Praying Through My Christmas Tree
By Rev. Sandy Nenadal, Assistant to Bishop Farr
It’s almost November. Time to prepare for the season called Advent. Pastors and church leaders are planning activities that focus on Christ’s birth. That’s challenging, living as we do in a culture that moves straight toward Christmas. However, when I was young, my mother believed in celebrating Advent. The day after Thanksgiving, while neighbors were decorating their trees and trimming their homes with lights, my mother set up the Advent wreath.
In our home, the Christmas season started slowly and deliberately. As the weeks unfolded, we lit the Advent candles, listened to Christmas music, decorated our home, baked cookies and shopped for a Christmas tree. After attending worship on Christmas Eve, Dad and Mom set up the tree while my sisters and I set up the nativity. Then we girls went to bed. In the morning, we woke up to a fully decorated tree, presents, and time with our family. Finally, it was time to celebrate Christ’s birth.
I’m not sure when our mother learned these Advent traditions. But I know she understood their purpose: to prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus. “Advent derives from the Latin adventus which means coming. The season proclaims the comings of Christ” (The United Methodist Book of Worship, 238). We remember how Jesus came as an infant in Bethlehem, continues to come to us in Word and Spirit, and will come again in final victory one day. During Advent, we focus more on the one coming than on the world’s celebrations around us.
Years later, as I married, moved away from home, and became a parent, I could not continue all of Mom’s traditions. Since we traveled home for Christmas, my husband and I put up the tree early for our children to enjoy. We still lit the candles on the Advent wreath and participated in church activities. But I missed the purposeful rhythm of my childhood. As we decorated our tree, I told the children stories about our ornaments. After our children grew up, I began to reflect on my Christmas ornaments, remembering people and places in my past.
My reflections inspired me to create a new Advent tradition: I began praying through my Christmas ornaments for the people and places they brought to mind. As the years pass, I find my prayers have expanded to encompass other needs and concerns. Here are a few examples of ways your Christmas ornaments may inspire your Advent devotions.
One of my favorite ornaments is a glass pickle. My grandmother always hung one on her Christmas tree for the grandchildren to find. She said the first one to find the pickle would have good luck. The pickle reminds me of Christmas celebrations at my grandparents’ home and her ancestors from Germany. When I see it, I thank God for my family heritage and traditions and the love we shared. This Advent, choose ornaments that tell your family’s history and share the stories with loved ones. Thank God for the gifts of family and memory.
When I hang a beaded star from Czechoslovakia on my tree, I remember my husband’s ancestors who immigrated to the United States from Bohemia. This ornament reminds me to celebrate the fantastic diversity of our nation and the courageous people who immigrated here. It inspires me to thank God for people from all nations, ethnic groups, and backgrounds who make up our nation. Do you have Christmas ornaments that come from other nations or ethnic groups? If so, let them move you to pray for people who still come to our nation seeking new opportunities. Thank God for the shared blessings of our diverse backgrounds.
More recently, I purchased an ornament from a fair-trade store. It was made from a gourd and decorated with a painting of the nativity. Fair-trade programs help artisans from other nations sell their crafts to earn a living wage under safe working conditions. This ornament reminds me to pray for those artisans and refugees like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, who fled their homelands seeking safety. If you have an ornament made by artisans in another nation, pray for them to earn a living wage. Consider looking for a fair-trade store as a source of your gifts, or donate to an organization that assists with refugee resettlement in honor of Jesus, who was a refugee.
Some years ago, I was fortunate to travel to the Holy Land. I came home with ornaments carved from olive wood. When I see them, I recall Psalm 122:6: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” If you have olive wood ornaments or an ornament of the nativity, use it to call you to pray that people living in the Holy Land will be able to live in peace.
My spinner is another of my favorite ornaments. Spinners were made from plastic shaped like a star or a birdcage. Inside each spinner is a small metal fan. In the 1950s, when you hung a spinner over an incandescent Christmas tree bulb, the bulb’s heat warmed the air, making the fan spin. This little ornament reminds me of how Jesus compared the movement of the Holy Spirit to the wind. When I see this ornament, I ask God to send the Holy Spirit to work in my life. Look for one of your ornaments to serve as a reminder to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit in the life of your family and church.
Although I own many other ornaments, I hope these few examples will inspire you to celebrate Advent’s rhythm this year. Advent begins on November 28. Create your Advent wreath, use an Advent devotion, shop using fair-trade resources, or create your way to pray through your Christmas ornaments.