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What makes a good Christmas for you?

Are you going to have one this year?

Me? I am tempted to turn off the world “out there,” to give myself the illusion of a little peace on earth. I have declared a politics-free zone at recent dinner gatherings, so that I might bask in some good will among us. But of course the world barges in and some folks just can’t stop talking politics, so my strategies fail.

But Christmas won’t. Christmas will not fail me this year, thanks to an old love letter, recently discovered. He wasn’t my lover, but he is my inspiration. Listen in:

“I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious.” (Quoted in God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, on Dec. 1, 1943, from Tegel Prison in Berlin. A Lutheran pastor, he had been arrested for his resistance to the Nazi regime. He was never to be a free man again. He would not marry Maria. He was hanged on April 9, 1945, a few weeks shy of liberation by the Allies.

It’s hard to imagine more dire circumstances in which to celebrate Christmas. Yet this letter gives me more hope than anything I’ve encountered this season. Not because, by comparison, our woes don’t seem so bad. That’s not it.

Rather, Bonhoeffer gets to what is truly essential. Jesus is born, among us and in us. That’s all. That’s all! The fun stuff that we’ve added over the centuries is fun, mostly. Lights! Trees! Presents! But what a lot of clutter we’ve dumped on this Holy Day. (Can the baby even breath under there?) Bonhoeffer had all this stripped away against his will — and found Jesus’ birth more wondrous than ever. Dietrich and Maria had nothing to give to each other, but the gift of God was enough.

Is it for us?

For me, a voluntary stripping away beckons. I am easily distracted by sparkly things, and need all the help I can get to focus on what can deliver the goods: hope. At the end of a toxic, violent year, this is just the gift I need — God con carne — in the flesh, with us and for us. It is enough.

The Rev. Jean Larson is a mostly retired Lutheran pastor. She is a leadership coach for people in ministry ( and can be reached at

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