As a child at Christmas, our family crèche was placed in the living room next to a tall, lighted noble fir tree, dripping with ornaments from all over the world. My parents celebrated this day with all the trimmings—lots of presents, a huge feast, and a beautifully decorated home with all the winter charm. We were not a churchgoing family, yet I sometimes attended a Lutheran Sunday School with my siblings. I remember my twin brother and I waking up early in the morning and being exceptionally quiet, trying not to wake my parents so they would keep sleeping and we could miss church, once again. As we grew older, they lost interest in taking us.
A Family Tradition
My understanding of Christmas was partly formed alongside our captivating Nativity crèche with its silent figures, drawing my playful attention. For weeks, I would stare at the ceramic figure of Mary on both knees in adoration of her baby, Jesus, holding both hands to her heart. Next to her was Joseph, kneeling on one knee, keeping guard at the manger. One lone shepherd, dressed in rags, stood at a distance, holding a lamb on his shoulders while surrounded by his devoted sheep. Most fascinating to me were the three wisemen, dressed in glorious attire with turbans on their heads and holding gifts for the helpless Baby. One wiseman knelt reverently, while the other two waited their turn to present their offerings.
I spent hours moving the animals around in this enchanting scene, which also included a cow, donkey, and sheep. Which one should I place next to the special Babe that everyone sang about? A birthday celebration surrounded by animals and shepherds in wonderment captured my imagination. It seemed unheard of—yet also so believable.
The Surprising Theological Depth of Carols and Christmas Films
Besides the crèche, my childlike conception of the incarnation was also formed by the Christmas albums stacked high,playing for hours on our hi-fi stereo near the tree. The music filled the air, as did the smell of spritz cookies baking in the oven. Throughout December, the great crooners from the 1930s to the 1960s serenaded me day and night.
The peace I felt hearing Bing Crosby sing “Silent Night” taught me that the birth of Jesus came silently and humbly, filling my heart with wonder. Bing’s soothing voice singing of heavenly peace still brings nostalgia to this day.
Nat King Cole’s version of “Silent Night” added another memorable verse: “Son of God, loves pure light, radiant beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace.” I didn’t know what “redeeming grace” meant at the time, yet the words sounded so calming.
In our idyllic, Christmas-decorated home, the Bible was never opened or read. The longest reading of Scripture I heard as a child was from the movie, A Charlie Brown Christmas, when Linus recited Luke 2:8-14, explaining “what Christmas is all about.”
“The First Noël,” sung joyfully by Crosby, spoke of shepherds “keeping their sheep on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.” Then they looked up and saw “a bright star shining there in the East beyond them far!” Like a golden thread in a tapestry, the bright star was woven into many Christmas carols. Kings followed it, Mary and Joseph saw it, and songs were written to honor such a celestial miracle. At the top of our family crèche, we added a gold foil star, and my chubby fingers wedged it into the roof of the stable, just above Baby Jesus. The mystery of that star continues to fascinates me today.
Frank Sinatra’s triumphant “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” taught me about the heavenly angels who sang in celebration at Jesus’ birth, “Glory to the newborn king!” This Baby was worshiped as King by other kings from the Orient, praised by angels, and treasured by His adoring parents. The line, “God and sinners, reconciled,” was far above my understanding, but it sounded hopeful!
“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” sung by Elvis, introduced me to a little hamlet far away in Israel, across the world from me in the state of Washington. Israel had only been a nation for twelve years when I was born. Since I had never read the Bible, I had no idea of this ancient country’s history. But I learned that “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in Bethlehem on that wonderful night. I did not understand why, but listening to Crosby and Sinatra sing “O Come all ye Faithful,” I sensed a calling to adore this Babe born in Bethlehem, this King of angels. I was curious, but clueless.
Of all the Christmas carols I heard as a child, my favorite was “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” sung by Nat King Cole. I did not know what “tidings” were, but “comfort and joy” appealed to my young mind. Trying to comprehend “Satan and his power,” however, along with “we were gone astray” took another decade to decipher. It was then that my parents told me they did not believe in “the adversary.”
From Barbra Streisand’s 1967 Christmas album, I heard the haunting lyric, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus the Savior, did come for to die.” This early American Christmas hymn, planted new thoughts into my mind. Andy Williams echoed similar sentiments on his Christmas Album, (he had the best one, by the way). He laments in his song of apology, “Sweet little holy Child,” that “We didn’t know who You were. Didn’t know You’d come to save us Lord, to take our sins away; our eyes were blind, we could not see, we didn’t know who You were.” These lyrics made me curious. Did I know who He was? The words helped me understand that Jesus was born for a higher purpose, for something grander that I could ever imagine.
Result: A Softened Heart
Growing up, even in a non-believing home, both the crèche and the carols softened my heart with a tenderness for Jesus. There He lay, perfect and harmless, a little child like me. I felt struck by the reality of the Christmas story, the simple, humble beauty of it all. When my sixteenth birthday rolled around a decade later, I transposed my life into the line from “O Holy Night” that says, “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, ‘til He appeared, and my soul felt its worth.”
At sixteen, I came face to face with my own sin, weakness, and brokenness. My mind recalled the sweet memories of Jesus born as a gift for me, my Savior to receive and my King to worship. I had no gold or sweet spices to offer, but I did not hesitate to present my heart to Him. Deep down, I knew He would treasure my gift. And in exchange, He gave me a thrill of hope for my weary soul.
“Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care, and take us to Heaven to live with Thee there.”