NETA JACKSON and her husband, Dave, are an award-winning writing team, best known for the Trailblazer books–a forty-book series of historical fiction for young people about great Christian heroes (see http://www.trailblazerbooks.com/). Neta is the author of the popular novel, The Yada Yada Prayer Group, and its sequels. These novels were inspired by a real women’s Bible study and prayer group that, as Neta says, “God has used to turn my life upside down and rightside up.” Neta and her husband Dave are members of The Chicago Tabernacle (a multi-cultural offspring of The Brooklyn Tabernacle in NY). They are also the parents of three grown children, including a Cambodian foster daughter, all with families of their own. (For more information, go to http://www.daveneta.com/.)
A few memorable gifts: A baby doll (plaster head, cloth body) that said “maa-maaaa” when I tipped her backward, and “paa-paaaa” when I tipped her forward. And the family doll house which used to be my mother’s, a handmade wooden affair with a green roof that lifted up on one side to reveal the second floor, all repainted and refurnished for me. (It has since been passed on to my daughter, and then her daughter!)
Also, I loved to draw as a kid, and at Christmastime, my indulgent parents always let me paint winter and Christmas scenes on our windows with poster paints! (Of course I had to clean all that paint off afterward 🙂
Relive your childhood Christmas mornings for us.
Growing up, we kids always had to wait until our parents said “Ready” because they always put an “open air” gift in front of the tree for each one of us (a doll, a train, a dollhouse, etc.). We kids took turns playing Santa and passing out gifts one at a time so everyone could enjoy the gift, the giftee, and the giver. We took a long time opening gifts, and I carried that over into our family life after I had children. My parents didn’t buy us many gifts during the year, so Christmas always included socks and underwear and clothes we needed as well as a few toys. So even though we didn’t have much money, Christmas always felt like LOTS of presents.
Tell us about your own Christmas traditions now.
Our Christmas season starts four Sundays before Christmas with the first Sunday of Advent. When our kids were growing up, our church celebrated the weeks before Christmas with an Advent candle dance, lighting a new candle each week, as well as “Advent plays,” telling the stories leading up to Christmas through drama(Zachariah and Elizabeth, the angel and Mary, Joseph’s dream, etc. up to the birth of Jesus). Then at home, we also celebrated Advent with an Advent candle wreath on our table, lighting a new candle each week with appropriate Scriptures about the coming Messiah and adding another verse to the carol, “O Come O Come, Emmanuel.” On Christmas day, we lit the center Christmas candle and read the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth.
When we put up the tree (about two weeks before Christmas) we put a stable under the tree with only animals in it. (And the manger scene we chose was wood so that the children could play with it.) Then we put the shepherds on a “hillside watching their sheep” (the living room), the wise men in a “far country” (the dining room), and Mary & Joseph & the donkey somewhere inbetween (and we hid baby Jesus till Christmas Eve). Each day at bedtime, our kids moved Mary & Joseph closer to the stable until they arrived Christmas Eve. After the kids were asleep we put Baby Jesus in the manger–if we could find Him! A a few times we forgot where we hid the Baby!–as well as the shepherds and wise men (yeah yeah, we know the wise men didn’t arrive for a year or two, but oh well).
Other traditions: when my children were small, we continued my family tradition of having an “open air” gift for each child (unwrapped) in front of the tree, so they had to stay out of the living room until we brought them in. The most memorable “open air” gift for my daughter was the year we gave her a kitten in a “Take Me Home” box shaped like a house. I still get teary when I think of her joy and delight holding that kitten. And the funniest open air gift was the year we gave our son a winter parka, which was kinda boring, so we created a mummy on the couch with a balloon face, old jeans stuffed with newspaper, and wearing the parka! He laughed and laughed.
When do you put up your tree?
The tree goes up about two weeks before Christmas and stays until after New Year’s Day. When my husband and I first married, we started a tradition of getting one new ornament each year to represent something about that year–a gingerbread house ornament for the year we moved, a Snoopy ornament for the year we got a beagle pup, an angel for the year my mom died, etc. Now that we’ve been married 41 years, the tree is getting full! It is fun to put up the “Special Year Ornaments” and reflect on our family history. (Well, I think it’s fun. The kids sometimes got bored!) Now our tree includes ornaments for the births of our grandkids, too!
It’s Christmas Eve… Describe your day and evening.
Last minute shopping, cooking, and wrapping of course. But as evening comes, we eat a light early supper–usually a hearty soup–then head to church for the Christmas Eve service, and often carolling in the neighborhood afterward carrying lighted candles in jars. THEN we come home and have chocolate and/or cheese fondu! Even though our kids are grown and now have kids of their own, the chocolate/cheese fondu tradition continues at one of our houses. How it started, none of us can remember!
Confession time. Shop on line or at the mall?
Catalogs! I don’t particularly like shopping, unless I know exactly what I’m looking for. But “shopping” from home with a cup of tea or hot chocolate, dressed in my jammies . . . now that’s what I’m talking about. (Okay, okay, sometimes I’m not organized to do it ahead of time, and then I have to go shopping. But I try to keep it to once or twice during the season.)
Christmas grows more and more commercial every year. Setting the hustle and bustle aside, what does Christmas really mean to you?
Each year I ask God to reveal more of the meaning of Christmas to me. I’m particularly moved and challenged by Mary’s response to God’s plan for her life: “I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your Word.” Oh, that that would be my response when God asks me to be His servant–even in difficult circumstances. Yes, Lord, Yes!
Do you make cookies or other traditional foods?
When it comes to cookies, my favorite tradition is the Cookie Exchange Party! My neighbor started it years ago, invites all the neighbors to bring 6 dozen cookies, then we all take a few of all the varieties that appear at the party and go home with 6 dozen cookies. These tend to last us (most of) the whole season. We just moved to a new neighborhood and already I’m thinking I want to begin a Cookie Exchange Party in my new neighborhood–next year!
What are you plans for this season?
Our current church doesn’t celebrate Advent or even have a Christmas Eve service (but they do a wonderful Christmas concert with the awesome choir a couple weeks before Christmas). But we miss the Advent traditions, so this season we’re taking a “leave” from our church for the month of December and attending the church where our son’s and foster daughter’s family attend, where the Advent candle dance and Advent dramas are alive and well. (Plus we get to see our grandkids on Sunday morning.) Then we’re going to celebrate our family Christmas the weekend before Christmas so we can have everyone together, before in-laws get them. (Yes, the fondu and everything.) But with gift-giving out of the way before Dec. 25, I’m wondering how my husband and I can give ourselves on Christmas day this year to others . . .
Any final thoughts on Christmas?
Just that I want to keep in mind that the first Christmas was God working His redemptive plan through humble people who were actually homeless that year. This year, I’ve been getting involved with a shelter for homeless women here in Chicago, many of whom are separated from their children, who don’t have access to the money, cozy family traditions, and abundant food I’ve been blessed with. O God, open my eyes to see beyond the glitz of Christmas to Your blessed love for people like these, and help me to be part of Your heart and hands and feet toward the poor and powerless.