The cruising altitude of Christmas | Guest column

While flying back east over the holidays to speak at a church, I made note of the different stages passengers experience in a typical takeoff. There are the preflight announcements from the cockpit and the safety instructions from the flight attendants. There’s the reminder to turn our cellphones to airplane mode and to make sure our seatbelts are fastened and that our tray tables are in their upright and locked position.

When the plane reaches 10,000 feet altitude, a bell rings. And whereas I didn’t get my angel wings like Clarence Odbody, I did get permission to open my laptop. That ringing chime is an indicator that I can safely jettison the gum I started to chew at take-off to keep my ears from plugging.

When the plane reaches a cruising altitude, a voice comes over the intercom indicating it is OK to unbuckle our seatbelts and walk around. At that point in the flight, I tend to take a deep breath and relax. Reaching the cruising altitude is an invitation to enjoy the balance of the flight, barring any unexpected turbulence.

The Christmas season reminds me of a typical plane trip. Leading up to the holiday, we’re stressed by all the preparations: Decorating the house, trimming the tree, shopping for gifts, attending concerts and parties, baking cookies and cooking meals. And by the time we get to the day after Christmas, many families are ready to start packing everything up and putting the house back to normal.

For our family, Christmas Day is when we have finally reached our cruising altitude. It’s finally time to sit back, relax and enjoy a journey that includes listening to carols, watching Christmas movies or simply enjoying quiet evenings in front of the twinkling tree. The days after Christmas are a perfect time to re-read holiday letters and cards and write some thank you notes.

One of the carols that plays in our home throughout December is “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” That classic song is rooted in the way our culture used to view the holiday. Traditionally the season began four weeks before Christmas Day with the start of Advent and continued on until Epiphany (Jan. 6). The twelve days that connect Christmas Day with Epiphany provided the opportunity to unpack the reason for the season before packing up the decorations.

When our kids were little, we intentionally extended our celebration of the holiday. For a pastor’s family, it wasn’t the Grinch who stole Christmas. It was the church. All the activities and services a pastor is expected to attend kept our family from having the relaxed time others were enjoying. Rather than blaming the church, we opted to underscore the fact that Christmas was a season rather than a day. We created unique traditions to compensate.

Four weeks before Christmas, three little ceramic wisemen began making a slow deliberate journey from our family room throughout the house ending up at the nativity scene atop our piano in the living room. But the magi didn’t arrive at the manger on Dec. 25. They don’t get there until Jan. 6.

As with most families, there is the typical emotional letdown for kids after gifts are opened on Christmas Day. In our family, we attempted to upend the letdown with the promise of gifts that would be given twelve days later. We called it our Day of the Kings celebration.

On Epiphany, we would have a dinner that reflected the eastern culture from which the magi came. In our case it was Chinese food. At the table there were quilted crowns at each place setting. And in each crown were three wrapped gifts for each family member to open. The number of gifts represented the three gifts the visitors from the east gave the Christ child. We sang special songs and read special stories at the table.

Our strategy worked. A less-hurried after-Christmas celebration became something our family cherished. We still do. The cruising altitude of Christmas provides a wonderful perspective from which to see what really matters this time of year. Why not unbuckle your seatbelt, push your seat back and enjoy the season?

Guest columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos is chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island.

Guest columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos is chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island.