It is by the senses that we learn, gain insights, and internalize all that is true and helpful for life.
If ever there were a truth that needed to be internalized in every way, it is the amazing story of a God who spoke all things into existence and continues to sustain creation with His breath, yet who loved His creation so much that He Himself came as a helpless baby to touch us at our point of need. When we weren’t understanding the immensity of His love for His creation, He spoke His love in terms we could comprehend: the sound of a baby’s cry on a cold night, the smell of a lowly, animal-filled stable, the rough texture of a feeding trough filled with coarse straw, the brightness of a new star in the dark night sky, and the taste of the Bread of Life to feed the souls of us all.
Since that night more than two millennia ago that divided time itself into B.C. (before) and A.D. (after), those whose lives have been changed by this baby boy have created dozens of symbols and traditions in their efforts to express an event both human and divine. All the senses have been called into play by the deep longing to share the very personal experiences of a cosmic and eternal change-point.
The sights of Christmas
The sight of a baby, born in a stable, resting on a nest of hay, made these same shepherds race out into the surrounding villages “glorifying and praising … God for all that they had heard and seen.”
The wonder of Christmas is something we still want those around us to see. “Come over and see the tree,” we say to our friends.
“Would you like to drive around with us to see the lights?” we invite our kids and grandkids.
“Hey, how about going with us to see the celebration in the city square?” we phone our neighbors.
Lights, wreaths, pageants, angel choirs, stars, garlands, sparkling centerpieces; beautiful packages, colorful displays, street decorations, light shows … so much to see at Christmas that the whole world is eye candy.
What child hasn’t stood in awe of the lights catching the crystals of freshly fallen snow? Or watched in wonder as skaters glide like angels over the ice at Rockefeller Center while magical snowflakes land on his tongue or get caught in her eyelashes?
Christmas is a carnival for the eyes. Come, look through the kaleidoscope of Christmas!
The sounds of Christmas
The giggles and whispers of children keeping secrets.
Resounding bells coming from the Salvation Army bell ringers in front of the grocery store.
The crinkling of paper being folded around surprise packages.
Melodious carolers singing in the crisp winter night.
The music of traffic in the streets, the passengers rushing home with gifts.
Logs crackling in the fireplace and the hot bubbling of chili simmering on the stove.
Who can keep from humming along to this harmonious song of life? Christmas is one time when everything winds down for a magical moment to retell the greatest story ever told. The Giver of the music first started the whole world singing this song with an angel chorus, and the song will never be satisfied until all creation joins in at the greatest homecoming this world—and the entire cosmos—has ever known.
First, feel the soft skin of a baby, who is God-made-most-touchable for us who “were afar off.”
Tenderly embrace a child, to honor Him who was Love in a baby blanket … held in human arms.
Touch the rough texture of a well-worn wooden manger and the prickly straw that fills it.
Touch the moist noses of the cows and horses that stand nearby, curious.
Feel the night air. Feel the needles and boughs of the evergreen tree, which announces that because of Jesus we shall always live!
Touch the snow that covers the ground and remember the “covering”—the atonement—that makes us whiter than snow in the eyes of God.
Touch the red berries on the branches we gather and put in all sorts of containers, remembering that the child we celebrate would one day shed His blood so that its life-giving qualities could fill us all, no matter the shape, size, or condition of our vessels.
Touch the lights as they burn warm. String them everywhere. Light the streets and the houses, the cathedrals and the back streets, for the chill of death has been replaced by warmth and light.
Touch your children, your neighbors—your community—with reconciliation. Take someone a warm cake; extend a warm handshake; offer the thawing warmth of forgiveness.
Hold and ring the gold and silver bells. Ring out the news that the Creator of the galaxies has touched us. Yes, ring the bells and pass on the good news!
The fragrance of Christmas
Come share the fragrance of Christmas.
The fragrance of the real cedar tree my grandfather cut in the Michigan woods and brought into the old farmhouse.
The smells of cranberries simmering, Grandma’s bread baking in the oven, popcorn popping to string for the tree, and spicy pumpkin pies cooling on the kitchen counter.
The fragrance of clean sheets and blankets from the cedar closets pulled up around my neck as I was tucked into bed to wait for faraway Christmas morning.
The warming smell of hickory logs burning in the pot-bellied stove that heated the seldom-used “front room” through these special days of celebration.
Shut your eyes, take a deep breath, and inhale the aromas of home.
The taste of Christmas
America truly is the great melting pot; the foods of all our various heritages have marched right onto the Christmas table, bringing us back to our roots while, at the same time, making each family’s celebration unique.
Whatever our family histories might be, food is a vital part of Christmas. And kitchens are the place to gather, as fruitcakes, Christmas cookies, cream pies with meringue, mince tarts, turkeys, hams, roasts, winter vegetables, and special breads are pulled from the ovens or simmer on the stove.
Some of my favorite tastes of Christmas are those sipped steaming-hot from a mug or cup: hot chocolate, wassail, rich coffees, chai or Christmas teas, and warmed fruit juices or punches.
As I think of it, Christmas is a giant, season-long tasting party. From home to home and family to family, we find ways to say: “Christmas is love. Taste and see!”
Why Christmas symbols matter
Light, warmth, belonging, satisfaction of deep unnameable hungers, fresh and eternal life, spiritual pilgrimage, the divine gifts, the return of the Song of Life … all these need the ladder of symbol to even begin to approach and express the depths of Redeeming Love!
Each of us has been the recipient of a rich heritage of traditions and symbols given by others so that we can experience and communicate to our children the unfathomable love of God. The God who came to walk with us, to touch us where we are broken, to feed us the true water and food of the Spirit, and to be His love made visible.
As we celebrate Christmas, let’s use all the senses—every avenue we have—to embrace this amazing story. And as we do, let’s remember to always tell and retell the reason for every tradition, giving thanks for the reality we celebrate! Let’s promise each other that every highway to the soul will never become a bypass.