For clergy with small children, it’s kind of a sick joke: your longest work day of the year falls on the night before your children’s earliest morning. You can see it unfolding, but you’re powerless to stop it. You’ll get home around 12:30 or 1am, too jacked up on caffeine and adrenaline to sleep. So you’ll wind down by eating the cookies the kids left for Santa (because, hey, keep the magic alive!) and watching part of the 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon. You might get drowsy by 2… But hey, guess what, your kids will be up around 5 because SANTA CAME, and presents must be opened and pancakes must be made.
Here’s hoping that Santa brought you IV bags for Christmas, because mainlining coffee is about the only way you are making it through this business.
Whose idea was this?? Who devised this quirk of the liturgical calendar to torture the servants of God? My money is on some diabolical priest who didn’t think clergy should have children anyway. “They want to defile the gospel with fornication?? I’ll show them. [stirring cauldron of holy water and communion wine]. On the night of the winter solstice, each year that the world turns, they shall be visited by this curse—that after a sleepless night, their spawn shall assail them with squeals of delight, tiny sharp elbows, and unfathomable expectations for the 24 hours ahead. As the prophets have foretold it, so it shall ever be… Amen.
I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what went down.
Fear not, faithful ones. We shall yet foil the evil priest. Follow this guide, and you might just embrace the joy of both Santa and Baby Jesus in the same 6 hour window. With minimal pharmaceutical support.
- Shop early and simply. This gives you time to make exchanges if necessary, and prevents a mad dash through the Target toy aisle on the way to Christmas Eve services. (Or worse yet, on the way home). Keep quantity to a minimum—for more reasons than just your sanity—and for the love of all that is, don’t buy anything that requires assembly! If, for some reason you must–like that bike or play house or life-size rocket ship was the only thing that little Timmy could talk about this year—enlist a neighbor or grandparent to put it together while you’re at church. You do not want to come home from all the high holiness only to sit down with a screwdriver and 16-pages of instructions. Mostly in Chinese.
- Give yourself some early gifts. Don’t plan anything for Christmas Eve morning. Spend a leisurely few hours at home before rushing to church, and do some things like: make your bed with clean sheets (I know, ha ha) and lay out your favorite sweats/jammies so that you can crawl right into bed when you get home. Prepare the coffee pot for the next day so all you have to do is push the button (Or better yet, send your squealing kids to go push the button).
- Release Expectations that your family will show up to services looking like the cover of the Eddie Bauer catalogue. Holiday edition. One year I was rushing around the house before I left, trying to lay out everybody’s outfits for the evening, and I thought… I BET NO MAN PREACHER IN THE HISTORY OF EVER HAS SPENT HIS CHRISTMAS EVE AFTERNOON LOOKING FOR SNOW FLAKE TIGHTS. So anyway… It’s not just about tights, and it’s not just the women. We all have some expectations when it comes to the aesthetics of this day. Lower them and move on. If your family shows up for church looking and acting like the Herdmans or the Griswolds, so be it. I mean, Jesus was born in a BARN. Let’s make him feel right at home.
- Fuel up. 1400 Hours. You’re ready to head to church and get in the zone. EAT. And take snacks. You know me, I am all for Christmas cookies and carbo-loading in general. Just make sure that’s not the only thing you eat. If you’ve got multiple services ahead of you, that takes protein. Our staff has a late dinner together between the 8 and 11 o’clock services. This comes with the added bonus of sitting down at an actual table with actual people, and not just plowing through to the finish line with a frozen burrito in your hand.
- Wander. I know you’ve got stuff to do. Somebody forgot something, whether it was scheduling extra greeters or putting out extra candle holders, and now ONLY YOU CAN SAVE CHRISTMAS. But make sure there is some time in your day to just wander around the church. Seriously. Go in the sanctuary and inhale the greenery. Say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the people it takes to make the church look and feel like something special is happening. Look at the chancel from multiple perspectives. Look out some windows you don’t usually pass by. Prepare to greet Jesus in the stranger, and prepare to let something ‘happen’ to you tonight, rather than just making all the things happen.
- Gather the elves. A team of people—other staff, lay folks, your spouse, whomever—who will be at church a little early, and who can be counted on to curb last minute disasters. Two cases-in-point: One year, we’d planned a 7-o’clock service, failing to notice that Christmas Eve fell on Wednesday, which was AA night. Which meant that, by 6:50, the lot would be full, with cars parked up and down the street —BEFORE anybody even showed up for church. AHHHH! So we stationed people in the parking lot to ask early-arrivals (both church and AA folks) to park at the bank across the street and walk over, if they were able. Another year, we noticed, about 15 minutes before service, that our candles were too big for the holders. Enter—elves with pocket knives, who went to whittling 150 little tapers down to a manageable size. You will need these people for something… It is not a matter of if, but when.
- Don’t over-think the message. Reality check: nobody comes to Christmas Eve service for the sermon. It is about the candles, the greens, the friends and family, the MUSIC, and the familiar scriptures. I’m not saying that the pastor should not have meaningful words to share… But those meaningful words need not be quite so many as they are on Sunday morning. A 30-minute homily is just torture (for them and you)! This is one of those days that kind of preaches itself. So yes, prepare a lovely meditation or prayer or communion invitation… But put your real energy into being present, greeting visitors, and fully participating in the joy of the gathered community.
- Plan your caffeine-to-alcohol ratio. You will probably need some extra coffee today. You will probably need an adult beverage at some point tonight. Too much of either is a bad idea, as is switching back and forth between the two. Know thyself, and plan your performance-altering substances accordingly. But whatever you do, DON’T be that pastor who tripped on the way up the chancel steps, taking down both the Chrismon tree and the presiding elder. A sermon will be forgotten, but a stumbling pastor will live in infamy. And not in a good way.
- Don’t feel guilty that you are more focused on ‘work’ than on your family for a big portion of this day. Much of the Christmas magic happens AT church. You are sharing a sacred experience with your kids (and other people’s kids). When they are grown, they will remember the candles; the songs; and the year you used their baby doll in the manger; much more than they remember the gifts or the waffles that happen the next morning.
- Remember the Griswolds. Or the Grinch, or Charlie Brown, or Ralphie, or George Bailey. Whatever your favorite Christmas movie, the message is probably this: Christmas doesn’t come from a store… And more importantly, Christmas is not something you make happen.Christmas is the coming incarnation of God’s love made flesh for the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it, y’all. This does not change if there’s a typo in the bulletin, if you drop the communion wine, or if your kid has a meltdown during the last hymn. Your job is to gather the folks, and to celebrate the reality of what God is already doing in the world. You, and your folks, get to be a part of that work way past tonight.
Ok, now go home and fall into that nicely pre-made bed you set up for yourself earlier today. Hopefully someone else has been put gifts under the tree, etc. If you don’t have a spouse/partner, then ask a neighbor, a grandparent, or some church folks to help out. And if you are part of a clergy couple, and you are somehow managing all this with kids AND TWO CONGREGATIONS, then may the Lord Bless and Keep you… I don’t know that I can help you much. But Jesus can, and I tell you what… He is coming. Whatever you do or do not accomplish in all your pastoral awesomeness this week.
Love and light and Christmas joy, friends. BREATHE. God is with us. It says so right there in the hymnal. #ohcomeohcomeemmanuel