Christmas Traditions

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
-Micah 5:2
In the not very little town of Bethlehem, in the middle of crowded streets filled with souvenir shops and falafel restaurants, is a grand white stone building, the Church of the Nativity. It’s big enough to hold three monasteries AND four cathedral-like worship spaces. It holds the distinction of being the longest continuously used worship site in Christianity. Most importantly of all, it sits atop a small network of caves.
Bethlehem is in the hill country, where the landscape is dotted with caves created when the soft rock was eroded away by water. Because the soil is rocky and dry, the vegetation is not what we’d consider impressive: mostly shrubs and grasses, with small olive trees scattered here and there. With very little in the way of wood and an abundance of small natural caves, the historic residents of Bethlehem used the caves to house their livestock. The caves provided a ready-made shelter. Most were just big enough for a single family’s sheep or goats, with only one way in or out. As a bonus, because the caves were insulated by the surrounding hillside, they stayed fairly temperate all year round.
It was in one of these caves that Mary and Joseph found themselves when Jesus was born. I know, I know, all the traditional pictures we have show a stable– but, like I said, there wasn’t enough wood to waste any of it on a building for animals. Instead, in a rock-hewn manger in a cave, Mary laid her baby.
It is atop that cave and several others that the Church of the Nativity is built. The network of caves is accessible by several narrow staircases from within the church. Each cave is distinct, with artwork, engravings, and altars throughout.
The cave that most impressed me when I visited was very simple. There is a white stone altar covered with a white cloth. On either side, the altar is flanked by square blocks forming two columns. Each block has a Latin inscription. These words correspond to each of the verses of the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The carvings are very old, made at least a thousand years ago. The words of that hymn have been prayed for more than 1400 years. It’s a common tradition to pray or sing the verses one by one on the days leading up to Christmas.
It is easy for me to forget how old our faith is. Around here, even the longest-established churches are no more than two hundred years old. Of course, it doesn’t take a thousand years to establish a tradition. Just a few years can be enough.
This time of year is full of traditions, in church and in family. Some are rich with meaning. Some feel like burdensome obligations. Some can be traced back to the beginning. Some appeared without anybody being quite sure where they came from. Some are simple. Some are complex. All traditions were once new, and all traditions eventually come to an end. The best traditions are the ones that deepen our faith, connecting us with God and one another.
As we draw near to Christmas Eve, consider the traditions you follow. Which are most meaningful? Are there any that have served their purpose and can be ended? If there are traditions that need to end, let them go gracefully. Is there something new that needs to begin?
Whatever your traditions may be, may they deepen your faith this Christmas. Whether they are new or old, may your traditions connect you more firmly with the ancient one who came as our newborn king.
Merry Christmas.