Keeping Christmas


Wayne Danielson

Tarrytown United Methodist Church

United Methodist Women 12/10/96

Keeping Christmas

Luke 2:1-19. And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Syrians was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Jude, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in he city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord heath made known unto us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, the the babe lying in a manger.

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

One of the words that is going out of favor these days is keep.

Keep is an old-fashioned word.

It goes all the way back to early English. A keep was the central part of a castle, a place of last resort in battle, a place where you could preserve lives and property. A keep was important. And to keep, to preserve, was important too.

We used to use “keep” in many ways.

Something treasured and preserved was called a keepsake. You don’t hear that word much any more.

We used to say that young people were courting or “keeping company.” Now that’s really old-fashioned, isn’t it?

Lots of people were keepers of one kind or another: we had “housekeepers,” “storekeepers,” “beekeepers.” (I always wanted to be a beekeeper, but I’m allergic to bee stings.”) We had “innkeepers.” All these people were in charge of keeping or preserving something people valued.

One of the oldest women’s magazines in America is Good Housekeeping.

It is read mainly by women who see something of value in the old ways. Other women read more trendy magazines addressed to popular issues — Cosmopolitan, or Glamour,  or Self. It is difficult to imagine that woman on the cover of Cosmo being much interested in housekeeping, isn't it?

In times past, when older people went to live with their children, we called it “breaking up housekeeping.” Do you remember that? It was a sad time when the auctioneer came to the farm to sell off your things and you had to stop “keeping” a house.

When we went fishing as children, we measured the fish we caught against a kind of ruler on the top of the tackle box to see if they were of legal size. If any doubt arouse, dad would take a look at our catch himself, and then say, “That’s a keeper,” or “That’s not a keeper.” I remember he used to say the same thing when he took his first look at one of our children. Measuring the little child against who knows what kind of yardstick, he would eventually nod and say, “That looks like a keeper to me.” We always sighed with relief.

Most of the emphasis on keeping has changed. Keeping is pretty much out of style. It is true that most of us make some attempt to conserve and reuse and recycle, but in general we don’t keep things as much as we used to. I remember that my mother liked to save the Christmas wrappings and ribbons and use them again. We’d see some of that paper for five or six years in a row before it absolutely wore out. And I remember that when I made a mistake and sent our Christmas presents to her in a box that we got at the liquor store, that same box came back to us the next year with her presents to us in it. She hadn’t had nerve enough to put it in the garbage where the neighbors might think she had taken to sipping a little Cutty Sark now and then.

If you don’t think that keeping has gone out of style, try offering an antique bit of family furniture to a child or grandchild. He or she is likely to say, “Thanks for the offer, but we’re just not interested in things.”

The objective today is to be free, independent, unencumbered by material possessions, liquid, ready to pick up and move when the company says go, not tied down to things, places or even people.

If we buy stock in a company, it’s not because we like the company, its people, or its products. We buy for now, for what the stock can do in the near future.  In my freshman seminar this fall, students formed little investment companies with an imaginary $30,000 to spend in the stock market. Each week they reported on how their investments were doing. The best groups earned $5,000 or $6,000 from September to December — mainly on high flying technology companies. Those who did the worst invested in “tried and true” keeper stocks like AT&T, Ford, or General Motors. The attitude of the student investors was simple: if it doesn’t produce, get rid of it. Don’t keep it.

Most young couples I know don’t keep their cars very long. So what if the car still runs perfectly? If it’s two years old, trade it in. Sell it. Get rid of it. You’re losing money every minute that you keep it. My dad’s 1935 Dodge was still going strong years later — it had put three children through high school and two through college.  My folks didn’t sell it until I went off to Stanford in 1952.

Today’s young people don’t often “keep company.” Relationships are more fluid and more fleeting. Young people say they are “dating” someone, if they are semi-serious. But if in six weeks or six months, something doesn’t go right, it’s time to sing “So long, its been good to know you.”  Keeping company had a deeper meaning than dating, I think. It represented more of a commitment.  Keeping company meant you had intentions. It valued the other person. The person you were keeping company with was not viewed as expendable.

Austin’s homeless people are often regarded these days as expendable, throwaway, disposable. Once society had a use for them, felt a responsibility toward them and for them.  They were keepers somehow. Some of you may remember “the princess” who used to walk the Drag pushing her bicycle and selling advertising for a nonexistent newspaper. The Drag merchants kept her going for many years. She was important, a permanent part of the life of the city. The merchants don’t feel the same way about the Dragworms today. They want them warehoused, off the streets and out of sight. Let the Salvation Army take care of them, but not near my place of business, please.

Our attitude to the poor and homeless today sounds remarkably like that of Ebenezer Scrooge, the famous character created by Charles Dickens in his story, A Christmas Carol. I think you will remember this section I am about to read. But I want you to think about how modern it sounds. Scrooge could have been one of today’s Austin businessmen:

Two portly gentlemen are calling on Scrooge on Christmas Eve, hoping to get him to give to the poor.

“Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge or Mr. Marley?”

“Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years,” Scrooge replied. “He died seven years ago this very night.”

“We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner,” said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.

It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberality,” Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body in the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to remain anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides – excuse me — I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

That was written in 1843, but it seems to me you might hear something remarkably like it some days over at the Holiday House. As a matter of fact I heard something remarkably like it from my son Paul just a couple of weeks ago. He called me on his cellular phone from his maroon Cadillac as he drove home from his office in Houston to his lovely home in The Woodlands. As he tooled down the highway, he complained bitterly about the taxes he has to pay to support people “who don’t want to work.”

“You’re too young to act like Scrooge,” I told him. “You should be more compassionate. You’re young and successful now.  But bad things could happen to you too.”

I didn’t convince him, I’m afraid.

Along with our modern reluctance to keep much of anything, have we, like Scrooge, forgotten that keeping Christmas means giving to others who are less fortunate?

Keeping Christmas.

I like the sound of that. It sounds better to me than “celebrating Christmas,” or “ “enjoying Christmas” or “spending Christmas” with someone. Keeping Christmas sounds permanent. And somehow that’s good.

When our family first moved to Austin, we were surprised to see come families throwing out Christmas trees with the wrapping paper and other trash on Christmas Day. I had never seen that before. There’s nothing really wrong with it, of course, but it bothered me. Christmas Day wasn’t even over yet, and the tree was already on the curb for the trash men to pick up.

What was going on? I always wanted to keep Christmas. I was reluctant to add Christmas to the list of modern throwaways.

Taking down the tree and putting away the ornaments were sad tasks for me. I didn’t want Christmas to end so soon. What does it mean to sing The Twelve Days of Christmas when Christmas really lasts for half a day on December 25th?

It seems to me that one of the things that keeping Christmas means is actually trying to preserve the spirit of the day — to keep it going — to keep it alive — as long as you can.

Do you remember what it was like to be a child at Christmas time? That’s what I am talking about keeping — the childlike joy of the holiday.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas caught this sense of joy in his prose poem, A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Here’s an excerpt I like to read at Christmas because it reminds me of the Christmases we used to have back in Iowa when I was a child:

“Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground, and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.”

“Were there postmen then, too?”

“With spring eyes and wind-cherried noses, on spread frozen feet they crunched up to the doors and mittened on them manfully. But all that the children could hear was a ringing of bells.”

“You mean that the postman went rat-a-tat-tat and the doors rang?”

“I mean that the bells that the children could hear were inside them.”

“I only hear thunder sometimes, never bells.”

“There were church bells, too.”

“Inside them?”

“No, no no, in the bat-black, snow-white belfries, tugged by bishops and storks. And they rang their tidings over the bandaged town, over the frozen foam of the powder and ice-cream hills, over the crackling sea. It seemed that all the churches boomed for joy under my window; and the weather cocks crew for Christmas on our fence.”


Keeping Christmas means keeping that childlike sense of joy.

Keeping Christmas these days also means keeping the peace. I read in The New York Times that Christmas is the time some of our most violent family quarrels take place. People who haven’t been home in a long time arrive on our doorsteps, and often we find that they have changed, or that we have changed, or somehow we both have changed, and we don’t really like each other as much as we used to. The Times suggests that one way to cut down on the quarrels is not to spend Christmas Day at home at all but to eat out. According to The Times, people usually don’t fight in restaurants.

Isn’t that something? The only way we can keep the peace on the birthday of the Prince of Peace is to keep the family on its good behavior by going to a public place.

Somehow I don’t think it’s necessary, if we are all intent on keeping Christmas with our families instead of spending it with them.

On Christmas Day, I like to read a Christmas story with the family present, or pray a Christmas prayer, or recite a Christmas poem.  These activities help keep the family’s thoughts centered on the meaning of Christmas rather than on their petty differences.

This is one peaceful poem I like. It is by the English poet Leonard Clark. It is called, “The Sounds of Singing.”

I had almost forgotten the singing in the streets,

Snow piled up by the houses, drifting

Underneath the door into the warm room,

Firelight, lamplight, the little lame cat

Dreaming in soft sleep on the hearth, mother dozing,

Waiting for Christmas to come, the boys and me

Trudging over blanket fields waving lanterns to the sky.

I had almost forgotten the smell, the feel of it all,

The coming back home, with girls laughing like stars,

Their cheeks holly berries, me kissing one,

Silently, soberly, by the long church wall;

Then back to the kitchen table, supper on the white cloth,

Cheese, bread, the home-made wine;

Symbols of the night’s joy, a holy feast.

And I wonder now, years gone, mother gone,

The boys and the girls scattered, drifted away with the snowflakes,

Lamplight done, firelight over,

If the sounds of our singing in the streets are still there,

Those old tunes, still praising;

And now, a life-time of Decembers away from it all,

A branch of remembering holly spears my cheeks,

And I think it may be so;

Yes, I believe it may be so.

Keeping Christmas means keeping the peace of Christmas, remembering that when all is said and done, we really do love one another. That’s important, because the deepest meaning of Christmas is love. The writer of the Book of John put it most plainly (John 3:16):

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Keeping Christmas means keeping love alive in our hearts. Love is the hallmark of the Christian family. And the love we share came first from God. In the words of Christina Rossetti’s poem:

Love came down at Christmas,

Love all lovely, Love Divine;

Love was born at Christmas,

Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the God-head,

Love incarnate, Love Divine;

Worship we our Jesus:

But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,

Love be yours and love be mine,

Love to God and all men,

Love for plea and gift and sign.

Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus is part of his original material. None of it comes from Mark. It is simply Luke’s. An interesting theological question is this: where did he get this wonderful story, one of the all-time favorites of the Western World? Where did he get the story of the trip to Bethlehem, the birth in the manger, the swaddling clothes, the shepherds, the angel’s song?

Scholars say these stories were undoubtedly told in Luke’s church. They were part of a Christian tradition handed down to him that he decided to share with his readers. But handed down from whom?

I’ve always been interested in the last line of Luke’s story — “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

“Mary kept all these things ....”

It is a thing of wonder, but not beyond belief, that the person who first kept Christmas, who kept it for Luke and through him for all the world to come, was Mary herself. Who but a mother would have remembered the manger, the swaddling clothes, and those rough shepherds who showed up looking for a child?

In the modern world, is Christmas destined to become just another throwaway — along with the paper plates, the plastic forks, the disposable diapers, the homeless people down at the Salvation Army shelter? God forbid. God forbid. In all its meanings, let’s keep Christmas this year and every year. Let’s keep it with giving. Let’s keep it with joy. Let’s keep it with peace. Let’s keep it with love. And, may it be said of us, as Dickens said of Scrooge after his conversion:

He had no further intercourse with spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

I would like to close with a blessing first given by Father Giovanni on Christmas morning in the year 1513:

I salute you. There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take joy.

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.