The Power of Christmas Ritual
Robert K. Johnston, Professor of Theology and Culture
My mother is Cherokee and Irish and was born in Indian Territory in Oklahoma; my dad’s parents both came from Sweden and settled in the Swedish-American town of Kingsburg, California. While my sister and I were growing up, both ancestries were stressed in our family, even being memorialized through our holiday rituals at Christmas and Easter.
During Easter break each year, mom, dad, Judith, and I took a week’s vacation to the Southwest, where we visited Native American reservations and ancient Indian ruins. Dad and I went down into the kiva with Hopi men; our family drove on Navajo washboard roads; we climbed the ladders of the cliff dwellers in Mesa Verde. We immersed ourselves in Native American culture, spending Easter break after Easter break learning something of our rich heritage.
But if Easter was about mom’s side of the family, Christmas was Swedish-American. We would begin on Christmas Eve with my sister and I joining Dad (Mom was cooking) in giving out presents to friends and families in the church. Our own gifts were then opened that evening after a large smorgasbord with our extended family—a group of 30 or more. The evening was loud and always fun, with the space in front of the tree mounded with presents, given the multiple families present. Then off to bed by midnight, for Julotta services were at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning. To that early service, many of us would wear a shirt or sweater or pair of shoes we had gotten the night before. A volunteer choir opened the service by singing “Lyssna, lyssna, hor du angla sangen” (“Listen, listen, hear the angels singing”), carols were sung by the congregation, Scripture was read, and a short sermon on Jesus’ birth was given (with many of us who were young fast asleep), and then candles were lit as all the worshippers went out to welcome in the day.
Then it was off to the church parlors where some of the men of the church had fixed a pancake breakfast together with bacon, coffee cake, orange juice, and Swedish coffee. We would all share with our friends what we had done the night before, talk of games and toys received, and glory in the celebration of Christmas. The elders of the church then grouped us into teams to go out into the community and sing carols to those who were sick or elderly. At each house, the Christmas text was read from Scripture, a prayer was offered, and then we all sang the Christmas round, “Merry Christmas to you all, with a bright and cheerful call…hi ho, let it ring an echo bring, hi ho, merry Christmas to you all.” After giving the person visited a Christmas poinsettia or an envelope with some money given to us by the elders, we were off to the next house to repeat the ritual.
By mid-morning all the groups gathered at our denomination’s retirement home in Tujunga to sing carols to the residents and visit those in the convalescent wing. Then into the refectory we would all go for cookies, hot chocolate, and more conversation. It was noon or so before my family would return home to open small presents put in family stockings by “Santa Claus.” The afternoon was low-keyed, with a small family dinner, time to look at gifts that others in the family had received, and time to play new games, begin to master the new gizmo, or even take a nap.
Each Christmas repeated this ritual for close to two decades. And I still smile at the memories. As adults we created our own rituals for our children, but it is these times from my own childhood that still define Christmas for me. A time for our extended family to eat and celebrate together, a time to worship and sing carols, a time to share over pancakes the joy of Christmas with friends and to sing for those in need, a time to come together as our smaller family. Christmas was, and is, a time to receive gifts to be sure. But even as a kid, I realized how fun it was to also give gifts. What fun to go caroling to those confined to their homes, brightening their Christmas mornings, even as gifts remained to be opened at home. And such gift giving has grown in significance as I have gotten older. The joy of Christmas is in gifts given and received. Here is the context in which I celebrate God’s gift to us.
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