Rituals, Relationships, Rest – Interview with Melissa Spoelstra, Author of Total Christmas Makeover
As Melissa Spoelstra studied the Book of Numbers while writing her Bible study on the topic, she noticed three elements included in the festivities and began thinking about how she could apply them to her personal Christmas celebrations. She shares those revelations with readers in her latest book, Total Christmas Makeover (Abingdon Press). In fact, Spoelstra devotes a section of the book to each of the elements:
Ritual: Special activities out of the ordinary routine were planned to help remember what God has done.
- Relationships: Time spent together preparing special foods, eating, gathering in holy assembly, and explaining traditions to children.
- Rest: Regular work set aside for planned times of celebration and rest from activity to allow for reflection on God.
“A total Christmas makeover doesn’t mean scrapping all your holiday traditions or adding ten more to your list. Instead, it is a personal time of reflection to evaluate how your Christmas practices align with some biblical concepts of celebration,” explains Spoelstra. “Passover, festivals, and feasts were instituted by God to help His people remember who He is and what He has done. While we have no such specifics given for our celebration of Christ’s birth because it comes from church history rather than biblical mandate, we can glean some important principles about celebration from Scripture.”
Q: Since the Bible doesn’t expressly instruct us to celebrate Christ’s birth, is it OK to mix the more secular elements of Christmas in with the religious aspects of the holiday?
In light of the many holy days set aside in Scripture for the purpose of celebration, I have to believe God loves a good party. Jesus spent a significant time at parties during His ministry on earth. I don’t think every aspect of Christmas has to be hyper-spiritual. Of course, we want to focus on Christ’s humble birth, God’s extravagant love and the sacrifice He made to redeem us. That doesn’t mean we can’t have some rituals that are just for fun. My husband hides our children’s stockings every year since we never had a good place to hang them. They wake up before us on Christmas morning and find a handwritten poem with clues and parameters to start hunting. As they got older he went a little crazy, burying one in a bin underground and another year placing one of them on the roof (clearly without permission from me!). This has no spiritual significance, but it will be one of my children’s favorite memories. Later in the day we will read from Luke and share what Christ has done in our lives, but the morning stocking hunt is just for fun. I’m sure many of you have traditions that aren’t inherently spiritual, but if they aren’t contrary to God’s Word or offensive to Christ’s message, I believe we have a lot of freedom in Christ worth exercising!
Q: As long as you make sure everything you do is Christ-honoring in some way, is there anything wrong with going “all out” for Christmas? Looking at the opposite end of the spectrum, is it OK if you don’t do anything special to observe or celebrate Christmas?
Let’s remember that Christmas isn’t a commanded holy day in the Bible. God did issue consequences for those who refused to celebrate Passover without a good reason (Numbers 9:13), but Christmas is a tradition, not a commanded holiday. I have friends who really go all out. My friend Elizabeth loves Christmas. She has the gift of wonder, and her excitement is contagious. God loves extravagantly. He went all out with an angel song for shepherds. There is nothing wrong with going all out. The danger comes when we lose our focus on Christ and exhaust ourselves with an overwhelmed attitude. Those who choose not to celebrate Christmas citing the commercialization, pagan roots of some traditions or personal reasons aren’t breaking any biblical command either. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. What we need is balance and Holy Spirit leading to manage our time, talents and treasures in a way that honors the God we celebrate at Christmas.
Q: What are some of your family’s favorite traditions? How have they changed throughout the years?
When our children were little, someone shared with me the Jesse Tree project. It includes 25 short devotions with references to pages in the Beginner Bible. The stories begin with creation and end with the cross. The booklet also gave instructions for corresponding ornaments to place on a miniature Christmas tree. We made or bought these ornaments and wrapped them with Christmas paper. Our children enjoyed making many of them since we couldn’t find a fiery furnace or Ten Commandments scroll in stores! We used shrinky dinks, construction paper, pipe cleaners and a variety of craft materials. Each year I would wrap them all individually and put the corresponding number of the day it was to be placed on the tree on the package. Each night before bed we would do the reading, and the kids would take turns opening the ornament and hanging it on a small tree.
Once our children got into middle school, our bedtime routines changed with sports and youth group activities, and we found ourselves needing to catch up doing two or three ornaments every few days. Eventually we stopped doing the Jesse Tree devotions and ornaments and assigned each child an evening to share their own devotion on a Christmas topic of their choosing (star, angels, wise man, shepherds, etc.). They had to include a fun activity (game or craft) as well as a reading from Scripture and discussion questions. While I love to reminiscence our sweet nightly December times when they were little with the Jesse Tree, I also enjoy our new traditions with college- and high-school-aged kids.
Q: During the busyness of the holiday season, in what ways can we focus on relationships and valuing others?
If we aren’t careful, people can become scenery and machinery. The waitress who brings our coffee. The postal worker who brings the mail. These are real people with real stories. When we break through the reverie of our own to-do lists and start to see them, we can ask questions. We can begin to pray for them. We might even get the opportunity to share about Christ with words or show them Christ with generosity. We want to become “there you are” kind of people rather than “here I am” Christians. This will require us to be intentional in focusing on people rather than tasks during a busy time of year.
Q: The third section of Total Christmas Makeover focuses on rest. How are we supposed to work rest into December? Isn’t rest what January is for?
Rest requires preparation. It means we must leave some margin in our schedules and finances. We must block off chunks of time and guard them as an important commitment. Biblical celebration always required Sabbath. No regular work was to be done. This has never been as challenging as it is now with email on our phone and notifications galore. To take a true break from ordinary work, it might mean locking up devices or just checking them a little less frequently. Rest isn’t watching more television. It means giving our minds, bodies and souls a chance to stop and leave space to hear from God. True rest produces no work, but it does leave us refreshed and reflective.
Q: In what ways can rest mean different things for different people?
Introverts and extroverts often find different types of things restful. As an introvert, I like to rest alone. I enjoy reading, napping, sitting outside or going for a stroll. My extroverted husband still likes a good nap and some of these activities as well, but he feels rested talking with friends or family. He enjoys a family game or a walk with others. Being with people replenishes him while being alone recharges me. Each person must discover the type of things that help them feel rested and connected to God. At Christmas, I enjoy sitting on my couch each evening just looking at the lights on my Christmas tree. I think about my day and my God and take a few minutes to savor what Jesus has done in my life.