In many countries of the world, the celebration of Christmas on December 25th is a high point of the year. But why? Can it have any real meaning for us today? Is there a 'real' Christmas message?
Christmas celebrations in the West today
From November onwards, it is impossible to forget that Christmas is coming. Coloured lights decorate many town centres and shops, along with shiny decorations, and artificial snow painted on shop windows.
In streets and shops, 'Christmas trees' (real or plastic evergreen 'conifer' trees) will also be decorated with lights and Christmas ornaments.
Shopping centres become busier as December approaches and often stay open till late.Shopping centre speaker systems systems will play Christmas 'carols' - the traditional Christmas Christian songs, and groups of people will often sing carols on the streets to raise money for charity. Most places of work will hold a short Christmas party about a week before Christmas. Although traditional Christmas foods may be eaten, drink (and plenty of it) means that little work will be done after the party!
By mid-December, most homes will also be decorated with Christmas trees, coloured lights and paper or plastic decorations around the rooms. These days, many more people also decorate garden trees or house walls with coloured electric lights, a habit which has long been popular in USA.
In many countries, most people post Christmas greeting cards to their friends and family, and these cards will be hung on the walls of their homes. In UK this year, the British Post Office expects to handle over 100 million cards EACH DAY, in the three weeks before Christmas.
The custom of sending Christmas cards started in Britain in 1840 when the first 'Penny Post' public postal deliveries began. (Helped by the new railway system, the public postal service was the 19th century's communication revolution, just as email is for us today.) As printing methods improved, Christmas cards were produced in large numbers from about 1860. They became even more popular in Britain when a card could be posted in an unsealed envelope for one half-penny - half the price of an ordinary letter.
Traditionally, Christmas cards showed religious pictures - Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, or other parts of the Christmas story. Today, pictures are often jokes, winter pictures, Father Christmas, or romantic scenes of life in past times.
'Father Christmas' (also known as Santa Claus, 'Saint Nicholas') has become the human face of Christmas. Pictures will be seen everywhere of the old man with long white beard, red coat, and bag of toys. Children are taught that he brings them presents the night before Christmas (or in some countries on December 6th - St. Nicholas' Day), and many children up to the age of 7 or 8 really believe this is true. In most countries, it is said that he lives near the North Pole, and arrives through the sky on a sledge (snow-cart) pulled by reindeer. He comes into houses down the chimney at midnight and places presents for the children in socks or bags by their beds or in front of the family Christmas tree.
In shops or at children's parties, someone will dress up as Father Christmas and give small presents to children, or ask them what gifts they want for Christmas. Christmas can be a time of magic and excitement for children.
Who was he?
Father Christmas is based on a real person, St. Nicholas, which explains his other name 'Santa Claus' which comes from the Dutch 'Sinterklaas'. Nicholas was a Christian leader from Myra (in modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century AD. He was very shy, and wanted to give money to poor people without them knowing about it. It is said that one day, he climbed the roof of a house and dropped a purse of money down the chimney. It landed in the stocking which a girl had put to dry by the fire! This may explain the belief that Father Christmas comes down the chimney and places gifts in children's stockings.
In English-speaking countries, the day following Christmas Day is called 'Boxing Day'. This word comes from the custom which started in the Middle Ages around 800 years ago: churches would open their 'alms boxe' (boxes in which people had placed gifts of money) and distribute the contents to poor people in the neighbourhood on the day after Christmas. The tradition continues today - small gifts are often given to delivery workers such as postal staff and children who deliver newspapers.
Making sense of Christmas
Today in the West, not many people consider the religious meaning to Christmas. Most people in UK or Europe will not go to a religious church meeting, even at Christmas. It has become a busy race to spend money on presents, and get ready for the Day. In UK, our shops stay open till late Christmas Eve and often open again on Boxing Day with the cut-price 'sales'. (Not much holiday for the poor shop workers!) A visitor from another world would think that Christmas was a festival to the gods of money and shopping.
What do you want from Christmas?
Many people do hope for more than presents at Christmas. We want to somehow return to a time in our childhood (or some other good time in the past), when life was simpler and made more sense, before the troubles of adult life arrived. We feel sure that behind all the fun and decorations, there must somehow be a message, something more, some key to life, hope and happiness.
So can we look beyond the way Christmas is celebrated today, and find any real meaning, any message for our lives today?
How did the story end? or did it?
How did Christmas start?
Since about 400 AD, Christians have celebrated the birth of Jesus. 'Christ' means 'Messiah' or 'Anointed One' - the title given to Jesus - and 'Mass' was a religious festival.
In the West today, the real meaning of Christmas is often forgotten by those who celebrate the festival. It has become a non-religious holiday! More children believe in Father Christmas than in Jesus. Christmas Day is a time for eating and drinking too much, for partying and watching television, for spending lots of money and giving expensive gifts. Many people get into debt at Christmas.
The real Christmas story is found in the Christian Bible. It is told in two different books: Matthew and Luke chapters 1 and 2. If you have no Bible, you can read these chapters online. You may think that the story of the birth of Jesus, and the way that the West celebrates Christmas today, do not seem to have many connections. These chapters tell how Jesus was born as a baby to Mary. This was no ordinary birth! She was not married, she was a virgin, (yes, really!) and an angel had told her she would bear a special baby. Her husband-to-be, Joseph, did not believe her at first. Who would? Then an angel told him in a dream that it was true! Probably no one else believed it. So when they had to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem (near Jerusalem), to register their names with the ruling Roman government, they probably escaped many hard words from other people.
Arrival in Bethlehem brought worry and upset: there was no room for them to stay at the hotel. There was only space in the stable - the animal house for travellers' donkeys and horses. Jesus was born that night, and as they had no bed for him, they used an animal feeding box filled with the dry grass the animals ate.
Christmas cards and pictures today make it all seem very pretty. In truth, it must have been dirty and frightening for a young couple, far from their home and families. Possibly the birth was premature after the stress of the journey. This was a very poor place for Jesus to start his life on earth.
Christians believe that it was exactly God's plan that things happened this way. They say that it shows that Jesus came as a humble, poor person and not as a strong, rich king. They also claim that the birth of Jesus was told many years before in the books of the prophets.
Five hundred years before, the prophet Micah had said, "But you Bethlehem, though you are small, out of you will come for me, one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."
The prophet Isaiah had written, "A child is born to us! A son is given to us! And he will be our ruler. He will be called, "Wonderful Counsellor," "Mighty God," "Eternal Father," "Prince of Peace." His royal power will continue to grow; his kingdom will always be at peace … He will rule as King David's successor, basing his power on right and justice, from now until the end of time."
These are only two of many prophetic words that told of the birth and life of Jesus, written hundreds of years before His birth.
The shepherds are frightened
At that time, sheep farmers were seen by other people as low and of no value. Yet it was to these shepherds that the birth of Jesus was first announced in an amazing dramatic way:
"That night there were some men looking after sheep in the fields nearby. Suddenly they saw a great light. It was an angel, who said,
'Don't be afraid. I have good news for you, and for all people. Someone great has been born today. He is Christ, the great King you have been waiting for. He will save you from all that is wrong and evil. You will find him dressed in baby clothes, lying on a bed of dry grass.'"
The story of the wise men
After Jesus was born, wise men came to look for Him, from an area which is now in either Iran or Saudi Arabia. Although they are often called the "Three Kings", the Bible does not say how many there were, or that they were kings. Three is only a guess because they brought with them three gifts Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
Three wise men
They were certainly men of learning - probably today we would call them philosophers or scientists. They had seen an unusual new star in the sky, and knew that it told of the birth of a special king. (The star they saw was probably a exploding "supernova" and is known from astronomical records.) They followed the direction of the star and eventually found the place where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were staying. To bring honour to the child, they brought rich gifts: gold, frankincense (a resin which burns with a beautiful smell), and myrrh (plant oil with a very strong sweet smell). These gifts tell us in pictures three key things about Jesus:
Gold: a gift fit for a King
Frankincense: burnt in worship of God
Myrrh: a sign of mortal humanity (human-ness) - it was used to bury the dead
Jesus a refugee
Herod, the evil king of the area, heard about the child, saw Him as a threat, and sent soldiers to kill Jesus. But God told Joseph in a dream to take Mary and the baby and escape to Egypt. They lived there till King Herod died and then went back to live in Nazareth. We read nothing more about the life of Jesus, except for one story when he was 12, until He reached 30. By the way - note one important thing: Jesus was not a white European, and Christianity is not a Western religion. Christmas cards from different countries often show Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the landscape of that country, and with the racial appearance of that nationality, be it black African, Indian, or Japanese. This is good and right - Jesus came to identify with every racial group. He is "Everyman" for us all.
The end of the story?
Jesus was indeed "the man born to die". But that was not the end of the story. It is still going on, and you can be part of the story, if you wish.
No other person has had such an effect on human lives as Jesus. He came back to life again, and millions say they know Him today as a friend and helper in their lives. You owe it to yourself to find out more about Him. Is He who He claimed to be? Can He help us in our lives today? You have nothing to lose! Christmas is the time to stop and think about these important questions.
Finding help in our lives
Can God really meet our needs today?