What’s the first image that comes to your mind when you think of Christmas? Is it a Nativity scene? An Advent wreath? Santa? For me, it’s a birthday cake.
Yes, a birthday cake. One Christmas, when I was about 4 years old and my family was getting ready for Christmas dinner, I asked where the birthday cake was. The adults were a bit puzzled by my question, but it seemed logical to me. After all, they taught me that Christmas was Jesus’ birthday. We each had a birthday cake for our birthdays, so why wouldn’t we have one for Jesus on his birthday? I wasn’t happy about this lack of a birthday cake for Jesus and asked how they would feel if they didn’t have a birthday cake on their own birthday. Wouldn’t they feel sad and forgotten? Didn’t they know how important a birthday cake was for a birthday, especially for baby Jesus?
At that point, my aunt took me to church so I could explain to the baby Jesus in the Nativity scene how the “mean adults” had not made him a birthday cake for his birthday. (I think it was her way of getting me out of the house so my mom could make a cake in peace without me nagging at her.) By the time we got home from church, a birthday cake for Jesus was in the oven.
I think of this story every Christmas. It’s a good reminder that Jesus’ birth should be as real to me now as it was that day when I was a child. Jesus is our God. His birth is a cause for celebration. It’s a call to turn away from the relentless Christmas sales and the 100 or so Christmas specials that run on television. It’s a time to pause and realize the depth of God’s love for us, which we see manifest in Jesus’ life and sacrifice for the sake of our salvation.
It’s important to my faith to keep the reality of Jesus’ deep love for me in my mind and heart, especially at Christmas. Since our children have been born, my husband and I strive to teach them that Christmas is about the birth Jesus, not about tangible gifts. One way we do this is to not exchange gifts on Christmas so we can focus on celebrating Jesus’ birth by attending Mass and spending time with family. (We exchange simple gifts on Epiphany instead, which is when Jesus himself received gifts from the Magi.)
Having a childlike faith isn’t reserved only for children. As adults, we can also work to cultivate a childlike faith in order to help us understand even better the reality of Jesus’ birth. Besides making Jesus a birthday cake and singing happy birthday to him each Christmas, here are a few other ways my family makes Jesus’ birth the focus of the season:
- Making our Nativity scene a focal point of our Christmas celebration — As a family, we set out our Nativity scene at the beginning of Advent, but we don’t put baby Jesus in the manger at that time. On Christmas Day, we all gather together and one of our children will place him in the scene with Mary and Joseph. It’s another way for us to remember that Jesus is born, entering our lives each Christmas.
- Giving gifts to Baby Jesus — Growing up, whenever my siblings and I did a good deed or act of service for someone during Advent, my mom would write it down on a slip of paper. It motivated us to actively seek out opportunities to do good for others. On Christmas Day, we would place a gift box filled with these good deeds in front of the Nativity scene. They were our gifts to Baby Jesus for his birthday.
- Giving gifts to those in need — Plan a gift in Jesus’ name to someone who could use a little extra care this season. Perhaps you can help your church provide Christmas baskets for families in need. Visit a local nursing home to say hello to residents or organize Christmas caroling there with some friends. Spend time with someone who is lonely or homebound. Something that seems so simple to us means so much to someone who is lonely or in need.
With a little planning, we can make the effort to have a more tangible understanding of Jesus’ birth this Christmas. Such a perspective has had a positive impact on my own faith life, not only during Christmas, but throughout the entire year. When I become distracted by everything going on in the world, I take time to remember Jesus’ birthday cake. I remember that Jesus was born in a manger. I take my eyes off of the world, and refocus myself on him. I try to put myself in the childlike frame of mind that I had all those Christmases ago when I wanted to recognize the Baby Jesus’ birth with a simple birthday cake.
Jesus longs for us to come to him like little children. Why not start this Christmas?