When I was 7 years old, my family moved from Brazil, and we were introduced to the American way of doing Christmas: the music about snow and fireplaces, the wreaths and cookies and eggnog—all completely new. Sure, in Brazil we have trees and lights and malls—but this was something else. And I was enchanted by it all.
But my shrewd, rational parents questioned everything, as one does when introduced to something new. They believed that in order to celebrate Jesus’ birth, we should forego all the flashiness and do something else altogether. So as I moved between the celebration outside my house and the everyday sameness inside, I was able to look at both cultures with an outsider’s eyes—more as a student than a participant. Growing up in between cultures taught me some things about celebrating Jesus’ birth.
Decorations don’t necessarily help you celebrate Christmas better. Christmas decorations are present in the homes of believers and unbelievers alike, so it’s not an indication of more or less celebration of Jesus. Growing up, my family didn’t have any decorations—no tree, no wreaths or lights or red and green paraphernalia.
My sister and I got our first Christmas tree two years ago from a local lot filled with green pines. We picked a fat, short one and dragged it into our small apartment. The fresh smell of the needles filled our living room. I poured some store-bought eggnog into a pot, dropped some cinnamon sticks in it, and heated it on the stovetop. We unboxed the lights and ornaments we’d bought at the dollar store and, together, we decorated our first tree—she focused on the lights, and I organized the ornaments. In the following weeks, when night would come, instead of spending time apart, we would sit by the lit-up tree, the room warm and glowing yellow. In silence or conversation, we’d be happy to be together.
The lack of decorations didn’t make our Christmases growing up less meaningful. And now, having the tree and the lights isn’t about the items themselves, but about connecting with my sister and the space that the tree creates for it.
Christmas music, like most things, doesn’t happen by accident. It’s easy to assume everyone around us is doing things the same way we are. During the season, we can look around and think everyone knows the words just like we do. But because the church we attended in Brazil chose a more minimalist approach to Christmas, we’d never been exposed to Christmas music at all—not even hymns. So while most people have stories and nostalgia associated with all types of Christmas music, my family didn’t.
Instead of spending time apart, my sister and I would sit by the lit-up tree, the room warm and glowing yellow.
But at school, rehearsals for the holiday chorus concert started early. Before Thanksgiving break, we’d get the sheet music for everything from obscure hundred-year-old hymns to the latest iteration of a well-known tune. To this day, I can sing most Christmas music by heart and with harmony. While we had no special attachment to Christmas music, my family enjoyed listening to me practice and attended every concert.
Without that chorus connection, I don’t think we would’ve ever brought any Christmas music into our home. And the lack of that music wouldn’t have made our devotion any less true. But now, I can choose to intentionally seek songs that usually accompany the season. And when I do, I find loud declarations of our Savior’s love, somber reflections on His humility, and grateful worship in response to His love—along with a fun tune here and there about snow and romance.
As long as the main gift of Christmas is at the forefront of our celebrations, it doesn’t really matter whether we exchange gifts. And exchanging gifts was never a priority in my family. When I was a kid, I thought the worst possible gift to receive was clothes. I wanted toys or books. So sometimes my mom would get extra money from work and, taking advantage of the sales, buy my sister and me some new outfits—to my sister’s delight and my disappointment. But sometimes, she would also get me a book she knew I wanted, or take me to a toy store, assigning me a budget and time limit.
Though those presents added to my memories and my experience, my parents always made sure we didn’t focus on them more than we needed to. They wanted us to remember that the main thing we needed to be grateful for was that Jesus came to be with us on earth.
As an adult, I choose what I keep. And I try to keep things that are meaningful, creating new traditions that bring me closer to an authentic celebration of Jesus.
While I try to make the Christmas season meaningful, I also struggle with not putting too much pressure on myself. It doesn’t have to be the same every year. It’s not all or nothing or a life-long decision. If you’ve noticed the many verses in the Bible that talk about God’s pleasure and delight, then you know that God is all about having a good time. Think about how often Jesus got together with His closest friends to eat good food and talk. When it comes to His birthday, I don’t think God is measuring our solemnness, reviewing the hymns we’ve memorized, or holding how many cookies we’ve consumed against us.
I think what God wants is for us to show up—even if barehanded. Perhaps that means that, instead of a gift-exchange, we donate money to an organization that helps the community. Or it could be doing everything the same: locations, foods, and traditions remain unchanged, but this year, we add more chairs to the table—welcoming new friendships with people we wouldn’t have thought to invite before.
Whatever it is that we choose to do with Christmas, there’s something about knowing exactly why we’re doing it. We give new life to our festivities when we choose to approach the season fully present and on purpose.