Christmas Traditions

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Bible and coffee mug with Christmas tree in the background

When you think of family Christmas traditions what typically comes to your mind? Decorated trees and special dinners? The children’s Sunday school play about the birth of the baby Jesus? Hanging stockings from the fireplace? Snow-covered ground? Or lounging around the home eating far more calories than you ever should eat? What are your Christmas memories and traditions?

Did you ever imagine Christmas as a time of sitting next to a swimming pool in an Airbnb home you rented for the week in Florida? Well, that’s been our family tradition for Christmas for a number of years.

The Traditions

Having traveled in evangelism for nearly three decades and living in a fifth-wheel trailer during that time, Christmas meant leaving the cold and heading for the warm South. As a family, we struggled to get into the normal Christmas spirit because we spent most of our time after Thanksgiving in either a recording studio or in a foreign country like Peru or India or Spain or the Philippians doing missions work. So, Christmas for our family meant going somewhere to crash and have fun!

We made Florida our destination spot and had a number of favorite places where we’d go for a week or two. We always tried to rent a home that would have a swimming pool. And we would plan very little (except meals) and spent our time reading, eating, playing games, eating, shopping, eating, watching stuff on TV, and—oh, yes—eating!

When our children were in college, Christmas vacation was always a wonderful family reunion. We thoroughly enjoyed the hours of random conversation and discussion talking about anything and everything. We didn’t argue, but we never lacked strong opinions on various matters.

When it came to opening Christmas presents, my wife Terry’s family historically opened everything on Christmas Eve, and my family opened gifts on Christmas morning. So, when we would go to my wife’s family’s home for Christmas, we followed her family tradition. But when we vacationed in Florida, we would open one gift on Christmas Eve, and the rest we would open the next morning.

We usually ate in a very nice restaurant on Christmas Eve. This was always a highlight of our vacation. On Christmas morning we’d normally sleep in. When we got up and started moving around, we would head to the kitchen to make some really good coffee! (My coffee motto has always been, “Life is too short to drink bad coffee!” My mother, my children and I are convinced that no one makes coffee better than we do.) Once everyone was ready, we’d gather together in the living room around the small, electric rotating Christmas tree surrounded by presents.

The time for gift opening would begin with the reading of Scripture centered around the birth of our Lord Jesus. Then we’d have a time of testimony. Normally, each family member would share what God was doing in their lives and reflect on His grace, goodness and guidance. We would close with a time of special prayer.

By the time we were done, everyone was eager to get to the opening of presents. As the father and grandfather, it was my progenitor duty to hand out all the presents to the family members to open one at a time. Everyone learned to revel in the other’s blessing. The response level of excitement only increased when the grandchildren received and opened each gift separately. These are warm, family traditions that we will remember forever.

The Priorities

But there is another tradition that takes place during every Christmas season in my life. This has only been heightened since becoming the president of Bob Jones University in 2014. This tradition involves a reflection on my most important life priorities, which—to be frankly honest—don’t include my position at BJU.

I’m grateful for my place of service. I thoroughly enjoy what the Lord has allowed me to do. However, I had established my life priorities long before I came to take the role of president at BJU.

The priorities I try to maintain consistency in are the following:

  1. Personal devotions—daily Bible reading and prayer
  2. Focus on my wife
  3. Focus on my family
  4. My commitment to the local church, including giving
  5. Personal evangelism
  6. Health focus on diet and exercise

As simple as these things may appear, they are core to God’s means of grace in my life. They are also where I find my greatest joy and peace when they are in balance. However, when these things are neglected or minimized through an over-busy life, then I begin to experience an inner frustration.

Do you know what is the greatest threat to these priorities? It’s actually being the president of Bob Jones University! Whether it’s an intense schedule or the pressure of making decisions or constant traveling and speaking or working through complex issues and problems or sitting in administrative meetings or attending multiple university events, the demands of the job constantly pull against these core life priorities. Time is squeezed from multiple avenues, and soon my mind is weighed down by many cares.

So, my Christmas tradition, wherever we spend our holidays, is always to return back to the most important priorities of life—to the place of grace, joy and peace. I can’t wait for Christmas!


Steve Pettit traveled for many years with the Steve Pettit Evangelistic Team before becoming president of Bob Jones University. His ultimate goal for BJU is to prepare students to serve and love others, no matter their vocation.