FamilyLife Today® Podcast

The Spiritual Traditions of Christmas

with Ace Collins | December 2, 2009
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What once were pagan practices have been redeemed over time to glorify Christ and explain Him to others. Today Ace Collins dives into the history books to unveil the beginnings of some favorite holiday traditions like hanging mistletoe, decorating an evergreen, giving gifts, and feasting. Hear him tell what delicious homemade treats his family will be looking forward to this Christmas.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • What once were pagan practices have been redeemed over time to glorify Christ and explain Him to others. Today Ace Collins dives into the history books to unveil the beginnings of some favorite holiday traditions like hanging mistletoe, decorating an evergreen, giving gifts, and feasting. Hear him tell what delicious homemade treats his family will be looking forward to this Christmas.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

What once were pagan practices have been redeemed over time to glorify Christ and explain Him to others.

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The Spiritual Traditions of Christmas

With Ace Collins
December 02, 2009
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Ace:  Why is light on the tree?  Light is on the tree because Martin Luther was trying to figure out a way to take an evergreen tree which they had a few nuts, berries and a few homemade ornaments on and have it represent the light that Christ brought to the world so he put a candle on the tree to represent that.  The lights that are on the tree, therefore, have their roots in the illumination that was brought to us by our Savior. 

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, December 2nd.  Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey and I’m Bob Lepine.  Will your family have a merry Christmas this year?  Or a mighty Christmas?  We’ll talk about that today.

Welcome to FamilyLife Today thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition.  I hope that what we’re talking about this week is helping folks get their focus right.

Dennis:  Oh, it is.

Bob:  During the Christmas season.

Dennis:  It has to, it’s talking about Jesus Christ and how we can make Him relevant in our families at Christmas time.

Bob:  Yes and there is so much in the culture that pulls in a different direction that to stop and take a few minutes each day and just say, all right let’s make sure we’re looking in the right direction.  Before we dive into what we want to talk about today, and introduce our guest who is joining us this week.  We do need to alert our regular listeners to the fact that we’ve got a special opportunity that has been made available to us here by some friends at the ministry. 

As many of our listeners know this has been a challenging year for our ministry, for a lot of ministries and we’ve had to make some adjustments over the last year.  Recently we’ve had some friends step forward and say we want to encourage FamilyLife Today listeners to make a year-end contribution to continue to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today

So they are offering to match any donation we receive between now and the end of December on a dollar for dollar basis up to a total of $1,250,000.  This is the largest matching gift opportunity we have ever received during the month of December.  So we’re hoping that we will be able to take full advantage of that matching gift opportunity, but to do that, Dennis, we are going to need to hear from as many listeners as possible.

Dennis:  That’s exactly right, Bob because forty percent of our donations for the entire year are given in the month of December.  What happens this month in terms of the amount of donations we receive here on FamilyLife Today really determines how we can stay on this station and move forward into the new year.  So we are really turning to our friends here at Christmas time.  You know Christmas is a time of friendship and just saying we need your help and we need your help now.

Bob:  Again this matching gift opportunity is a unique way to help us out.  When you make a donation between now and the end of December that donation is going to be matched dollar for dollar so if you can go online at or by calling 1-800-FLTODAY.  Make a donation over the phone we would appreciate whatever you are able to do and we want to say thanks in advance for your support of this ministry.

Now as we focus in on Christmas this week and as we talk about how we can get our families spiritually ready for the holiday, we’ve already talked about the spiritual implications of fudge.  I want to see if there is some way to get some spiritual meaning out of mistletoe before we are all done here.

Dennis:  I think you’re going to be surprised by the history behind mistletoe and to get that history, let’s call upon one of America’s master storytellers.   Ace Collins joins us on the broadcast.  Ace you have written sixty books, your name is Ace, I have been wanting to ask this of you because we’ve interviewed you now over a dozen times.  Did you get the name Ace because you were a sharpshooter?

Ace:  Nope.

Dennis:  Where did that come from?

Ace:  I went to Baylor University and I was one of four Andrew Collins’.  So they got us confused a lot and I just happened to be the one of the Andrew Collins’ that had learned how to play Hearts from his grandfather and won a Hearts championship on a run playing the ace of hearts.  People started calling me Ace because of that and I spent the next four years trying to escape that name and eventually I was going to write under the name Andrew Collins. 

I had a literary agent who said no there are bunches of Andrew Collins’, Ace is the way to go, because that is what everybody calls you anyway.  So my wife wouldn’t know how to introduce me, she didn’t actually introduce me as Ace so that’s what I get.  You know my family members because they still call me Andy, but everybody else calls me Ace.

Bob:  I wondered if there was anyone around who stills says, Andrew. 

Ace:  Well when I am in trouble it’s Andrew Jefferson. 

Dennis:  Well you have written a book called 25 Days, 26 Ways to Make This Your Best Christmas Ever.  It’s really a book that is twenty six days worth of advent.  It’s not only all the way through Christmas, but it goes to the 26th as well and one of the days you do talk about where the concept of mistletoe came from.

Ace:  Yes, mistletoe is a Christian concept we need to reclaim.  I actually was on a “live” show four or five years ago in Colorado Springs and it was one of those shows where you are almost frightened to be on, I am on these a lot, because you get callers who ask questions. 

You never know what the questions are going to be so you are sitting there hoping that you’ve got the answer and the first call we got on that two hour show was a guy calling in angry, I don’t celebrate Christmas.  I’m a Christian, but Christmas is all about pagan holidays.  It’s all about these pagan roots.  Everything in Christmas is pagan and so I don’t have anything to do with it.  Now that’s a great way to start a show that when you are talking about a book you have just written on the stories behind the great traditions of Christmas.

Bob:  And we are going to take two hours to do that, this guys going to be mad the whole time.

Ace:  So, I just took a pause and I asked him, I said it’s true, most of our traditions, most of the things we celebrate at Christmas actually have pagan roots.  They were part of a society before that society and those individuals became Christians. 

Let me ask you a question, have you always been a Christian?  He paused and said no I became a Christian when I was fourteen years old.  That’s when I accepted Christ as my Savior.  Or it was sixteen years old and I said ok, how old are you now?  He said I am in my early thirties.  I said you spent half of your life then not as a Christian.  He said yes.  I said should they allow you in the church because you have pagan roots? 

He said hadn’t thought of it that way and I said all of these Christmas things that we embrace were used by early missionaries as really tracts, visible tracts on how and what faith meant.  What Christ dying for people on the cross meant.  Mistletoe is one of those.  Yes, now we know it as the kissing plant.  But it didn’t start out that way. 

Vikings and Druids and Celts before they became Christians looked at mistletoe as an incredibly powerful plant because it grew out of what they thought was dead wood.  Because they thought trees died in the winter time and then magically sprang back to life in the spring.  Yet, the mistletoe did not die.  As a matter of fact Viking warriors were not allowed to wage battle underneath trees that had mistletoe in them.  So it became known as the plant of peace.  You had to find a way to get along.

Dennis:  So if you were having a fire fight I guess sword fight back then you had to quit if you somehow ventured under the tree, is that right?

Ace:  Exactly you had to find a way to make peace with your neighbor or with your conflicting tribe.  So it became the plant of peace.  Let’s take it a step further, well the missionaries came and they looked at this plant of peace and thought here is an opportunity for us as we share the good news of salvation to explain it like you do with children when you explain things, break it down into simple steps. 

They looked at this plant that didn’t die in the winter time and they said you see that plant growing out of the wood well they crucified Christ on a cross of wood and yet he did not die.  He was resurrected and He lives again and that Christ who was resurrected and died for your sins is with you always even in the days of winter when everything else dies that faith is as alive as that mistletoe plant is. 

They began to look at the mistletoe therefore as standing for the Christian faith.  If somebody asked them what is this Christ?  It’s like the mistletoe, Christ never dies he’s with us always and if we have faith we will be strong always.  So what happened they started to have bride and grooms in the Vikings and the Celtics and the Druids who had become Christians get married underneath the mistletoe plant because they were reminded if they kept Christ above them, if they kept their faith like the mistletoe plant which represented Christ to them.  If you kept that faith in your lives, you would prosper, you would benefit and you would get through even the toughest, darkest days. 

So therefore for many, many years the plant had significance as a tool to lead others to Christ and explain what Christ could mean and faith would mean in sustaining life.  Now obviously because they got married underneath mistletoe they kissed underneath mistletoe and eventually we lost the faith aspect of the story and it became just the kissing aspect.  Let’s take it and remember the Prince of Peace, what stands for the Prince of Peace in that cultures mind was the mistletoe.  It was faith that never died.  You can reclaim the mistletoe as the Christian symbol that was used by early missionaries 1300 years ago this year if you want to.

Bob:  I’m thinking we may need to start taking mistletoe to the Weekend to Remember Conference and just passing it out to couples there and explain to them a little bit of what that’s all about.

Dennis:  Yes, it has a double meaning at that point they can kiss, but they can also celebrate the Prince of Peace who builds marriages and families.

Bob:  And understand there is a spiritual message here and really that’s what we have been talking about all this week is how we take the familiar of Christmas and either find what was there in the beginning or bring to it something that maybe hasn’t been there, redeem if you will the traditions of Christmas so that they have a spiritual significance.

Ace:  Why is light on the tree?  Light is on the tree because Martin Luther was trying to figure out a way to take an evergreen tree which they had a few nuts, berries and a few homemade ornaments on and have it represent the light that Christ brought to the world.  So he put a candle on the tree to represent that.  The lights that are on the tree therefore have their roots in the illumination that was brought to us by our Savior. 

The evergreen tree, this is a concept that goes back five hundred when the Latvians first brought trees in at Christmas.  Why did they bring them in?  It goes kind of like that mistletoe the evergreen didn’t die in the winter time it flourished.  Faith flourishes even through the toughest, bleakest times and if you really, really want to do it the way they did it five hundred years ago in Latvia when you bring that tree inside you will nail it to your ceiling and hang it upside down because that is the way they did it.  And if you think getting a tree straight on the ground is tough for your wife, wait till you try to put one on the ceiling and get it straight. 

But fortunately about five hundred years after that they turned it over so when Martin Luther was decorating a tree it was on his floor and not on the ceiling.  The greenery represents the faith that doesn’t die and sustains you through even the toughest times.  It’s not like a tree that loses its leaf and is barren.  That tree, the evergreen tree, is like faith.  It’s there all the time. 

Bob:  You said there is a peanut butter fudge recipe in the book somewhere?

Ace:  Yes, there is.

Bob:  I’m looking for it; you don’t know where it is do you?

Dennis:  While he finds it I want to ask him a question about something that they do in their family.  And I want to ask you too, Bob, do you have any special ways you exchange gifts in your family?  Because we do and I just wondered what you guys did.

Bob:   As the kids have gotten older we’ve started rather than having everybody buy a gift for everybody else and wipe out their budget and everybody gets a $10 gift that they don’t really want or need.  We’ve started doing the draw the name and you get one special thing for a significant person. 

Then we do what Ace’s family does when it’s time to open the gifts, it’s one at a time and we rotate who goes up under the tree to select the gift and you can’t pick one that’s for you, you have to pick one that is for somebody else so you go find the gift, you deliver it to your sibling and then we all watch as your sibling opens and we can’t go to the next one until that one is open.  We make it into quite a little festive celebration and production.

Dennis:  We have an adaptation of that as well, Bob.  The gift is given and the person who gets the gift is the one who gets to not only open the present but also give the next gift to somebody else.  Our Christmas mornings at least the last ones we’ve experienced as a family have taken all morning.  Because it really stretches it out and allows people to really give the gift.  And it’s usually a gift that they have selected that they have given to another person so that’s opened at that point and that person gets to select a gift and it just continues on around.

Bob:  You’ve started doing some of your Christmas morning via Skype right?  Where you set up the computer and families in other locations are participating?

Dennis:  People can kind of frown on that, but that really is if as we’ve had in times past one family in Seattle, another family in Florida, another one in Denver, another one in Washington, D.C.  I mean it’s not bad to pull together the video on a computer and watch the kids open the presents.  Just have somebody open a camera up in the room and it’s not the same as being there, obviously, because you can’t hug them, but they can show off what they have gotten and it really is a lot of fun.

Bob:  I asked about the peanut butter fudge recipe, its here as a part of Day 22.  I think we would have to go ahead and accelerate and have Day 22 back in Week One.  Because you have a recipe here for sausage balls, a recipe here for Brenda MacGregor’s.  Who is Brenda MacGregor?

Ace:  We experimented with all kinds of Christmas cookie recipes and hers is the best.

Bob:  And then the peanut butter fudge recipe.

Dennis:  Well there is a reason; there is a cup of butter and a cup and a half of sugar.  You should just mainline this stuff, Ace.

Ace:  The sweetness of Christmas should never be minimalized.

Dennis:  Let me tell you something, my mom made bonbons, chocolate bonbons.  They were kind of a hard candy that they never got really hard.  They were covered by semi-sweet chocolate and then a pecan was placed right on top.  They were little nuggets.

Bob:  Do you have the recipe for it?

Dennis:  I think we do somewhere, but I wouldn’t want to claim for sure, but every one of those was like nuclear sugar.  It was fused.

Ace:  There are an awful lot of presents to be opened you need that rush to get through all those presents.

Bob:  And we have taken some of our favorite recipes and put them up on our website at  Food is a big part of the holidays.  This is a five to ten pound holiday, Christmas is, right?

Ace:  It doesn’t have to be.  I don’t think it is for me but I still

Dennis:  Wait a minute.  Ace, for Bob it has to be Ace you’re not speaking his love language.

Ace:  Well he can have my part of my five or ten, but I think any time you gather together to celebrate a birthday and that’s what you’re doing at Christmas you need to celebrate in a way that is memorable.  One of the ways that was celebrated in Christ’s time was to have feasts at special days. 

Bob:  Every year when I was growing up my grandparents on my mother’s side would drive down from Flint, Michigan to St. Louis to spend Christmas with us.  They would usually come for two to three weeks.  Now I never stopped to consider that having grandma and grandpa around for two or three weeks was anything other than just wonderful.

Dennis:  Well they came to thaw out.

Bob:  That’s right.   But what I really looked forward to was what they would store in the trunk of the car and that I could open up as soon as they got there and that was a couple of six packs of Vernor’s Ginger Ale.  Back in the day you couldn’t get Vernor’s Ginger Ale in St. Louis and so to get it smuggled across the Michigan border and into Missouri was a highlight.  Again these are little triggers that bring back memories.

Ace:  Nothing like fudge cookies and Dr. Pepper.  And then of course if grandma really went all out for me because she always bought me one of those really neat looking bottles of Grapette.

Bob:  Do you remember spiritual highlights of the holiday as you were growing up?

Ace:  Oh yes because there were a very, very important things that you did, the Christmas Eve service, the Christmas cantata.  I don’t remember a single Christmas message I’ve ever heard in my entire life.  So for the pastors out there, I am sorry. 

But I can’t tell you how many of my incredible spiritual memories of the holiday wrap around someone singing a solo or a choir special.  Or just gathering around a piano at a relative’s house and singing carols yourself or going out and caroling.  That was something we did a lot.  We would go to sick and shut in people and the memory of one lady.  We had moved to Illinois by that time and the lady was in Illinois and she was an elderly lady and she came in and parted the venetian blinds and opened them and watched us sing outside her house.  And what that meant to her, she had tears in her eyes. 

The spiritual element of the holidays is ultimately what it is all about and that’s why I recommended ending the holidays with two things.  One, the boxing day which we talked about a couple of days ago, giving the gifts that you get in excess to those who need them the worst.  So having another day in which you go out and take gifts out and give them away. 

The other thing is on Christmas day baking a birthday cake for the Baby Jesus and getting everybody involved.  You can have little kids beat it; don’t worry about the mess in the kitchen.  Just create it and talk about what the symbolic nature of what you can do through telling the people about Jesus, the resurrection, the colors and everything you use can make a tremendous impact in a child’s life that will go on forever. 

Another thing we talk about in the book, we talk about shopping off the list.  We also talk about doing something else at Christmas that I think is really special.  The last I heard is that there is a child that dies every six seconds in the developing world from one of two things.  It’s either starvation or it is the lack of a few cents worth of medicine.  For twenty, thirty, forty cents a day this child can live.  You can stop that gap.  There all kinds of different organizations.  We list three of them in the book that allow you to spend $25 a month and sponsor a child. 

Get together with the kids and everything else and take a little bit of everybody’s Christmas money, pick out an organization sponsor the child and continue to take a little bit of money and continue that sponsorship that next year and then the next year you will have a new photograph of that child and you will find out what’s going on in that child’s life.  Every year thereafter that child that you are saving in the third world becomes an important part of your Christmas. 

I think therefore you’re involved once again in reaching out and touching the least of these at Christmas.  You are taking gift giving which is really if you go through this book a lot we’re talking about the ways to give 25 days, 26 ways to give and give and give and it’s not giving till it hurts.  It’s giving till it blesses you over and over again.  And it’s not giving money it’s giving little things.   But just think eighty-three, eighty-four cents a day you can save a child’s life, by doing that you imprint upon children the importance of sharing with the least of these.

Dennis:  You know what?  I think there is a new day coming for all of us in the Christian community because the culture is pressing in on us tighter and tighter and we’re going to have to have a big God, a God of grace, a God of forgiveness the God who welcomes us into His family.  We’ve got to represent Him in better ways.  What better season to do that?

Ace:   I tell you what, Christ reached out to a woman at the well who was the equivalent of that and gave her the gift of what?  Compassion, understanding, we need to reach out to sinners today giving them the same gifts and there are creative ways at Christmas to get that message across.

Dennis:  I’ll tell you, God’s at work in my life right now pushing me out of some of my comfort zones, relating to those that I wouldn’t necessarily want to go near, but I’m feeling a sense of, well, obedience to do this and I think some of our listeners may be as well, Bob, and they are thinking how can we do a better job over the coming twenty, twenty-five days through the Christmas season of really celebrating the birth of our Savior.  Ace’s book will do a great job of equipping families to do them.

Bob:  Yes, it will and we have copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.  You can go online at for more information about how to get a copy of the book, 25 Days, 26 Ways to Make This Your Best Christmas Ever.  Again our website is 

Let me also mention our listeners may want to get a copy of Barbara Rainey’s book, When Christmas Came.  A book that is an extended meditation on John 3:16 which really is a Christmas verse.  It brings to mind God’s good gift to us of His son Jesus.  It also features watercolor work by Barbara Rainey.  It’s a beautiful book there is information about that book on our website as well. is the site you can order from us online if you’d like or call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329.  When you call we will make arrangements to have what you’re looking for sent to you.

When we think about Christmas as a season for giving I think back on how many of our listeners over the last several years had made contributions, year-end donations to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today and we have been very humbled by your generosity, very grateful for your partnership with us. 

This year we’ve had some friends of the ministry who have stepped forward and have offered a special incentive to try to encourage FamilyLife Today listeners to once again make a year-end contribution for the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  They have agreed that between now and the end of the year they will match every donation we receive on a dollar for dollar basis up to a total of $1,250,000. 

This is the largest single matching gift that we have ever been offered and frankly if we are going to take full advantage of this matching gift.  We are going to need every FamilyLife Today listener who is in any way inclined to make a donation to either go online at or to call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329 and make a donation over the phone. 

Again when you make your donation it’s going to be matched dollar for dollar by these friends of the ministry.  So you make a $50 donation to FamilyLife Today they will match it with $50.  You make a $100 donation, they will match it.  If you make a $5 donation they will match it. 

So we are hoping again to hear from as many of you as possible.  Make your donation online at or call 1-800-FLTODAY.  Again let me say thanks in advance for whatever you are able to do in support of this ministry.  We do appreciate your financial partnership with us.

Now tomorrow, Michael and Hayley DiMarco are going to join us.  We are going to hear about a fascinating journey that they have been on in recent days, meeting people who have a fresh hope here during the Christmas season.  I hope you can join us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team on behalf of our host Dennis Rainey I’m Bob Lepine.  We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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