On Christmas Eve, Robin Harper bakes a red velvet sheet cake, ices it white and cuts it into cross-shaped pieces. She passes the cake out to friends and neighbors with the help of her husband, pastor Len Harper, and their four sons.
The red cake represents the blood of Christ and the icing the purity of being washed clean of sin, the Harpers say. It's a reminder to themselves and others that Christ is at the center of Christmas.
"If Christmas is just a nice fairy tale story to you, it's not going to change your life," said the Rev. Harper, senior pastor at South Brandon Worship Center. "Christmas is what the angels said to the shepherds, 'This day, in the town of David, a savior has been born.' "
For the Harpers, the holidays are a time to reflect on the Nativity story and apply lessons within the story to their lives. These are lessons of humility, grace and unconditional love, say the Harper boys, Luke, 20, Matthew, 19, Aaron, 14, and Joshua, 12.
"We still all get each other gifts, there is an emphasis on giving and having that family time, but our parents taught us the focus is on Jesus," Matthew Harper said.
When Len and Robin Harper married in 1983, they wanted to start holiday traditions relevant to their faith. Len, who became a Christian as a teenager, bought Robin a nativity set for her birthday. He could only afford to buy Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus figurines to place inside, so adding a new statue each December became a tradition.
Having children brought more traditions rooted in Scripture, including attending Christmas Eve services, family devotions and visiting live Nativity productions. The Harpers also bought a book that tells the story of Jesus's birth to read aloud on Christmas morning. To this day, the boys read the story before opening presents.
"It made us understand that we receive gifts because people brought gifts to Jesus," Aaron Harper said.
Robin Harper said the family enjoys nonreligious traditions too. They eat snow cookies, crackers smeared with peanut butter and dipped in white chocolate, and watch holiday movies together. Sometimes they hop in the car, pick up fast food and drive around looking at lights. They shop.
"We love the lights and the music and the crowds," Robin Harper said. "When we feel like it's overdone or to much, we pull back and go home."
Rev. Harper said he isn't worried about commercialism ruining Christmas because it has its place.
"It's part of our culture; of course it's going to spill over into Christmas," he said. "But Christmas is what you make it."
This year, the Harpers will spend much of Christmas at church. The pastor will lead a Christmas Eve service featuring a musical retelling of the Nativity story. Then he will wake up and head to the pulpit again on Christmas morning. The title of his sermon is "Wise Men Still Seek Him."
The rest of the family said they don't mind sharing their father on Christmas because sharing the Gospel is the point of the season.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.