamp’s Jesse Tree – available as a free download from her website. She does a great job of tracing the meta-narrative of God’s Big Story through the Old Testament. The Jesse Tree starts with creation, continues through Abram, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph… following the story of God’s plan through to Jesus. The only problem is that I can’t figure out how to fit the stories into limited space on the wall. But if you find a clever solution, please let me know! (Note that her version is 27 days.)
If you have little kids and the Jesus Storybook Bible, Adriel Booker has a great reading plan available on her blog. You could use the stories as a basis for the verses you write on your calendar, and make the stories bedtime reading. Head over to her site for a free printable reading plan.
[Edited to add: See what 25 scriptures I came up with in this post!]
Regardless of your crafting skills or interest in Advent, I challenge you to find ways to share the Story at Christmas. Let’s make the most of every opportunity, and put Jesus front and center in the weeks ahead.
“The true light, that gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:9
Here’s my question for you: If you had nothing but the Bible as a reference, how would you celebrate Jesus’ birth? Would you light candles? Would you celebrate as if it was a birthday party? Would you gather your extended family and read the Bible together? Would you do anything at all?
Grace Henry is so fortunate to be living a God-adventure in the MidEast. She loves being on the water, little kid cuddles, and late night chats with friends – especially the one she’s married to. Connect with her on Twitter: @bygracehenry