When I was a child, Christmas was my favourite time of year. It wasn’t primarily because of the presents – although of course they were fun and exciting, especially the Christmas that we got a puppy and my parents let me in on the secret a couple of days before Christmas and enlisted me to keep the little pup quiet so as not to spoil the surprise for my younger sister.
I loved the seasonal foods, the smells and flavours of my mother’s baking, the Christmas turkey, the sounds, the lights, the songs, the anticipation, and of course the presents – but what I loved most of all was Christmas Eve. When I think back to Christmas during my childhood, memories of this evening stand out as the undisputed high point of the season.
I grew up in a Dutch immigrant family, and although my parents weren’t particularly devout, on Christmas Eve we had a special family supper and carol service, partly in Dutch and partly in English. The service was a tradition that my parents had brought with them from Holland. We always read the same Scriptures and sang the same carols, and afterwards my father would read a Christmas story.
During the weeks leading up to Christmas we used a home-made Advent calendar as a family worship centre. The calendar, made of stiff coloured cardboard, showed a view of the shepherds watching their flocks on the hills outside Bethlehem. In the sky there were cutout stars, one for each day of Advent, with a larger star for each of the four Sundays of Advent. The largest star of all was for Christmas Eve. Candles were placed behind the Advent calendar so that when the room was dark, the light of the candles would shine through the places where cutout stars had been removed. One star was punched out on each day of Advent so that as Christmas drew nearer the sky gradually became full of stars. At least a couple of times each week we would light the candles and sing Christmas carols in anticipation of the birth of Christ. This visual depiction of increasing light as the birth of Christ drew near had a powerful impact on me. As a result, by the time Christmas Eve arrived I was full of anticipation.
I loved everything about Christmas Eve – the delicious smells of tourtière (a delicacy that my mother had learned to make during our years in Northern Québec) and other seasonal delights, the beauty of candlelight and greenery, the warmth of the fire, the family all being together – but what I loved most of all was the Christmas Eve service. From the opening words Wij wachten op het licht, maar noch is er duisternis (We await the light, but still there is darkness) to the triumphant conclusion of O Come All Ye Faithful, the words of the Christmas story and the haunting beauty of the carols – some in Dutch, some in English – spoke to my child’s heart and stirred up my capacity for beauty, wonder and faith. I have never forgotten the beautiful Dutch carol Er is een kindeke geboren op aard which speaks in simple poetic language of how the infant Jesus was already carrying his cross as he was rejected from birth, no place being found for him in the inn, and how he promises a glorious new day for those who trust Him. I remember being deeply moved each year by the melody and words of Silent Night with its haunting message of the dawn of redeeming grace. The Christmas story from the gospel of Luke stirred my heart and left a lasting imprint on me. In addition, the stories that my father read by firelight as a conclusion to the evening usually focussed on themes of faith and love.
My parents were quite secular, skeptical people who did not usually speak much about matters of faith when I was growing up, although we did attend church. In many ways this Christmas Eve service was an anomaly, speaking as it did in such plain and simple terms a message of salvation that we discussed rarely if ever during the rest of the year. When I came to conscious, full-fledged faith in Jesus Christ years later, I eventually realized that a seed of faith had been planted in my heart during those Christmas Eve services, and even though I had gone through a period of atheistic despair during my late teens and early twenties, that seed had never died – it had merely gone underground, only to awaken and bear fruit at a later time.
It’s been said that the most important lessons of our lives are the ones we learn in childhood. Certainly it is possible to come to a robust faith in Christ even if you have never heard of Him as a child. Around the world this happens millions of times every day as the gospel continues to spread rapidly in nations such as China, India, and many other parts of Asia and Africa, as well as increasingly in the Muslim world. However, those who have heard of the Saviour as children are especially blessed. Although we spoke very little about Jesus the rest of the year, our family’s annual Christmas Eve service planted seeds of longing, wonder and faith deep in the heart of a young boy who would many years later consciously yield control of his life to the Jesus that was spoken of in those carols, the same Jesus who is returning to reign on the earth. As I reflect on my childhood Christmas memories, I am deeply grateful for the seeds of faith that were planted in my heart during those years.