Author Note: This blog was edited and posted at desiringgod.org. See Keeping the Heart in Our Christmas Traditions.
I made spritz cookies the other day. You know – those beautiful cookies designed to look like wreaths, Christmas trees, etc, that taste like almonds and butter, sprinkled with colored sugar on top. For those of us of Scandanavian or Germanic background, these cookies have been a holiday tradition for generations (and where I live, that’s a lot of people!) However, those reading who have suffered through the creation of spritz cookies before are either laughing or groaning at the memory, depending on personality, and they already have a pretty good idea of where this post is headed. The joke behind spritz cookies, for those who are uninformed, is that they are notoriously difficult to make. The butter in the dough (and there is a lot of it!) can be neither too warm, nor too cold. The dough cannot be refrigerated for any length of time (unless, of course, the butter gets too warm, but then only for the bare minimum to cool the butter down), the old-fashioned metal press is challenging to work, and the new (plastic) version of the press, can (apparently) break if used with dough that is too cold, or if the press dial isn’t turned the correct direction while pressing the cookies through the patterned disc at the other end.
So, if they’re so complicated, why bother, I thought to myself, after spending the cash for a new press last weekend. As I thought about it, I realized the answer was deceptively simple; because my mother did. Year after year, my mother made these cookies; they were a routine part of my family’s Christmas holiday. Every. Single. Year. As I reflected further, I recalled more to the tradition; my (usually patient and gentle) mother, muttering something about that darn press and whacking her (sturdy, metal) press against the sheet in an effort to get the (too soft) dough to stick to the pan. I recalled the sweat on her brow as she attempted to jimmy the cookies off the press with a knife. I recalled how my brothers and I cleared out of the kitchen and spread the word to each other that “mom’s making the spritz cookies” as we quickly occupied ourselves with toys or homework in our respective bedrooms, doors shut. My brothers couldn’t be convinced to leave their rooms after a certain age to “decorate” the ridiculous cookies, but I usually felt sorry for mom, alone in the kitchen with only that darn press to keep her company.
As I concluded my memories of days of yore, I decided that perhaps some traditions just deserve to be trashed.
Jesus and Traditions
Jesus himself has opinions on how the hearts of men In Mark 7, the Pharisees approached Jesus and confronted him about his disciples, who did not wash their hands before eating. In the eyes of the Pharisees, the men were defiled, because they were not in keeping with “the tradition of the elders.” Handwashing, Mark explains to his (probably Gentile) audience, was only one of a variety of traditions that the elders expected the people to keep in order to remain ritually pure: “the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.” (Let us be careful to note that the traditions Mark mentions here are not commandments of God, nor are they mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament as a part of God’s law.) Jesus had a very clear and specific response in this matter, and, as he often does, Jesus quotes from the book of Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” With this quotation, Jesus clearly demonstrates that the Pharisees’ religious expression through the traditions of men did not, in fact, honor God at all because “their heart is far from [God].” What does God want from us this Christmas? Our hearts. Because, as Jesus goes on to explain, it is not dirt entering our bodies that makes us spiritual unclean, but it is “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.” Traditions can never cover a heart that is dirty, or far from God.
Now, I doubt many of us would treat our yearly Christmas traditions as if they were on par with Scripture; however, our approach to our own man-made traditions can help us gauge whether or not our hearts are near or far from God this Christmas. When our traditions help our hearts to draw near to the living God, they are a tool that is functioning in the way it should. If the number, complexity, or nature of our traditions serve to pull our hearts from Jesus himself, then the tool is serving as a distraction from the worship of the Savior born in Bethlehem, and it is time to reevaluate and perhaps to repent.
Evaluating Our Traditions
So, if our primary goal at Christmas time is to worship Christ from a pure heart, which traditions deserve to be kept or started? And which deserve to be trashed? Each family will need to determine what works best; some complicated or time-consuming traditions may be worth keeping, if they increase our joy in Christ and help us spread that joy to others. Perhaps other traditions that we take for granted serve more as distractions. Taking the time to ask ourselves the following types of questions can help us to evaluate our hearts this Christmas.
Does this tradition’s meaning point, in some way, to the Giver of the Great Gift? Does this tradition focus our minds on Christ and his gospel work?
Does this tradition cause us to spend an inordinate amount of time, energy or money on ourselves, depleting our joy in Christ?
Does this tradition increase stress and decrease holiness in our family, or does it increase our joy in God and the relationships we have with those around us?
Does this tradition distract me from the people around me, or take so much time that I don’t feel I have any left to give to the obvious needs or people around me?
Does this tradition help us to value Jesus as the Greatest Gift ever given, or does it turn our hearts toward seeking lesser gifts at the expense of celebrating the Giver?
Does this tradition turn our hearts in thanksgiving to the God who made us and gave us all things through Christ Jesus?
Does this tradition help us to spread the love and joy of Christ and the gospel to fellow believers and to neighbors who don’t yet know Christ? If not, could it?
Do my family’s cumulative traditions allow me time for serving and bringing joy to those in the church (or neighborhood) who are hurting, suffering loss, or lonely during this season?
These types of questions have helped my family to have meaningful Christmases the past two years especially, when we were in the midst of moving our home and setting up house somewhere new. During the first, we didn’t have a tree or give gifts to one another, and in fact were in transit at my parents’ house for Christmas day, en route across the Atlantic. The next Christmas, we didn’t do Christmas cookies or decorate the house, since we moved ten days before Christmas. During these years, the traditions that mattered really stood out: our weekly attendance at our local church, our celebration of Jesus through reading Scripture and setting up a small Jesse tree; singing Christmas hymns and songs (our favorite being Joy to the World), and being together. This year, we are adding two new traditions: a Christmas cookie open house for our neighbors on the cul-de-sac, and handmade gifts to pass out in person to friends.
So, where is your heart this Christmas? How full is the measure of your joy in the midst of this season that celebrates his birth? It may be time to trash a tradition, or to add a new one that will help spread your love for and joy in the Greatest Gift.