Reflection

The True Meaning of Christmas

By Kevin Glancy

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The True Meaning of Christmas

Customs

Do you know why we celebrate on the 25th of December? This date originated in the fourth century when the bishop of Jerusalem wrote to the Bishop of Rome asking what time of year Jesus was born. The Bishop of Rome did not know, nor did anyone else either at that time or since, so he decided on the 25th December. The reason he chose this date was because it was a date when citizens of the Roman Empire celebrated pagan festivals. It was a winter celebration when people engaged in all sorts of rituals to celebrate winter and offer sacrifices to false idols. The Bishop's motives were genuine, as he hoped that it would divert people's minds from their pagan practices and focus on the birth of the Saviour instead. However well-intentioned the Bishop's decision, the pagan practices continued and were finally accepted by the Roman Catholic church and assimilated into the Christmas celebration.

How does mistletoe fit in to the nativity? The tradition of mistletoe came from Druid customs long before the birth of Christ. Druids went in to the forest where the mistletoe hung from the trees. There they hugged each other as a sign of peace and friendship, exchanged gifts, decorated the boughs of evergreen trees with trinkets and held parties of feasting and merriment. This was common around Europe since long before the birth of Christ.

How did some of the other customs come about? The tradition of the crib or nativity scene started with St. Francis in the 13th century. The tradition of the Christmas tree started with Martin Luther in the 16th century where he adorned a tree with candles symbolizing the starry sky over the place where Christ was born. Christmas carols started in the 14th century while the tradition of Christmas cards started in the 19th century.

Did Jesus meet Santa? Father Christmas originated from St. Nicholas, the white bearded bishop of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) who was part of the Dutch tradition of giving presents to children. In Holland he was known as Sinterklaas and his feast day is celebrated on 5th December. Hence the name Santa Claus.

Why is there twelve days of Christmas? The twelve days of Christmas became Roman Catholic doctrine in the middle ages at a time of persecution. It signified the period between Christmas day and the feast of the epiphany. Churches differ on the meaning of that date, some say it was the time Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem as was the Jewish law at the time while others say it was time the Magi visited Jesus in Bethlehem. Either way there is no basis for that date in Scripture and has since become a Christmas tradition based on Roman Catholic doctrine. The number of Magi is not based on fact, nowhere in Scripture does it say there were three wise men; that number was assumed as there were three gifts given as mentioned in Matthew's gospel (Chapter 2 verse 11).

History

The birth of Jesus Christ was an actual event in history and the most detailed account is in the gospel of Luke (Chapter 2 verses 1 to 7).

Luke was an educated man, a physician in his day, and was very meticulous, thorough and exact in his gospel accounts. He was aware that he was writing history and would have spoken to many eye witnesses when writing his gospel. His account depicts the history of Christ's birth, the royalty of Christ's birth and the humility of Christ's birth.

Luke's account tells of historical figures and historical events of the day. Caesar Augustus was the emperor of Rome at the time of Christ's birth; Quirinius was Governor of Syria and Herod was king of Judah. Caesar decreed that a census be taken of the entire Roman world. These census took place every fourteen years subsequently. Census at that time took place over a number of years because of the scale involved, and in the case of Judah they had reached the end of the registration deadline, hence the urgency for Joseph and Mary to be registered. Joseph and Mary travelled 85 or 90 miles by donkey to Bethlehem which was also the birthplace of Joseph’s ancestor, King David. It must be remembered that Mary was a heavily pregnant young teenager travelling this long, arduous journey. Joseph was also a young teenager who was betrothed to Mary. Betrothal is not the same as an engagement in today's culture, betrothal was a marriage commitment, a binding contract. Mary was a devout Jew, and was chosen to be the physical mother of a human boy child (the Son of God). The exact location of Jesus' birth is not known. At that time there were lodging houses for people and side shelters for their pack animals. There is no mention in Scripture of an innkeeper, but Luke's account says that when Jesus was born Mary placed Him in an animal feeding trough (manger). The origin of the word manger comes from the French word "mangier" - to eat and ultimately from the Latin word "manducare" - to chew. There is no Biblical evidence of cattle or sheep in the place where Christ was born, more than likely the animals would have been  the travel animals of the people at the time, for example donkeys, horses. So the cosy, sentimental scene depicted in our nativity plays, some cards, cribs and some carols is a far cry from the actual circumstances of Jesus' birth. Mary went through the normal birth pains of every mother, the child would have behaved in the same way as any other human baby; He would have cried, He would have needed the same care as any newborn baby around cleanliness and hygiene. But Jesus was born in a noisy, smelly animal shelter to very young teenage parents over eighty miles from their home. Luke's account in the Bible also tells us that Jesus was Mary's "firstborn, a son". It is clear in other places of the Bible that after they married, Joseph and Mary had more sons and daughters, so Mary was not a perpetual virgin, she was the biological mother of Jesus which is different from being the mother of God. God is an infinite being with no beginning and no end.

Royalty and Humility

Jesus' birth was a royal birth, but not the type of royalty associated with our culture. Jesus Christ is a title, not a person's actual name. Jesus means "God Saves" and Christ means "God's only chosen king". Even though He was born in the most humble of circumstances, Jesus is God in human flesh. This same Jesus performed miracles by His word; by His speaking He gave us glimpses and snapshots of what Heaven is like with these miracles. He calmed the storms, raised the dead, healed the sick. He showed care and compassion for the poor, the sinners, the prostitutes, the outcasts. He confronted the Pharisees to see that their religious ways were not the ways of His kingdom, and their efforts to keep the laws of religion and legalism were worthless unless their relationship with God was through Christ alone. Jesus speaks to us in the same way today.

The innocent baby depicted in nativity scenes created the universe and everything in it. He will have the ultimate judgement on all mankind and yet He lived a meek humble life on this earth. Jesus did not come to bring peace among men. He came to bring peace between God and man; to save mankind, not to judge it.

So, the birth of Jesus was the explicit fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. It reveals that God is always faithful to His word. It was a supernatural act by God and not a natural act of man.

Even though Jesus was rejected when He came to earth and He is still rejected by some people in the world today, God wants us to rejoice and be glad to celebrate His love for us. This Christmas time we should stop and think of how we treat Jesus, what this beautiful event actually means and how we respond?

I wish a happy and a peaceful Christmas to all.