Last week, inspired by a YouTube “How To” video, Anna and I decided to make some gingerbread cookies. Not that we haven’t had enough sugary treats lately, but it is that baking time of year and what could be more fun and traditional than some cute little gingerbread men?
After googling a recipe, we got out a bowl and started mixing ingredients: Oil, sugar, molasses, and milk. Then flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Finally, it was spice time: Nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and uh-oh! Did we really have no ginger? Did I really just mix together all of the ingredients for GINGERbread cookies without first checking to make sure I had GINGER?!
A thorough search of the spice cabinet confirmed my fear: No ginger. Which left us with two options: 1) Push pause, get bundled up, and go to the store or 2) Attempt to make gingerbread cookies with no ginger.
It was cold out there, though – really cold! So I chose comfort over perfection and continued on. They couldn’t be that bad, right?
And guess what? They were totally fine – great, actually! You never would have known they were missing anything.
Traditions are important, especially during this time of year. Many of our fondest Christmas memories were established in those year-after-year events or rituals that brought our families together and inspired childhood wonder and awe. Most of what we look forward to during the holidays is rooted in tradition – whether it’s the lights, the cards, the meal, the music, or the gifts – we all have some ‘ingredient’ that makes us say, “It’s just not Christmas without the _________!”
It wasn’t until I graduated from college and got married that I began to fully appreciate my family’s traditions. Those things we ‘always’ did – like listening to the “Wee Sing Christmas” tape a hundred times, counting the number of houses with lights on Thompsonburg Road, and crowding extended family into a small house for Christmas dinner – that’s what made Christmas Christmas.
Having seen the value in my family’s traditions, I have of course tried to establish traditions with my own children. Over our 10 years as parents, Tim and I have thought long and hard about what we want our girls to remember about Christmas when they grow up. What is it that will make them say, “It’s just not Christmas without the __________!”?
Traditions shape our families and cultures. Their repetition over generations teaches values and a sense of belonging. But they can also result in a load of stress and undue pressure.
Take the life of Joseph, for example. As a Jew, Joseph was born into a culture firm in its traditions – especially when it came to religion and family. His marriage to Mary was likely arranged by their parents and involved a period of betrothal before the celebration and consummation of the union. This “time between was a sort of testing of fidelity with the couple having little, if any, contact with each other.”*
At some point during this engagement period, though, it was revealed that Mary had become pregnant. This obviously would have been a failure of the fidelity test and tradition told Joseph exactly what He should do in this situation – break off the engagement and “expose her to shame” or go even further and seek justice through the law.**
But though Joseph “was faithful to the law,” he also knew the mercy of the God he followed and “did not want to expose [Mary] to public disgrace,” so he decided to “divorce her quietly.” (Matthew 1:19)
However, “after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.'” (v. 20)
Joseph had a difficult choice to make – he could hold onto tradition or he could obey God. Thankfully, he chose God and “When [he] woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (v. 24)
Joseph “obeyed God’s call even when it went against common sense” and even more than that, he obeyed immediately – potentially cutting short the traditional year-long betrothal custom.** He risked his reputation as a “righteous man” and his standing as a member of his community and culture by obeying what he believed God was leading him to do.
Traditions are important, but, as Joseph showed us, they should never take precedence over obedience. Author Peter Scazzero states that “God’s intention is that we grow up into mature men and women transformed by the indwelling presence of Christ. We honor our parents, culture, and histories but obey God.”*** Yes, even at Christmas, we have to constantly be evaluating whether or not we are obeying God or merely dwelling in tradition.
A couple days after baking our gingerbread men, I was surprised to discover that we did have ginger in the spice cabinet after all! I had looked thoroughly, but since I was looking for a red “McCormick” container, the beige “Spice Islands” jar of ginger never caught my attention!
That sentimental, “just like the ones I used to know” Christmas may seem appealing, but it’s likely that the love, joy, and peace we are seeking will be found in a different container than we expect. So as we carry on our traditions and attempt to form new ones, we must constantly be seeking God and asking what He wants us to do.
For many years now, we’ve had a tradition of sending out a family photo and Christmas letter. Every year the process of getting that ‘perfect’ photo is a source of stress and undue pressure on my children and husband and writing the letter is a time-consuming project for me.
But if gingerbread cookies can be gingerbread cookies without the ginger, then “Christmas can be Christmas without the _________!”
So this year, we replaced that tradition with a new one. We traded hours of stress for hours of fun together as we baked ginger cookies (my grandmother’s famous recipe) to package up and hand out to our Youth@Hope volunteers and some other people who have served our family so well this year.
Don’t worry – we had the ginger this time!
**The IVP Bible Background Commentary (New Testament), Matthew 1:18, 1:19 & 1:24-25
***Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero