Best gifts money can’t buy

Christmas traditions of childhood and church taught spirit of giving, finding joy in each other

Penny Woods of New Life Fellowship Ministry in South Bend, Ind., painted this scene as a backdrop for a 2018 Christmas pageant. — Penny Woods Penny Woods of New Life Fellowship Ministry in South Bend, Ind., painted this scene as a backdrop for a 2018 Christmas pageant. — Penny Woods

Growing up in South Bend, Ind., I loved the Christmas story. I especially admired Mary’s trust in God. My parents modeled that trust as they kept Jesus the focus of Christmas. My siblings and I never knew we were poor, because our parents, who were from the South, sought out and cared for those who had less than we did. They clothed, housed and fed people at Christmas.

Our Christmas was different from the commercialized way of celebrating. We didn’t find everything on our wish lists under the tree, but that didn’t make Christmas any less joyful. We knew the most fitting way to celebrate was to find joy in each other as we gathered around good old Southern food, family stories and the love of our elders.

Shaped by my upbringing, I try to step outside the consumerism that causes Christmas stress. I praise God for the birth of Jesus, who is our peace and our salvation. For me, celebrating Christmas is an annual renewal of inspiration to trust God — not by shopping for gifts that merchants advertise but by caring for others and sharing the gift of Jesus with them.

Working with Black youth and young adults for more than 30 years at New Life Fellowship Ministry in South Bend, a nondenominational congregation where I am a member, my goal was to keep Jesus as the center of Christmas. I encouraged them to recognize the most important gift is one they do not need to buy. They could pray and know how to respond to someone in need.

For the annual Christmas pageant, the youth and young adults looked deep into the Christmas story with genuine interest in the story’s details and their relevance. We included Black art (such as a painting by Penny Woods, used as a backdrop for the 2018 Christmas pageant and published on the cover of this magazine), Black Christmas gospel music (“Merry Christmas” by the Temptations) and other Black gospel music accompanied by praise dance, incorporating our written version of the nativity story.

These Christmas traditions allowed us to celebrate God’s liberating victory of peace and salvation as Black people who understand the rejection Mary and Joseph faced because we experienced it too. We acknowledged that while the Christmas story is filled with wonder and beauty, it includes elements of challenge and fear.

While celebrating the baby Jesus as a miraculous gift, my Christmas traditions include acknowledging the struggle of Mary and Joseph, celebrating their faith and endurance and God’s protection. The Christmas story encourages us to trust God in the midst of our struggles and throughout the year.

Ann Jacobs is church relations representative for Mennonite Mission Network. She attends New Life Fellowship Ministry in South Bend, Ind.

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