The Meaning and Significance of Christmas

Christmas is here! Shops are being decorated with Christmas posters and lauded with Christmas goods.In the guise to ‘give, give, give’, the pressure to ‘buy, buy, buy’ is on. Those with little money to spare begin the struggle to stretch their purses.

Big and shiny, the Christmas of today doesn’t even resemble its humble origin. Every woman who’s ever been nine months pregnant understands how gruelling a task it must have been to ride on a donkey. Every person who’s familiar with the sights, the sounds and the smells of a barn, knows the story of a babe born in a manger is much more pleasant in the telling than the reality.

With nowhere to go, and nothing but faith, a man and a woman on the verge of becoming parents spend the night in a stable. Their lodging is lowly, even by the standards of the day. It offers no creature comforts, no luxuries, and no conveniences of any kind. What they do not have is an important part of the story. Today, lack of material possessions, in no way, defines who you are, or determines the purpose of your life.

Nevertheless, the surface of Christmas keeps us incredibly busy, too busy at times, to pause and breathe in its meaning.

The heart of Christmas is Jesus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16). So Christmas celebrates the incarnation of God. Incarnation is the embodiment of God in the human flesh. So in Christianity, incarnation refers to God coming down to Earth as a man, Jesus, also called the Christ.

The birth of Jesus, the Son of God and the Saviour of mankind, was foretold by all the prophets and inspired writers of the Old Testament. By means of their oracles and prophetic utterances they prepared the hearts of people for his coming. Foretelling the coming of the Saviour, the inspired writer of genesis says:

Then the Lord God said to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike your head, while you strike at his heal” (Gen 3:15)

The prophet Isaiah who lived some 750 years before the birth of Jesus announced his virgin birth as follows: “The virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Is 7:14)

And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. (Lk 2: 4-5)

While there were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Lk 2: 6-7)

Now there were shepherd in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people, For today in the city of David a saviour has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. Lk 2: 8-11)

And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whim his favour rests.” (Lk 2:13-14)

When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherd said to one another, “let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. (Lk 2: 15-16)

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage. (Mt 2:1-2)

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which mean “God is with us.” (Mt. 1:22-23)

Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained them the time of the star’s appearance. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage. (Mt 2: 7-8)

After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Mt 2: 9-11)

The celebration of Christ’s birth on 25th December started in the year 336. In the course of a short time this practice spread all over the West and today it is observed all over the world.

Today, Christmas is characterised by celebrations of various kinds: family get-together, Christmas cribs, Christmas carols, Christmas trees, Christmas Stars, Christmas meals, Christmas Cakes, Christmas Picnics, Santa Claus and solemn Church services etc.

Preparation of the Christmas crib is an important aspect of the celebration. The origin of the Christmas cribs goes back to brilliant idea of St. Francis of Assisi who started this custom in 1223 at Greccio (Italy). The first crib he made was meant to represent the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in a cold wintry night amidst hardships and privations. St. Francis used living persons and animals for it. From Greccio the idea spread throughout Italy, Europe and the whole world.

With the help of pictures or figures of clay or wood cribs bring home to us the reality of the first Christmas night of Bethlehem: Mary, the Mother of Jesus, with the new born Babe on her lap or carefully laid on the floor of the manger, St. Joseph standing at the side or in the background or kneeling in adoration, the shepherds who came to pay their homage to Jesus, etc. While most of the cribs are simple, there are also artistically made cribs which are famous for their design, theme and beauty. In Christian homes children take particular interest in making cribs. It is their joy to prepare a place for baby Jesus to be born!

The custom of preparing the Christmas tree originated in Southern Germany in the 17th century. From there it spread over to Europe and was carried overseas by European immigrants.

The sympathetic figure of Santa Claus can be traced back to St. Nicolas, a fourth century bishop of Lycia in Asia Minor, who was venerated for his generosity towards the poor and the needy. The goodness of St. Nicholas was a reflection of the goodness of God who became man in Jesus Christ. Like St. Nicolas, Santa Clause goes about at Christmas distributing gifts especially to the poor with special affection for children.

The fact of the birth of Christ ushered in the dawn of a new age. His coming into the world split history into two: B.C. and A.D.

God entered our human history as one of us when Jesus came into the world. He was born in poor conditions in a country exploited by the mighty Roman Empire. Mary, his Mother, and Joseph, his foster father, suffered several hardships. The world we live in is perhaps, in worse conditions in spite of materials and technological advancement: Nuclear arms race, exploitation, corruption at all levels, evils habits, greed for power and wealth at the cost of peace and justice especially of the poor. It is to this world, that the Babe of Bethlehem cries out as he did through the angels on the first Christmas night: “Peace to men of Good Will.” Good will, therefore, is the first condition for peace and hence, for the celebration of happy Christmas. Good will between husband and wife, between parents and children, between officers and their subordinates. Only though good will can our actions, however simple and humble they may be, give glory to God. “Glory to God in the highest and peace to men of good will.”

Out of this basic conditions of good will flow all other fruits of Christmas. It is then that Christmas becomes a celebration of love, joy, hope, friendship and sharing.

During this Christmas, don’t leave ‘Christ’ out of Christmas, making it ‘Xmas.’ Try not to replace Santa Claus for Christ. Don’t value the gifts by their cost but by the love and sacrifice put into it. Don’t neglect the needy. Share your blessings with the hungry and the poor. And give your heart to Christ and let him be on top of your Christmas list.

May Christmas 2014 bring about an increase of good will in each one of us. Good will to love, to forgive and to share out time, our energy and what we have with the poor and the needy. Then will our wish “Happy Christmas” put on flesh and blood as God put on flesh and blood in Jesus Christ.

About John Parankimalil

John Parankimalil, SDB, M.A. (English), M.Ed, Ph.D (Education), popularly known as P.D. Johny is a member of the Salesians of Don Bosco. He is presently the Rector and Principal of Don Bosco College, Tura, Meghalaya and Director of Don Bosco College of Teacher Education, Tura. He received the 1st Computer Literacy Excellence Award from Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the President of India in August 2002 and the Guruvar Best Teacher Award from Shri Kapil Sibal, HRD Union Minister in 2009. He was formerly Principal of St Anthony's Higher Secondary School, Shillong and National President of All India Association of Catholic Schools (AINACS), New Delhi and the Charter President of Rotary Club of Orchid City, Shillong. He has authored several books. He is an Eduationist, Story-Teller and Leadership Trainer. He conducts seminars for Principals, Teachers, Students and Parents. His popular books include, He Can Who Thinks He Can (Macmillan), An Elocution Manual (Orient Longman), Progressive Parenting (Unicorn), Inspirational Stories for Purposeful Living (Babhani) The Way to Success and Happiness (Savio), How to Win Over Your Problems (Babhani), The Secrets of High Achievers (Babhani).
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