There’s a God in our Christmas: One mother on the role of religion in her family’s festive celebrations

Every family celebrates Christmas in their own way. This week we’re hearing from families around New Zealand explaining what they celebrate and why they do. Thalia Kehoe Rowden, a former Baptist minister, and a mother of two writes about why God is part of her Christmas.

Last Christmas we were in Thailand, where it’s not a public holiday. Santa is in every mall, but Jesus? Not so much.

It didn’t make too much difference to us. The meaningful parts of our household celebration of Christmas were pretty similar both here and there. We carry that with us.

Nativity Scene on a Roof

There’s a God in our Christmas because God is part of our life together every day of the year.

We are bringing up our two kids in the ancient Christian tradition, doing our best to follow Jesus together, to make this world a bit more ‘as it is in heaven.’

At Christmas each member of the family gets a special chance to enter into the story of God-and-the-world, and find new meaning and resonance in it each year.

The characters in the nativity story are so relatable, for adults and kids. How cool is it that the star of the show is a baby? Children know all about babies! They’re a lot closer to gurgling infants than to ethereal angels or rustic sheep-herders (though those are pretty captivating for kids, too).

At Christmas, the helpless baby – the one children are most interested in – is also God.

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The most vulnerable person in the narrative is also the most important. What an opportunity to help our kids understand that might is not necessarily right, that God values the smallest among us, and that we don’t all need to try and be the boss.

Everything about the original Christmas story is topsy-turvy.

When Mary is pregnant, an unmarried teen mum in a patriarchal honour/shame society, she sings about how God turns things upside-down, and champions the poor and downtrodden:

He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.

Our family culture comes from this strand of the Jesus story. We want to help subvert unfair power structures and even things up. We want to set that banquet table for the ‘starving poor,’ whether by helping stock up the local food bank, or donating money for relief and development further afield.

‘Following Jesus’ is the orientation of our family. It’s the direction we face.

I’m a fan of showing my working with this stuff. Kids pick up on lots of the family culture without it being articulated, but I reckon most ‘values’ material needs to be said out loud to be passed on. So we remind each other most days that Daddy is going off to work ‘to help people for Jesus.’ We thank God for food at mealtimes. We ask God to help us be kind and wise.

In the lead-up to Christmas, we add in a few more special words. We light coloured candles at dinner time each night, symbolising hope, peace, joy and love. ‘Hope means things will get better,’ we say to each other. When we light the blue candle for peace, we say, ‘Jesus helps us get along well with each other.’

For our family, Jesus isn’t just a miraculous baby, but a bringer of justice and peace, and God knows that’s something we’re all in need of today. Exhibit A: rich nations celebrating one family of Middle Eastern refugees while closing their borders to others.

But in the little baby Jesus, the one my five-year-old plays with in his Nativity set, the one we sing carols about together, we have a sign of hope and a calibration of what’s important.

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love.

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As we welcome this baby, like the shepherds, angels and magi did, we try to take part in his story. Christmas spurs us on, as a family, to do our part to make peace on earth a reality.

Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former Baptist minister and current mother and development worker. She writes about parenting, social justice and spirituality at

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