Christmas 2019

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For the four weeks leading up to Christmas, our congregation prepared to celebrate the birth of Jesus by participating in the Advent Conspiracy. You can find more information on the Advent Conspiracy in previous messages but its basic purpose is to help us find greater meaning in Christmas by Worshiping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More and Loving All.

As our church gathered in worship on Christmas Eve, I reflected on the times I had been to our local shopping centre over the last few weeks. A couple of kilometres from us is Tea Tree Plaza, the biggest shopping centre in the north-east suburbs of Adelaide. It is one of the most popular places in Adelaide for people to shop so there is always a pretty strong flow of people through it. This flow turns into a torrent around Christmas as people flock to it to do their Christmas shopping.

During a couple of my visits to the Plaza before Christmas, I saw people who were wearing very Christmassy t-shirts with words like ‘Peace’ and ‘Joy’ on them. However, when I looked at their faces, they didn’t seem to be displaying a lot of peace or joy. Instead they looked worried, concerned, stressed, and frantic.

I find it ironic and, to a larger extent, tragic that the season which is supposed to be about peace and joy ends up producing exactly the opposite.

What if Christmas didn’t have to be that way? What if the things that we identify with Christmas such as peace, joy, hope and love didn’t have to be merely slogans on the clothes we wear or cards we purchase, but could be the realities in which we live and which we give to the people around us?

Instead of just talking about peace, joy, hope and love, the goal of the Advent Conspiracy is to help us find greater peace, joy, love and hope by bringing us back to what Christmas was originally all about. At Christmas we journey to the manger in faith to witness how God has entered into our existence, taken all our worries, anxieties, failures and brokenness on himself in order to free us from them, and given us life in all of its fullness. The celebration of Christmas was never intended to burden us with stress, worry and anxiety. Jesus came into the world to free us from those things and give us greater peace, joy, hope and love.

The four themes of the Advent Conspiracy are to help us on our way of finding these gifts at Christmas. When we worship fully, we keep Jesus at the centre of our Christmas celebrations, remembering that he came into the world to bless us with a deeper and longer-lasting peace, joy, hope and love. We can spend less money, freeing us from the burden of unmanageable debt, to help people who have less than we do, from our own neighbours to others around the world. We can give more of ourselves, celebrating our relationships with each other and building stronger connections with people who are closest to us or that we have a hard time relating to. And we can love all, being as inclusive with our love as God is by including us in his love through Jesus.

This isn’t just something that we can be part of at Christmas. On Christmas Day I continued with the Advent Conspiracy theme by pointing out that the mystery of Jesus’ Incarnation wasn’t just a one-off event. The way I hear some people talk about Christmas, it seems like they celebrate the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago in a land far, far away – but that’s it. I’ve been surprised this year by the number of people I’ve heard refer to Jesus’ birth as just an historical event, almost like it was confined to a moment in the past.

The mystery of the Incarnation, that the infinite God took on human form by becoming a flesh-and-blood person, is something that is a continuing reality for us. The mystery and the miracle of the Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’, is that since the birth of Jesus God has been immediately and intimately involved in human history as a real person. Something changed in the universe when Jesus was born and God began to experience what it is like for us to be born, live and die.

In a way, we can think of every day as Christmas. We focus on God becoming human in the infant Jesus at Christmas, but we share in the blessings he brings us every day of our lives. Imagine what it would be like to enjoy the best things of Christmas each and every day of the year. When we were talking about this in our service on Christmas Day, some were worried that if we have all the things that make Christmas special every day, such as decorations, food, carols and gifts, then they would become ordinary and stop being special. But what if we could wake up every morning with all the best things about Christmas there for us to enjoy, and they would never stop being special? How good would that be?

The Advent Conspiracy was never meant to be just a Christmas thing. It is there to help us re-orient our worldview at Christmas so we can continue to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All for the other forty-eight weeks of the year as well. As we look for Jesus and the mystery of ‘God with us’ during the whole year, we can find deeper and lasting peace, joy, hope and love all year round. These aren’t just nice ideas for a particular time of year, but gifts that we can carry with us and draw on throughout the year, especially when we or others around us need them the most.

God is with us in Jesus through his Spirit for the entire year. God didn’t just take on human flesh two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. God continues to take on our human existence, becoming flesh and blood as he is born in us, just as Jesus was born in the manger. Jesus comes alive in our hearts as we hear the good news of his birth and life, death and resurrection for us. The same Holy Spirit who created the life of Jesus within Mary creates his new life in us through the faith the Spirit gives us. When we gather together as God’s people to celebrate the meal that Jesus gave us, he is there, giving us his incarnate self through the bread and wine to live in us, to unite us in relationship with our loving heavenly Father, and to join us with other believers as his living, breathing body in the world.

God’s gift of his Son to us wasn’t just an event that happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. God gifts his Son to us through the Holy Spirit every time we read or hear his Word, the good news of Jesus, and as we receive the meal Jesus provided for his followers. That means that every day is Christmas as God becomes one with us and gifts us with his life-giving presence.

As we came to the end of the Advent Conspiracy for this year, we gathered in worship to hear the story of Jesus birth and to live in the faith that God who embraced human existence is still embracing us and our humanity. Because of this good news, we can continue to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All as we live in the peace, joy hope and love that Jesus gifts to us every day of the year.

Love All (Romans 1:1-7)

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As we explored the four key ideas of the Advent Conspiracy over the last few weeks, I have been getting together with groups of people on Wednesday mornings and evenings to discuss how they might help us celebrate Christmas in a more meaningful way. This week’s discussions on Loving All were very different but both very challenging.

I actually thought this would be one of the easier topics to discuss because love is central to the teachings of Jesus. However, the conversations were very personal and challenging. It can be really difficult to love people in the way Jesus teaches, especially at Christmas. That might be because of the overwhelming needs that we face, especially when we look at the global need for basic necessities such as food, clean water, shelter, safety and medical supplies. Loving all might also be hard because there are people in our lives who are difficult to love. When we get together with our families at Christmas, there can be an expectation to have a picture-perfect celebration. However, every family has some degree of dysfunction and Christmas can be a time when that can come out in ways that can lead to arguments or other forms of conflict.

I read an author once who suggested that we can read Jesus’ command to love others in the way that he loves us (John 13:34; 15:12,17) as the heart of the Bible’s message, and everything else is commentary on it. We can read Scripture as being full of examples of God’s love for us in Jesus and how to love others in the same way. Especially as we read the New Testament, we can see the apostles discipling Christian communities of faith into loving others in the way Jesus teaches in their various relationships, contexts and circumstances.

What is most challenging about loving in the way of Jesus is that it focuses on what is best for the other person, even if that comes at a cost to us. The love Jesus embodied and calls us to is other-centred love. We can see this all the way through Paul’s letters for example, especially in texts such as ‘No one should seek their own good, but the good of others’ (1 Corinthians 10:24 NIV) and ‘in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others’ (Philippians 2:3b,4 NIV). Since I came across this idea, I’ve been reading the Bible through this filter, asking how each passage tells me about God’s love for me in Jesus or how to love others in the way of Jesus. I’ve found it very helpful in growing as a disciple of Jesus.

Reading the Bible in this way has shown me two basic truths. Firstly, that it is impossible for me to love this way on my own. St Augustine, a leader of the early Christian church who was born in 354AD, described sin as being curved in on ourselves. If Jesus teaches us an other-centred love, then the opposite of that will be me-centred. We can therefore understand sin not so much as breaking rules or doing the wrong thing, but an orientation towards ourselves where we think of what’s good for us over what’s good for others.

The second truth that reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus’ teaching on love gives me is that God really is the source of all love in the world. The Apostle John wrote, ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:10 NIV). God is so other-centred that he gave everything for us and to us in the person of Jesus. This is what we talked about last week when we looked at the theme of Giving More – in Jesus, God gives all of himself to us as God became one with us, and then Jesus gave all of himself for us by dying on the cross. When we start to uncover how God has loved his people throughout history and promises to continue to love us in the words of the Bible, we begin to ‘grasp how wide and long and high and deep if the love of Christ’ so that we ‘may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3:18,19 NIV).

God fills us with the fullness of his love in Jesus so we can bring his self-sacrificing, other-focused, life-changing love to others. Paul tells us at the start of his letter to the Christians in Rome that this love was never intended to be for one, exclusive group, but for all people, no matter who they are or where they come from. (Romans 1:6,7). We all have countless opportunities to show God’s inclusive love to others! The authors of the Advent Conspiracy challenge us to look overseas, to people who lack the basic necessities of life that we take for granted every day and ask how we can love them as the body of Christ. We can also look closer to home, to the needs that exist within our own nation by being the light of Christ in our country by showing his love to others in any way we can. We can also look to our own communities of faith, no matter what form they might take, and ask how we can help every person who connects with us experience the reality of God’s love life-changing for them. We can also look to our own families, with all the baggage, the history, the hurts and the dysfunction we’ll bring to our Christmas and New year celebrations, and ask how we can love them in the way Jesus loves us, no matter what it might cost us. When we love them in the way of Jesus, they can encounter the miracle of the Incarnation, almighty and eternal God taking on human flesh in human relationships, in our relationship with us.

What’s important in Loving All isn’t that we try to enforce our understanding of the meaning of Christmas onto others. That isn’t the kind of love Jesus embodied. Instead, Jesus ate and drank with sinners, loving them, accepting them, showing them a better way to live and extending grace to them, especially those who needed it the most but deserved it the least. What if we loved all in the same way – not expecting anything from them, but incarnating the goodness and mercy of God among them in grace and self-giving, other-focused love?

I pray that God will make his presence with you real in the person of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, so that as you celebrate his coming, not just then and there in Bethlehem but here and now in you, you also might be the presence of our loving God in the world as you love all.

Give More (Matthew 11:2-11)

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It might seem strange to some that the week after we talked about Spending Less at Christmas, we look at the idea of Giving More. Maybe that’s because we often closely connect giving with spending money. What if we didn’t have to? What might Christmas be like if we explored the ways we can give more of ourselves to each other relationally, rather than giving things we don’t really need?

The authors of the Advent Conspiracy write about giving more of ourselves in our relationships with others because of their faith in the giving nature of God. When we encounter God in the person of Jesus, we meet the God who gives with no strings attached. The authors of the Advent Conspiracy show us how we can understand God gift to us in the person of Jesus in a few ways:

  • God gave us his presence
    Matthew’s gospel identifies Jesus as the one who fulfils the words of the prophet Isaiah that Jesus is Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:22,23). Jesus is God’s presence with us in all the circumstances of our lives.
  • The gift of Jesus was personal
    God knows what each and every one of us needs in our lives. We can talk about Jesus coming to give life to everyone in the world, but a saving faith trusts that he did it for each of us personally.
  • His gift was costly
    God held nothing back, but he gave up his Son, the most precious thing he has, out of love for us (John 3:16). In the same way, Jesus gave everything up for us and held nothing back by dying on the cross (1 John 4:10). The gift of life cost Jesus everything.
  • His gift bridged the gap
    When sin separated us from God, Jesus bridged the gap between us and brought us back into relationship with God. God did this by becoming one with us in Jesus who is fully God and fully human, and then Jesus removed everything that divides us by dying on the cross.

In Jesus’ birth we find a God who gives everything to us and for us. We can also see the giving nature of God in Jesus in the words of the gospel reading for last Sunday. In Matthew 11:2-11, John the Baptists sends some of his disciples to see if Jesus really is the Messiah they had been waiting for. Jesus replies by saying,

‘Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen – the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.’ (vv4,5 NLT)

In this reading we witness some of the gifts God gives to us through Jesus. He doesn’t just physically heal people, but also our heart, mind and soul. When we find it hard to see God’s goodness, Jesus helps us see God’s grace and love. He gives us the strength we need to walk in the way he teaches as we follow him in faith and love. Jesus makes us clean by taking everything about us that is unclean, forgiving us and restoring us to our relationships and community. When we were dead in sin, Jesus raises us to new life as children of God whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. This is the Good News which he proclaims to us when our hearts, minds and souls are impoverished and empty.

When the authors of the Advent Conspiracy point us to the way God gives to us in Jesus, they ask us to consider giving to others in the same way: giving our presence in a personal way, even though it might cost us, to bridge the gaps that exist between us. The gifts they encourage us to give are more relational in nature. These are gifts that celebrate the relationships we have and keep them strong.

The Advent Conspiracy website has a lot of good ideas on how to give more in a relational way. As I thought about Giving More leading up to Advent, though, it became clear that the idea of Giving More doesn’t just apply to Christmas, but connects with other things that are happening around our church.

During our Annual Business Meeting a few weeks ago, I asked the people who attended to describe the church they hope to be in the future. As I read their responses, ideas like ‘inclusive’, ‘inter-generational’ and ‘community’ came up regularly. I started asking myself if this was the kind of community people were hoping to get for themselves, or were hoping to give to others. If we all hope to get a community that includes me or my generation, then it isn’t going to happen. To Give More means to be willing to give an inclusive, inter-generational community as a gift to others by being inclusive of all people, of all generations. The other idea that appeared regularly was being ‘Christ-centred.’ To be ‘Christ-centred’ essentially means loving each other in the way Christ loves us. To use the language of the Advent Conspiracy, that includes giving more of our presence to each other in a personal way, no matter what the cost, to bridge the gaps that exist between us.

We have an opportunity to do that next month. Between Christmas and the end of January, our congregation will be having one weekly worship service. The hope is to combine elements of both styles of worship, but from past experiences I suspect that some people’s immediate reaction will be to complain that they aren’t getting what they want. I hope that our congregation will Give More in worship after Christmas by giving up our personal preferences for music, liturgical style, and other things so we can worship with others in our congregation who like to worship in a different way. I’m asking the people of our church to prioritise people over our worship preferences. When we do that, we extend God’s grace to each other as we give more for the sake of Jesus.

To Give More means to embrace a life of grace. I tend to think that life is about one of two things: what we give or what we get. It is our natural orientation to want to get more than we give. However, when we encounter the gift of Jesus, born for us in Bethlehem and laid in a manger, we witness the giving nature of God who gifts us with his presence in a personal way, no matter what the cost, to bridge the gap that existed between us.

As we trust in God’s gift of himself to us in Jesus, God then asks us to go and give of ourselves to others in the same way.

How might we do that this Christmas, and in the coming year…?

Spend Less (Matthew 3:1-12)

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As our congregation continues participating in the Advent Conspiracy to help us prepare to celebrate Christmas, the second theme we’re looking at is to Spend Less. I did some homework to find out how much we spend at this time of year and discovered that last year Australians spent $25 billion. That works out to about $1,325 per person across our country.

I was stunned when I found that statistic. What makes it even more extraordinary to me is when we look at it in the context of people who are in need around the world. For example:

  • More than a billion people in the world live on less than a dollar per day
  • 2.8 billion people, almost half of the global population, live on less than 2 dollars per day
  • Every day, 30,000 children under 5 die from avoidable diseases
  • More than a billion people don’t have access to healthy water
  • 20% of the global population have 90% of the wealth

(Source: www.atd-fourthworld.org/who-we-are/faq/how-many-people-living-in-poverty-are-there/)

Closer to home, as I sat down at my desk last Friday to prepare this message, I received an email telling me that ‘one in six Australian children and young people are growing up in poverty.’ Whether we look globally or on our own doorstep, there are people in need who would benefit from at least some of the $25 billion we spend on presents, food, decorations and other things at Christmas.

It makes even less sense to me that we spend this amount of money at Christmas when we listen to the teachings of the person whose birth we are celebrating. When we read the gospels and what Jesus said about money, he said things like:

  • “You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” (Matthew 6:24)
  • “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.” (Luke 6:20)
  • “Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” (Luke 12:21)
  • “Sell your possessions and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven!” (Luke 12:33)

We can spend a lot of time discussing exactly what Jesus meant when he said these and other words like them. Some people take them more literally, while others argue that Jesus was using hyperbole to make a point or speaking metaphorically. No matter how we might interpret Jesus’ teachings, there can be no doubt that Jesus challenges his followers to think carefully about the place money has in our lives and the importance we give to material possessions. It can be easy for us as more affluent Christians in the developed world to skip over what Jesus says about money, but we need to be listening to Jesus and wrestling with the meaning behind his words if we are going to find and share the life he promises us.

Jesus identified strongly with the poor because he knew poverty. When he was born, his parents lay him in a manger, a place which contained straw for the animals to eat, and not in a soft, comfortable bed. By the age of two, Jesus and his parents fled their home to Egypt as refugees. During the three years of his ministry, Jesus was basically an unemployed homeless person who survived on the generosity of others. He was crucified as a slave with no clothes, money or other possessions. After his death, Jesus’ friends laid his body in a borrowed tomb.

The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus embraced poverty in order to provide us with the riches of God’s grace. He wrote,

‘You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9 NLT).

Paul uses financial language to tell us that Jesus gave up everything we might think is important so that we can become rich in our relationship with God. Everything in creation belongs to Jesus because he created it with the Father and the Holy Spirit. However, Jesus gave it all up to live in poverty and die with nothing so that we might become rich in God’s grace. Some like to think that Paul means financially rich, but he more likely means that we can become rich in the things that money can’t buy. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we become rich in God’s love as he gives us his perfect and infinite love. God makes us rich in hope as Jesus’ resurrection gives us the hope of a better tomorrow. God makes us rich in joy as we celebrate the presence of God in our lives through Jesus. God makes us rich in peace as we find peace with God and with others through the forgiveness of sins, and peace in ourselves as we trust God in every circumstance of life. God makes us rich through Jesus in ways that money can’t buy, and in ways that will last beyond death for all eternity.

The challenge of the Advent Conspiracy to spend less isn’t about making us feel guilty for spending money at Christmas. Firstly, it challenges us to look beyond the consumerism of the society we live in and our own desires for more stuff to the greater need that exists in our own country and around the world. It then challenges us to share some of what we have with others who need it more than we do.

The second challenge of the Advent Conspiracy is to ask ourselves what really matters to us at Christmas. Are we trying to fill our lives or the lives of others with stuff so that we don’t have to deal with the deeper needs we have within us? Do we get caught up in the spending frenzy because that’s what we think gives our lives value or meaning? Or are we willing to admit that we have deeper needs which presents or possessions can’t satisfy? What if we could find what we need in Jesus who became poor to make us rich in hope, peace, joy and love? No matter how much we spend, I haven’t met anyone yet who have found these in what they buy. The promise Jesus gives us is that he gives them to us for free.

The gospel reading for Sunday tells the story of John the Baptist who calls people to repent (Matthew 3:1,2). Repentance doesn’t mean feeling sorry for the wrong things we’ve done. It means making changes in our lives and moving in a better direction. Maybe this Christmas, John is calling us to repent by changing the way we spend. Maybe John is calling us to look for what our hearts need in relationship with Jesus, not in the things we buy or the things we want. When we find what our hearts need in Jesus, then, maybe, we can spend less on stuff that doesn’t last, and share that with others who need it more than we do.

Worship Fully (Isaiah 2:1-5)

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A few months ago I was discussing with the small group leaders of our congregation what we might be able to look at as we entered the Advent season leading up to Christmas. One of the suggestions was the Advent Conspiracy. This resource uses the four weeks of Advent to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth by challenging participants to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All. After looking at the Advent Conspiracy material, we decided to give it a go this year and begin to re-imagine how we might celebrate Christmas differently by putting Jesus’ birth at the centre of everything we did.

Last Sunday we began Advent by looking at what it means to Worship Fully. I find that any discussion about worship is challenging because it seems like everyone has an opinion on how, when and where Christians should or should not worship. We all have personal preferences about just about every aspect of worship such as the styles of music we sing, whether we have a formal, responsive liturgy or not, and a whole lot of other things. Personally speaking, I get concerned whenever people start voicing their opinions about worship because most of the time it is very easy to miss the point of what worship is supposed to be all about.

The word worship comes from an Old English word which can mean to give someone or something worth or value. The things we value most in life, then, can become the objects of our worship. That might be God or some other deity, but it might also be our material possessions, our relationships, our work or even our favourite sporting team. Usually, we value these things because we look for our own sense of self-worth or value in them. For example, we might value our possessions because owning them might give us a sense of self-worth. We might value our relationships because they make us feel valued and significant. A lot of people value their work because it helps them feel useful and worthwhile. Belonging to a sporting club or supporting a team can help us feel like we belong and give us a purpose to our lives.

The problem comes when the things that we value and in which we look for value come to an end, are taken from us, or fail to give us what we hope for. When we look for our self-worth in the things we own, we can spend our lives trying to get more and more as newer and better versions of these possessions are produced. When we look for our value in our relationships, we can end up feeling worthless if those relationships end or become increasingly dysfunctional. I know a lot of people who struggle with their own self-worth when they lose their jobs, retire from full-time employment, or are too old to do the things they used to do. If we’re looking for our value in our sporting teams, what happens when they lose or don’t achieve what we hope they will?

To Worship Fully at Christmas is much more than singing Christmas carols or going to church. It challenges us to ask what we value most about Christmas and where we look for our self-worth at this time of year. For some, we might find our value in the giving or receiving of presents. It might be in the family dinner and the gathering of relatives. For others, it might be in the activity that goes on around a lot of churches during the festive season. There are lots of ways we can look for self-worth at Christmas in the things that we value most of all. As I said, the problem is whether or not they are able to give us a sense of self-worth if we lose them or they are taken away from us.

When we look for our value in Jesus, we can find a sense of self-worth which can’t be taken from us and which we will never lose. One way we can understand the meaning of Christmas is that God gave us the most precious gift he had, his only Son, because he thinks we’re worth it! God values each and every person so much that he enters into the reality of human existence by being born to a teenaged girl in Bethlehem. God’s plan is to rescue us from our superficial and flawed attempts at finding our self-worth in the things we own, the things we do, or the people we are trying to be by giving us a value that can’t be calculated. God values us so much that he enters our lives and unites himself with us in Jesus. He takes our sin and brokenness to the cross because he values us more than we will ever understand in this world. Jesus defeats death, overcomes the grave and rises from the dead to show us how precious we are to him. The entire plan of salvation, from Jesus’ birth to his death, resurrection and ascension all point us to the value God places on each and every person. God does everything that is necessary to give our lives value and meaning by accepting us as we are, adopting us as his children and welcoming us into a new relationship with him.

Basically, Jesus enters the world as an infant at Christmas to save us because he reckons we are worth saving!

When we find our value in Jesus and his birth, life, death and resurrection for us, it is natural for us to worship him – to give him worth for everything he has done, is doing and will continue to do for us. This is what it means to Worship Fully, especially at Christmas. We can find a deep and lasting sense of our self-worth, not in the decorations or presents or meals or any of the other superficial trappings of this time of year, but in God’s gift of himself to us in the baby Jesus. When we trust that God gives us a sense of self-worth in Jesus, then we can worship him fully by making the birth of Jesus the one thing we value most about the Christmas season.

What do you value most about the Christmas season? What might that say about where you look for your sense of value and self-worth? How might you celebrate Christmas differently with your family, friends or church community if you intentionally looked for your value in the birth of Jesus and then valued him most of all? The other things aren’t wrong or bad, but how might they look different if we valued Jesus most of all as we find our value in him?

When we find our self-worth in God’s gift of himself to us in Jesus, then we can worship him fully with our whole lives, not just at Christmas.