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Child’s question pushes prof to rethink Christmas outlook

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–In many homes, the angel atop the Christmas tree is the only reminder of the birth Christians celebrate on Dec. 25, said a Southern Baptist childhood education professor, concerned that people do not prepare as they should for the special occasion.
“It’s Jesus’ birthday, so by all rights he ought to be invited, not looked on as a gate crasher,” said Paula Stringer, associate professor of childhood education at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, during a chapel service Dec. 3 and a subsequent interview.
On Christmas morning, “the only one who receives no gifts is the birthday boy,” she said, “and at the birthday dinner, after a hurried prayer of thanks, no one even mentions the birthday boy,” as they gobble down their favorite foods, discussing football games, bumper-to-bumper highway traffic, gift bargains and even conduct family feuds, in between scolding children for not remembering their table manners.
People — single, married, young and old — and especially ministers must prepare for Christmas, Stringer said, and start early.
“We as ministers can’t help anyone else prepare for the holidays unless we are prepared ourselves,” she said.
Having been on the staff of several Southern Baptist churches over the years as a minister of education, Stringer said she knows firsthand how out-of-control the holiday season can become. Decorating, shopping, rehearsals, meetings and parties are just a few of the main events people try to squeeze into the month of December. On top of all that, many people take on a part-time job to get extra spending money.
Stringer said her own misdirectedness was made poignant to her a few years ago when she and her 4-year-old nephew acted out the Christmas story, at his prompting, since she is not by nature an actress. Stringer was duly assigned the role of Mary, while her nephew said he would be the angel Gabriel.
“Mary,” Gabriel said to her, “did you know that when Jesus grows up some people are going to kill him?” Stringer said she nodded yes, maybe a little absentmindedly. Her attention was riveted by the 4-year-old’s next words, however:
“Will you miss him?”
At that second, “it was more Christmas to me than ever,” Stringer said. While she really had not wanted to be in her nephew’s little living room theater production, she was glad at that point that she had not turned him down.
“By getting out of my element, into his realm, the real meaning of Christmas came home to me. If I had been in my element, I would have missed a very special moment.”
Everyone leads a very busy life these days, she said, especially at this time of year, “and for ministers, it’s worse than for others.”
Therefore, “we must take the time to prepare for Christmas, to get out of our normal element, to separate ourselves from the subtle distractions, so we won’t miss the meaning of Christmas.” In preparing for the holiday, a key question to be asked — “before you’re in the middle of it” — is this: “Does this activity really have anything to do with getting ready for Christmas?”
“We as church leaders need to look at ourselves, at our own lives, and say, ‘I need this time to prepare myself and my family.'”
Not every party, rehearsal and concert is essential, she said, “and church leaders really should consider protecting time at Christmas,” since time for personal reflection and family togetherness is of the utmost importance.
“Some of the things we do at Christmas really could be spread out to other times of the year,” she said. Thinking through the list of holiday activities takes creativity and time, “but it’s not impossible and it is so important.”
For the sake of our children, “we must do this,” Stringer said. Since children experience life in concrete terms, focusing on what they can see, adults must think through the elements of Christmas with which they find themselves consumed.
“If what our children see most predominantly is a Christmas tree with heaps of presents underneath it, that’s what they think is the focus of the season,” she said, encouraging families and churches to make a manger scene the focal point of the decorations.

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  • Debbie Moore