Merry Christmas Eve, podcast listeners. Episode #499 is a special episode with Pastor John and Noël Piper, who makes a rare cameo appearance with us today to talk about Christmas traditions in the Piper house. And so, we will start with you, Pastor John. You have had kids in the house for over 40 years! So what did Christmas look like in the Piper home when you had kids around? What were your goals?
Christmas day and how we celebrate it, how everybody celebrates it, ought to mark an event that is ten million times more important than any event that has ever happened in the last 2,000 years since Jesus rose from the dead. God the Creator of the universe, infinitely holy, just, wise, good, upholding the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3) absolutely independent of us and not needing us, existing forever without us, took on human nature and entered this world precisely to die for sinners so that we could live forever in joy with him and not perish under God’s wrath. It is an absolute understatement when the angel said at Jesus’s birth: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
The Piper’s Goals for Christmas
We have had two goals at the Piper house over the years with our five kids, and our guests.
1) We want to be pervasively Christ-centered. That is what it is about — “great joy” — because that is the effect the angel said it ought to have, and it does have when you really grasp what it is. And so that meant, for us, way back, over 45 years ago,
2) rethinking everything that people usually do. And some things stayed in our tradition that we did growing up, and other things went — and some things were adapted and some things were just totally created new. Santa Claus went. He is not a helpful participant in this. He is a distraction from the majesty and joyfulness of Christ. Giving gifts stayed. That seemed to us like a beautiful, wonderful, happy expression of the heart of God in generosity to us. And then we adapted and created things.
The Piper’s Specific Christmas Traditions
We had two goals at Christmas: 1) to be pervasively Christ-centered by 2) rethinking everything people usually do.
Noël is here with me. The Piper’s set about transforming their house for the kids and for guests so that everywhere they look they see Christmas — Christmas and its real meaning. So, Noël, what has guided you in particular? Because you really came up with a lot of these. What’s guided your thinking as you have put things in place for the holidays?
Noël: One of the things that I learned when our kids were really young is that very young kids are understanding symbols. So, it is the things that are tangible. Right away, when I think about Christmas, what am I thinking about? Bethlehem and the stable and looking and thinking and talking about what God was doing there. So, manger scenes, crèches are a main part of what is in our house or in our windows for people outside to see during the Christmas season.
There is one main manger scene that we have had almost our whole marriage that is on a special table in the living room that is the first thing you see when you walk into our house, when you walk into the living room. Under that table is where we gather our gifts to each other. And then there are manger scenes and things that represent Bethlehem all over the place. Whenever anybody is traveling somewhere and they ask me if they can bring me a gift, I always say: I would love to have a manger scene from there.
John: So we have got an elephant at our manger scene.
Noël: Because the wise men came from the east, and we don’t know they came on camels.
John: Right. So, over in the dining room, Noël, on the buffet there is another thing that is a little unusual. What do you call it? What is it? Why do we do it?
Noël: We call it the Jesus Tree. It is a combination of what some people might have and call a Jesse Tree or some people might call a Bethlehem Tree, but I call it a Jesus Tree, because that is the one time in the year when we can put in front of us all the kinds of symbols, word pictures — representing word pictures from the Bible — of who Jesus is.
John: And when you say tree, you mean . . .
Noël: I mean a bare branch, yes, that we broke off of a bush in the back yard. And so some of the things that are hanging on it might actually be Christmas ornaments, but other things would be, maybe, a saw that would represent part of Jesus’s life. He was a carpenter with his father. Or there might be a sheaf of wheat, and that might represent Ruth in his family tree or it might represent him being the Bread of Life. There would be nails, because he was a carpenter part of his life or because he died on the cross for us. So, things that represent the prophesies leading up to Jesus, things that represent events in his life, things that particularly revolve around the Bethlehem event.
John: Yeah, so this is a gnarly, broken off branch from — what is that plant in the corner of the garage that we get it from? It is an old lilac bush that we use. There is this other tradition that gets going about the beginning of advent that we call the Shepherd’s Pouch. What is that about?
Noël: I was trying to think of ways that children could give a gift to Jesus since it is his birthday, and that is how children understand birthdays: you give a gift to the birthday person. So we have little burlap bags that I made, but you could use any kind of little pouch that at the beginning of December the kids start putting money into that either they have earned by doing tasks ordinarily that they might do just without pay. But during this season I give them some money. So, it also gets me eager helpers for when I need extra help.
Have your children give Jesus a gift since it’s his birthday, and that’s how children understand birthdays.
But then sometime early in the month we are thinking about where this gift will go, like maybe to Joni and Friends or Samaritan’s Purse — some organization that we would like to give to. And we talk about what it means to give a gift to Jesus, because you can’t just put it in his hand. And then on Christmas Eve, the children put the money from their pouch by the manger in our special manger scene, and we talk about how we are giving a gift to Jesus. Ours is money, but that is just a symbol of the way the shepherds, for instance, came worshiping Jesus, their gift of worship to Jesus. And then on Christmas morning we have put into those little pouches gifts for them.
One of the things will be a Christ-centered Christmas ornament for them to save up for when they have their own home someday. And then there are other just little doodad things that we have collected over time for them, and we talk about how these represent the way God blesses people who come to him with their gifts of praise.
John: I just love this little pouch thing. I love so much the kids filling it with money and then getting these gifts. One more thing. Christmas morning we get up and before any gifts are opened we are reading the story, but then we add to the reading something else, Noël, that turns out to be a really happy thing, especially for little kids.
Noël: And I know there are other families that do this, too. We act out the Christmas story. Everybody who is there, adults and children. When the children were very little, they liked to pull out everything they could find that could be costumes from anywhere. Now it is a lot more simple, but we use the narrative from Luke as the guide for how the story plays out. And that is another part of being tangible and actually getting into it physically, thinking about Jesus being born in the manger and the glory that was announced when that happened.
John: I think we even did this when our first child was Jesus, that is the little baby in Mary’s lap, which was just Noel and I and the baby and any guests that were around. And so, every time we had a new child, we had a new Jesus to put in the play. It was just great.
But it’s Christmas Eve or it is Christmas Day, and people have lots of things to do. So, we just wanted to say to everybody: Thanks for listening to Ask Pastor John. We both wish you a very, very joyful, Christ-filled Merry Christmas!