As the Director of Christian Education at Now Church, one of the annual seasonal challenges is to attempt to help a bunch of children who are pretty amped up about Christmas presents, get at least a little bit happy about the reason there is a Christmas, namely, Jesus. Usually there are Christmas pageants that tell the nativity story. There are Christmas carols with words and syntax that most people don’t ever use anymore, but which also occasionally provide the opportunity to swear in church (Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?). And almost always there is some attempt, though usually not in “regular church,” but in Sunday school or something, to have some kind of birthday party for Jesus. Children know birthday parties. Everybody likes a birthday party, right?
Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas, and I love Jesus, and I think it’s really important to maintain the cognitive link between the event and the person. However in my experience, celebrating Christmas as “Jesus’ birthday,” even though that’s what it’s about and even though in Now Church we annually throw these Jesus parties with our Sunday school children, is often easier said than done. I present you with two examples for your consideration.
Case Study 1
I’m four years old. (I think.) My family is at my grandparents’ cozy candlelit house, which has suddenly been inundated by a bunch of women and children. My mother says, “Jennie, did you know Christmas is Jesus’ birthday? We’re going to have a birthday party for Jesus.”
I want to know if He’s going to be there. I also want to know if we’re going to give Him presents. It seems only fair, since I’m getting presents later and it’s not even my birthday. I hope I won’t have to give Him mine, but I suspect that might be the right course of action.
There is a cake on the table, and it has candles in it, but the cake is dark brown and has no frosting. It looks sort of lumpy. All the women and children gather round the dining room table. Someone says, “Come on, Jennie. We’re going to sing happy birthday to Jesus.” I want to know if He has arrived yet, but I don’t see Him. This seems problematic, because who is going to blow out the candles? Everybody sings, “Happy birthday, dear Jesuuuuus! Happy birthday to you!” I don’t remember who blew out the candles–maybe all of the children all at once–but I do remember thinking that Jesus’ birthday cake was rubbish.
I really loved Jesus, even as a very small child, although I also remember getting a little impatient with religious activities. But I suspect this birthday-party-for-Jesus experience, since I still remember it, did help me make the leap from Christmas to Jesus a little more easily. All the same, and even considering the motivations of the adults was surely well-intentioned, I still wonder about that cake sometimes. Maybe it’s just my own prejudices (I hate fruitcake) colouring my assumptions, but the impression I’ve always had, looking back on that day from a slightly older vantage point, is that someone received a fruitcake they didn’t want for Christmas, and rather than insulting the donor by throwing it away or stashing it in the garage for future use as a brick or something, they said, “I know–there are kids here–let’s have a birthday party for Jesus!” Which I suppose is polite and non-wasteful of them, but it still seems like if you want to have a proper birthday party for Jesus, in which you hope to communicate something of, say, His joy, you would try to make it a really good party, and either make Him a nice cake yourself, or at the very least buy a decent one–that children will enjoy–from the grocery store.
Then again, I definitely remember forgetting that we were throwing a birthday party for Jesus at Sunday school one year until the day we threw it, and rushing to the store on my way to church to grab one. it was a decent cake, but I guess I didn’t put a whole lot of consideration into it, which seems just about as suspect.
Case Study 2
It is 2001. I live in London. I have, for the last four years, handmade 300 or more Christmas cards for friends and family and financial sponsors. Everybody loves these cards. (Some people still claim they have them, though I don’t make cards like this anymore.) This year I have decided to make the Christmas cards for such people simultaneous birthday cards for Jesus. I always put an interesting image or item on the front of my cards. This year, I have decided to affix birthday candles to them. I go to a party store and purchase–no doubt mystifyingly–350 birthday candles. I take them home. I Plasti-Tak them to the front of all the cards. I address the envelopes.
I am actually going back to New England for Christmas, so I bring back all the America-bound cards with me to mail more cheaply on home turf. I put them in the post. I forget about them.
Did you notice I said this story takes place in 2001? Most Americans–if no one else–remember what happened in 2001. 9/11 happened, that’s what. What sometimes gets forgotten is that in the aftermath of that, another crisis occurred, which was that someone began anonymously sending letters laced with anthrax in the US Mail. The anthrax was a white powder and had pretty dire effects, and everyone across the country was greatly disconcerted.
I didn’t forget about anthrax, but what I did forget, on account of forgetting about my Christmas cards once I threw them in the mail, was that, unless you specify “hand canceling” on the outside of your envelope, the post office uses machines to stamp-cancel your postage stamps. I think you can see where this is going . . .
It wasn’t long before I began getting phone calls and emails, or even face-to-face confrontations. “Jenn–what did you put on your Christmas cards this year? I was afraid to open mine, but I was like, Jenn would never send something dangerous. Only whatever it was was ground to a powder in the mail.” “Jenn–what are you trying to do? Kill us?” One fastidious postal clerk in Minnesota managed to collect 40 of these terrifying missives and figure out the headquarters of the organisation I worked for. This person packed them all up in a giant manila envelope and send them to my organisation, who in turn contacted me and said, “Jenn! What are you sending these people?”
It took a lot of laughter, but also a whole lot of explaining, to make all that right. I never did get to explain to the Minnesotan postal worker. And all I was trying to do was say Happy Birthday to Jesus.