religion is very important in their lives.” So, perhaps, Steve and his crew cherry-picked their way on a nostalgia tour of European capitals and small towns. I don’t know.
Here’s what you SEE in Rick Steve’s “Christmas in Europe.” Living nativities in Italian villages. Immense bonfires. People stopping to admire (perhaps even to pray) in front of public nativity scenes carved from natural sources (no plastic Baby Jesus or inflatable camels here) and also no Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monsters. Dads taking the kids out to forests to chop down a scrawny looking tree – the kind you see left behind in Home Depot’s tree lot when you wait at least until Gaudete Sunday to buy one, after your parish has long since run out. Once inside the homes, the trees are decorated with mostly homemade ornaments and minimal sparkle. The gifts under the tree are quite modest in number and content. And shopping areas, sometimes festooned with lights and greenery, but with a pace that seems leisurely as if the goal were to introduce the children to the local Christmas traditions and crafts as opposed to dragging them along on mom’s frenzied excursions to shopping malls.
But here’s what you can HEAR over there. Cannons firing from the fortress of Hohensalzburg at midday on Christmas Eve, which the locals have done since the time their forebears believed cannons would ward off the evil spirits that might spoil Christmas. Church bells pealing at midnight. Everywhere songs – families singing Christmas carols (about Jesus!) around the piano after grandpa reads an account of Jesus’ birth from the family Bible, neighbors getting together to carol around town (just like our neighbors did in a St. Louis suburb in the 1950s), groups of instrumental musicians and well-trained girls’ or boys’ or adult choirs giving free concerts of hymns and religious songs in public squares and churches (without being forced to pay equal tribute to Frosty and Rudolph and Grandma who got run over by a reindeer).
Here’s what you can almost SMELL, if only you were there. The aroma of chestnuts roasting over open fires on street corners. The annual blessing of the barn and animals with dad swinging a censer of incense-scented coals (followed by one of the children sprinkling holy water). Baking and decorating Christmas cookies with the kids the old-fashioned way – you can tell because the younger ones are dusted with flour and their faces smeared with frosting). And busy women and children preparing multi-course Christmas feasts of traditional regional dishes with recipes handed down through generations. You won’t find gravy sold in jars or canned cranberry relish in their kitchens.
The third catalyst was looking at the faces of Christians who are being persecuted for their faith. The family of Asia Bibi, who may be killed on orders of a Pakistani court at any moment. Middle East Christians who have fled before the advance of ISIS and who now have nothing left but their lives and their faith. Nigerian Christians terrorized by Boko Haram who face a considerable risk of death simply by attending Mass on Christmas. Recent estimates put the number of churches destroyed by Boko Haram at between 200 and 400. Chinese Christians who are enduring yet another brutal crackdown. These people, I think, are likely preparing for the coming of Jesus in prayer, in faith, in watchfulness, are ready to die for Him should it come to that. Celebrating the coming of Jesus a month early with the excessive consumption and display of comparatively meaningless secular things, would not even occur to them.
In the two weeks remaining, will you pledge to scale back on the pre-Christmas insanity? Get up 15 minutes earlier and give that little time to prepare your heart to make a home for the Savior who is to come … but not yet here! That’s only 1/96th of your day. He’s worth at least that much.