Are you looking for Christ-centred traditions that will enrich your family’s Christmas? Last December I came across a wonderful Christmas Eve tradition called the Journey to Bethlehem Meal. According to the handful of families who have blogged about it, this tradition is very simple to execute, yet deeply meaningful.

Here's the gist of the idea: By the light of candles – there’s no electric lighting allowed! – parents help their children enter into a reflective Christmas Eve vigil by serving a simple meal featuring food that Mary and Joseph might have shared on the road to Bethlehem.

Some families go even further, enjoying their meal seated on the floor picnic style, and adding other creative touches to their let’s-pretend-we’re-travelling-with-Mary-and-Joseph evening.

Doesn’t that sound like a great way draw children’s attention away from Santa or the gifts waiting under the tree? Those who’ve tried a Journey to Bethlehem Meal say it also provides a wonderful setting for reading aloud the Biblical account of Christ’s birth. Other families value the refreshing simplicity of the tradition amidst an otherwise hectic season. (And moms certainly appreciate the minimal food preparation required!)

So how about you? Would you like to set up a Journey to Bethlehem Meal for your family? (If Christmas Eve isn’t ideal for you, another night during Advent should work fine too.) Read on for some ideas you might like to incorporate, including three games for the kids that will add a little lighthearted entertainment to your evening.

Creating ambiance

Don’t feel that you need to make elaborate preparations for your Journey to Bethlehem Meal. However, if you would like to invest a little effort to make your meal symbolic of the culture Mary and Joseph lived in, here are some ideas:

  • Don’t serve your meal at the dinner table, but eat seated on blankets on the floor. Place your food in the centre on a blanket, or serve it on a low coffee table.
  • Eat with your hands, not with cutlery.
  • Have everyone dress up in costumes reminiscent of Biblical times.
  • Play traditional Jewish folk music quietly in the background.
  • Eat by your meal candlelight and/or by the light from your fireplace.

Near the beginning of your celebration you might want to read aloud the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth. This will help young children – plus any guests who are unfamiliar with the Nativity – understand how your Journey to Bethlehem Meal fits into the Biblical narrative.

What to serve

Remember that Mary and Joseph, as Jews living under the laws of the Old Testament, would never have eaten pork, shellfish, lobster or shrimp. Lamb, beef or goat was consumed, but not frequently, and certainly not daily. A poor couple would more usually have eaten:

  • fish, poultry, eggs, goat cheese
  • something resembling pita bread
  • lentils, chickpeas (a.k.a. hummus), onions, olives
  • almonds, pistachios
  • honey
  • figs, dates, grapes, pomegranates
  • wine or grape juice

Questions for reflection

As you enjoy your meal together, ask a few questions to guide and enrich your discussion. Here are some ideas you could use – or perhaps you’d like to come up with a few questions of your own:

  • Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem would have taken at least four days. What do you think Mary and Joseph talked about on the road to Bethlehem?
  • Do you think Mary and Joseph travelled alone, or in the company of other members of Joseph’s family?
  • How have you felt "accompanied on your journey" or especially supported by family and friends during this past year?
  • What do you think Mary and Joseph learned about God through all the events surrounding Jesus’ birth? (Mary saw God provide her a husband when all hope seemed lost; Joseph and Mary saw God provide for their financial needs through the gifts of the magi; Joseph learned that obedience to God kept his family safe.)
  • How do you think Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem might have been important "faith training" for them. (They would face a much longer and more perilous journey to Egypt in the future.)
  • What is God teaching you right now, to help prepare you for the year ahead?

Other ideas to enrich your evening

  • The Journey to Bethlehem Meal makes a great prelude to other favourite Christmas Eve traditions, such as attending a Christmas Eve service, singing carols or watching a beloved Christmas movie.
  • It might be a good idea to let children play at least one game that helps them "get their wiggles out" before settling down for the more reflective mealtime segment of your evening. For some game suggestions, see this article on Biblically themed Christmas games for children.
  • To add a "now-you-know" element to your evening, invite an older child to do some research ahead of time so they’re ready to give a five-minute presentation on frankincense and myrrh, explaining how these luxuries were obtained and what they were used for.
  • For a meaningful conclusion to the meal itself, try the "bread and a blessing" ritual described below.

Sharing bread and a blessing

This idea is loosely based on the lovely Polish tradition of sharing oplatki (special wafers) with family members and close friends on Christmas Eve. In Polish homes, each person takes a wafer (a single wafer is called an oplatek), then offers a small piece of their wafer to every other family member. As the wafer morsel is handed out, the giver and receiver typically ask forgiveness of one another for past wrongs and exchange good wishes for the coming year.

Borrowing from this tradition, here’s how you might like to conclude your meal:

First, have the head of the household distribute a piece of flat bread to everyone present. At the same time, they might want to offer some solemn words of explanation – perhaps something like this:

On this special night, we remember the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, our Saviour. In Bethlehem, whose name means "house of bread," Christ the living bread was born. Let’s share this bread together to remember God’s special gift of Jesus, who was born in a humble stable for each one of us gathered here. This precious gift of the Christmas child is offered to us anew every day of the year. For each day, Christ draws near in the person of the Holy Spirit, and invites us to walk in step with Him.

To help children and guests learn the routine, you and your spouse might want to exchange the bread and blessings with each other first. (And the little touch of romance won’t go unnoticed either!)

As you offer a small piece of your bread to your spouse, exchange whatever blessing you like. Here’s a simple one you can use, or you might like to create a unique blessing of your own:

Person offering the bread says: Remember throughout the year ahead that Christ, the living bread, is always with you.

Person receiving responds: And remember, every day, that I am here for you too.

After you and your spouse have exchanged your blessing, invite others to do the same by offering a morsel of their own bread, and a blessing, to everyone attending your Journey to Bethlehem Meal.

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2013 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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