God of Tradition



We all have them, especially during the holidays.

We decorate trees, we bake cookies, we play Secret Santa, we stuff stockings, we glaze hams. All in the spirit of Christmas.

But what do any of these traditions really have to do with true meaning of Christmas?

In recent years, I’ve been convicted by just how much I rely on my childhood traditions to enable me to truly enjoy the Christmas season. When I was 21, I moved from the dreamy white Christmases of West Michigan to experience my first holiday season in Cape Town, South Africa. Like a snowball to the face was the realization that Christmas is celebrated far differently in the southern hemisphere than it is portrayed in The Polar Express.

I groped around for familiarity and did my utmost to recreate the absolute essentials that define Christmas. My poor South African husband eyed me with suspicion in our first year of marriage, when I unboxed the three-foot-high acrylic evergreen and proceeded to adorn it with a single strand of multi-colored lights. Never mind that it was the peak of the South African summer and the African sun didn’t set until well past nine o’clock at night, so there was barely time to actually enjoy the lights anyway.

After several years of trying in vain to make Cape Town my own little winter haven, I gave up and began to accept a “new normal” for the month of December.

In lieu of curling up next to the fireplace with a mug of hot cocoa, I grew used to standing around the outdoor braai (the South African version of a barbecue) with an ice cold Coke. Instead of wrapping up in scarves and long underwear to go sledding and sing Christmas carols in the snow-covered streets, I resorted to slapping on the sunscreen and flip-flops and heading to the beach. I savored the emphasis on family and get-togethers over and above the consumerism and materialism that dominates so much of the holiday season in the U.S.

Granted, I have yet to embrace the rich fruitcake that South Africans so fondly refer to as Christmas pudding. I do, however, look forward to the chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies that a certain family at our church give us every year after the Christmas morning service.

Last year, though, my mom passed away, and I found myself struggling to do the “usual” traditions. I thought to myself, “Well, at least there are chocolate-dipped cookies to look forward to after church.” Really? Have I stooped so low?

Imagine my dismay when we left church that morning without a plate of cookies. I saw the cookies — in the hands of other families. But that day, I got into the car without a plate of my own. To my embarrassment, I almost started crying! Over cookies! Am I really so shallow?

Is Christmas really about the cookies? To my surprise (and relief), my husband walked through the door twenty minutes later with our very own plate of chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies. It was as if the Lord allowed that temporary delay to show me just how much I fail to exalt Him alone as my true source of joy and delight.

What do you most look forward to during the Christmas season?

Is it the opportunity to celebrate the birth of the risen King? Or, like me, could it be something else — something manmade, something temporary, something that will disappear like Christmas cookies off a Santa Claus platter?

What defines Christmas for you?

Is it your grandmother’s pecan pie? If you don’t get what you want in your stocking, does that “ruin” Christmas for you that year? How do you measure your enjoyment of one of the most important days of the year?

God of Tradition

A couple of years ago, I was able to hear Noël Piper speak on the topic of her book, Treasuring God in our Traditions.

Until that evening, I had never considered the notion that God is the One who created traditions in the first place.

Think about it. Throughout Scripture, He encourages His people to remember what He has done, and to tell future generations. The people of Israel are commanded to remember certain feasts and celebrations, not just for the sake of tradition, but because of the spiritual meaning that undergirds each event.

In her book, Piper suggests three ways of defining the term “tradition”:

  • A tradition is a planned habit with significance
  • Tradition is the handing down of information, beliefs, worldview from one generation to another by word of mouth and by regular repetition of example, of ceremony, of celebration
  • For a Christian, tradition is laying up God’s words in our own hearts and passing his words to the next generation

I must admit, these definitions shook my thinking regarding why we do what we do.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with shaking sprinkles onto cut-out cookies or stringing popcorn onto the boughs of a blue spruce. But why do we do it?

If you’re a parent, your toddler has no doubt asked the same question countless times: “Why?” In His instructions to Israel regarding the celebration of the Passover, God says through Moses, “And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them…” (Exodus 12:26). We ought to be prepared to give an answer in season and out of season for the hope that we have and for the reason why we do the things we do as Christian families.

Treasuring God in Our Traditions

How can we alter some of our existing traditions or introduce new traditions to magnify God’s goodness and grace?

Instead of making gingerbread houses with our kids, we could make gingerbread inns and mangers and use the opportunity to re-tell the story of Mary and Joseph searching for a place to sleep.

We can make use of wonderful resources like advent candles and advent calendars to maximize the anticipation and build-up to Jesus’ birthday, to ensure that the focus is fixed on its rightful recipient.

When I was growing up, we had an advent wreath. I remember looking forward to each Sunday leading up to Christmas, when we would sit at the dining room table and light another candle in remembrance of what God has done.

Now that I have my own children, we’ve been making our own advent calendars each year. The kids wake up every morning in December with great excitement, eager to see what is in the next pocket or envelope. We include passages of Scripture each day, which tell the magnificent story of God’s plan for mankind.

With smaller children, we could make a birthday cake to share on Christmas, to emphasize the fact that we’re celebrating someone’s birthday — and not just any birthday, but the birth of our Savior. If gifts are exchanged, we could use the opportunity to teach our children that we give gifts because of the greatest gift of all — the gift that God gave to us through His Son. As they open their gifts, we can teach them the truth of James 1:17, that “every good and perfect gift is from above.”

This year, let us not get so tangled up in strings of lights and shopping receipts that we fail to exalt the true meaning of Christmas.

Let’s be creative and help each other treasure God in our traditions. How have you incorporated Christ into your family’s Christmas traditions?

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Kate Motaung grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan before spending ten years in Cape Town, South Africa. She is married to a South African and together they have three children. Kate is the author of the e-book, Letters to Grief, hosts the Five Minute Friday blog link-up, and has contributed to several other online publications. She blogs at Heading Home and can be found on Twitter @k8motaung.

  • Hey Kate – a lovely article this! I agree wholeheartedly.

    I think there’s loads to say about traditions :-) Personally, I love establishing traditions for the purpose of portraying the gospel. So we do do loads of Christ-centred traditions both at Christmas and Easter (all blogged at http://bit.ly/hayestraditions). I totally see how God has modelled the goodness of tradition to us.

    There is a thought that has been milling around my head for quite some time and the topic of ‘traditions’ has long been mulched up with all the other issues centred around this thought. I wonder if you mind me sharing with you here?

    Disclaimer: this thought is no reflection on what you have said here (totally agree with you)! My thought is: I wonder, if, as with everything else in this world, we human beings can thoroughly ruin traditions too by a) holding onto meaningless traditions “Fiddler on the Roof” style or creating tradition for tradition sake and b) prescribing tradition-forming as a part of the “good” Christian life. What I mean by that is that while I personally love traditions, see their value and enjoy establishing new Christ-focused traditions in my own little family, I am wary of the pressure put on Christian families to do traditions along with all the other “right things to do if you’re a Christian” prescriptions that don’t really have anything to do with salvation. It seems that lately there is a lot of that kind of pressure: online, especially. Somewhere along the line it’s as if the “traditions are great and worthy” has morphed into “Christians should establish traditions if they really are saved”. And so “traditions” are added to the list of “what good Christians do” along with breastfeed their babies, birth them naturally, start the day with prayer for the whole family, do Passover and a variety of other things that have nothing to do with salvation itself.

    Part of me feels that for someone who doesn’t do traditions in an intentional way should be discerning enough not to feel the pressure, but another part of me feels that those of us who are tradition-advocates should always be careful not to be prescriptive.

    Right – now there are some of my as-yet-unwritten-thoughts blurted out on your post! Apologies :-)

    Thank you for your insightful, helpful and not-at-all prescriptive article!

    • Thanks, Taryn, for taking the time to share these thoughts. I loved the pictures on your blog, by the way. It’s so refreshing to see a family having so much fun while practicing Christ-centered traditions!

      I think your point about being prescriptive is very apt and can be applied to far more than just holiday traditions, as you allude to in your comment. Much of what we are ‘used to’ can masquerade itself as ‘gospel,’ when in fact it is just cultural, or tradition. The way we do church, for example – we may think it *must* be done in a certain way, because that is the *Christian* way to do it, but in actual fact, that may just be what our culture has imprinted on us. The main measuring rod when we are trying to sift through what is gospel and what is culture, is obviously the Scriptures, as you know.

      Take the Lord’s supper, for example — a “tradition” that is prescribed by the Lord Himself: “Do this in remembrance of me.” The symbolism and meaning behind it is the main reason we continue to celebrate it today — yet it may be easy for us to think that the way we do it in our church is the *right* way to do it. We may be tempted to critique other modes or methods of celebrating the Lord’s supper in Portugal or the Philippines because they don’t do it the way we do … but in actual fact, most churches don’t partake in communion the same way the Lord Jesus did in any case. What I’m trying to say is that it is easy to come to something that is different and want to say that it is wrong, but all the while we are using our own method as the measuring stick, as opposed to going to the Word of God to determine whether a practice is biblical or not.

      For me, the challenge is to keep Christ at the center. It becomes an issue if any one of us in the family gets upset if we didn’t get to put the tree up one year, or if we never got around to baking cookies. The important thing is to not let traditions dictate what the day is all about, but to remember that they are meant to point us back to Him and what He has done for us.

      Thanks again for sharing your insights! Would love to keep the dialogue going as we work through these things with time!

      • 100%! You’ve articulated beautifully what I was trying to say. I so identify with having to keep Christ centered and not the cookies that got burned! :-)

  • This was a great article! I love traditions and I love how you weave in how God started traditions for his own people to remember Him by.

    • Thanks, Danielle. May you and your family have a blessed time celebrating the birth of Christ this month!

  • Betsy

    Wonderful article! Thanks for being so transparent, and for the great ideas of how to create meaningful traditions. Merry Christmas!

    • Thanks for your comment, Betsy! May you have a blessed Christmas as well.

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God of Tradition

by Kate Motaung time to read: 5 min