A flood of orange light splashes on the red Adirondack chairs surrounding the fire pit behind my Texas ranch house, making them glow orange-red. The bright green grasses are also glowing in orange. 

Sitting on the red cushions of my creaking old wicker couch, the warmth of the sun rapidly removes the cool from the overnight air, making for a perfect short-sleeves-and-shorts day in the middle of winter. On days like this, I still love Austin — but when the cold comes, I fully intend to escape to get closer to the equator. Yes, I’ll admit I’m becoming a snowbird, running as fast as possible from the cold, which I no longer care to endure — though I’ll put up with it until the holiday passes. It feels more like Christmas when it’s cold or snowing. But after Christmas, I’m ready for the tropics.

Celebrating Together

Today, all the kids are back home, college breaks have started, and I’ll proudly sit in the congregation at church singing Christmas carols with my kids at my side. I live for moments like this.

Christmas Cards

When I was a kid, we were all encouraged to sign a stack of family Christmas cards. I’d write “Merry Xmas” and sign my name, until my mom saw it and said, “We don’t ever want to X out Christ from Christmas.” Whenever she abbreviated it, she would write “Merry C-Mas.” I still do this today, though I’ve long given up on sending Christmas cards. I still love receiving them, and I especially love reading people’s Christmas letters. As hokey as they can be, you can’t get every detail from Facebook, and they somehow give me that Christmas feeling..

The Great Tree Debate

Right after Thanksgiving, we went out and got a tree. Every year there is a debate about whether it’s time to get a fake one. After all, real trees are more work — watering them, and sweeping up when the needles fall, plus later we have to drag it out and put it by the road for pickup. It doesn’t seem very environmentally responsible, either. But when we tried to sell the concept again this year, the kids reminded us that the trees “are grown to be cut down, and they then turn them into mulch. It’s ecologically sound.” So once again, we resisted plastic needles. 

Creating Cherished Memories

I could have insisted on a fake tree, but part of Christmas is about making memories for the family so they can cherish Christmases past. Traditions are important. Christmas ornaments the kids have put up over the years, and ones from our early marriage and our own childhoods, always go on the tree. The box of ornaments is really a memory stimulator. I wish I had my parents’ ornament boxes — they would be filled with treasures and memories.

Danger! Daddy on a Ladder

The day after Thanksgiving, I got up on a ladder, hung the Christmas lights around the eaves of the house, and put the decorations out front. Though the kids have not acknowledged it, it’s expected and part of what we do at Christmas. Our traditions include a tacky plastic angel with  fiber optic wings that my mother gave to the kids. The other tacky thing is my favorite singing lamppost — it sounded like Bing Crosby. (It used to sing carols, but that part no longer works.) We also put out the tinfoil 1960s Christmas tree from our early marriage. We have three nutcrackers and stockings by the fireplace; when I decided to put the nutcracker statues in a different place, I was reminded, “They don’t go there, they go here.”

The Order of Decorations

Nothing can be out of place. A ceramic nativity scene made by my wife’s grandmother goes by the front door every year. The Christmas village goes on top of the grand piano. The dining table is decorated exactly as it has been the last 20 years, and once in a while we’ll add something new, trying to start a new tradition. We often hang stockings for dearly departed dogs, too, but there were too many stockings to put them all out this year. 

Do you have favorite decorations from your childhood? Mine was a little white plastic church music box that would play “Silent Night” as the doors opened. I think one of my cousins ended up with this treasure. 

New Traditions

Recently, when I was offering marriage advice, I mentioned that families carry their family culture with them at Christmas, and it’s important to honor your mate’s traditions that differ from your own. But I failed to mention that it’s also critical to create your own family traditions that will live on through your kids.

What family traditions have you created?

Speaking from the Stairs

On Christmas morning, before we open our gifts, the kids take turns reading Luke 2 through 20, the story of Christmas, just like I had to do while sitting on the old oak stairs at my grandparents’ house on West Wildwood Street back in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I used to hate it, because I was eager to open presents, but then it became tradition, and I’ve done it my entire life. My kids too used to hate it because, like me, they wanted to open presents, but it was a great reminder to put God first in our lives. We even have a seat at the dining table for Jesus. We put out a plate and everything (He doesn’t eat much).

Christmas Is a Story of Faith

On occasion, if I mention anything about my faith, someone will reach out and ask me to stop doing it and suggest that I will lose them as a reader. My intent is never to offend, and I’m not trying to change anyone. I want to be respectful of everyone. I usually respond by simply saying, “This is who I am, I mean no harm to you or others. I respect you, I hope you’ll respect me.” I even say “Merry Christmas.” 

In 1 Peter (ERV) it says, “You may suffer for doing right … don’t be afraid of the people who make you suffer; don’t be worried, but keep Christ holy in your hearts. Always be ready to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have, but answer them in a gentle way with respect … then people will see the good way you live as followers of Christ, and those who say bad things about you will be ashamed of what they said. It is better to suffer for doing good than for doing wrong.“ 

What I Want for Christmas

When asked what I want for Christmas, I cannot think of a single thing. And rather than buying me something, I’d rather everyone spend that money on someone who needs something. A kid who needs a toy or a sweater, a mom who needs groceries, a dad who needs a little help. This is a time when many people need more than they have. Rather than spending excessive amounts on things we don’t need, let’s spend excessive amounts to make Christmas special for someone else. 

The Gift of Self-Esteem

I was talking to a homeless man one day who had been on the streets for over 12 years. He was shocked that I talked to him, because most people turn their eyes away. He said something I’ll never forget. “I’m here by choice, because I made bad choices. But it’s not just money or food I want. If you can’t or don’t want to give, I don’t expect you to do it, but don’t look away. It does me a world of good when someone looks me in the eye, gives me a smile and a wave. People forget that we need human connections too. You’ll smile at a stranger walking down the street, but you won’t smile at someone who looks different, is in rough clothes, or is dirty. We need that smile more than you know.”

That Christmas Feeling

There is a spirit about Christmas. Things slow for many of us, and as we get closer to the day, we start thinking about the people we love and care about, and it makes us gentler and kinder. But there are others who don’t see that, who might be unloved and needing to feel the Christmas spirit. And for those of us who give only at Christmas, don’t forget that others need that spirit year round.

I hope tomorrow is the most special Christmas ever. Embrace those you love, remind everyone about those who can’t be with you, and pay tribute to the value of family, no matter how insane they may be. The bond of family is deeper than any other. 

Eric Rhoads

PS: This message is spread worldwide to over 90 countries and hundreds of thousands of people. I’m honored that you open your e-mail every Sunday and thankful for all of you who forward messages to friends and family.

Only a tiny fraction of you live near me in Austin, Texas, but we’ll be at one of five services today (probably the 11 a.m.) at Austin Ridge, our home church. We hope to see you there. You can find it online at www.AustinRidge.org.