I don’t know about you, but for some reason it has been hard for me to get into the “Christmas Spirit” this year. Everything has been a bit topsy-turvy with people’s plans interrupted suddenly, with long held traditions being impractical this year, and it has caused me to spend some time in reflection about what we mean by “the Christmas Spirit” and what scriptures say about this moment in time that we commemorate each year.
Is it about winter? About snow, mittens and scarfs, about snow people and ice skates, hot chocolate or cider steaming in a cup? The movies would certainly suggest that but, December 25th did not become the official day of Christmas until 336 AD. Luke tells us there were shepherds abiding in the fields which means Jesus was probably born in the spring. Pagans celebrated the winter solstice, the longest night of the year with bonfires and feasts. So while a white Christmas might be beautiful, it has nothing to do with the story of Jesus’ birth.
Is it about holly and ivy wreaths or evergreen trees decorated with ornaments and twinkling lights? The use of evergreens again goes back to pagan rituals around the winter solstice. Perhaps what caused Christians to embrace the symbols of the evergreens was the message of hope delivered through these symbols. In parts of the world where it stays below freezing most of winter, the evergreens were reminders that it would not last forever, spring would return and with it more comfortable weather and more plentiful food. Bethlehem where Jesus was born has a very temperate climate. Temperatures seldom get below the high 40’s or above the low 80’s. Figs, olives, and palms are the most common trees in the area. The Christmas tree as we know it arrived in the United States in the mid 1800’s from German immigrants who had transformed earlier pagan symbols of hope into Christ symbols to celebrate the birth of Christ. Beautiful, but not really about the birth of Jesus.
Is it about family gatherings? Interestingly the story of Jesus’ birth adds a strange twist to the notion of family gatherings. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary left Nazareth where Mary’s family lived and traveled to Bethlehem “because he was descended from the house and family of David.” Luke is making a point that Joseph was a member of the tribe of Judah, a rightful heir to the throne of David, and that they were fulfilling the prophecy which states that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Location and lineage were significant parts of the story. Joseph most likely traveled to Bethlehem because that was his legal address. His family lived there. He had been in Nazareth with Mary’s family fulfilling the pre-nuptial traditions which he cuts short to take care of the Roman census issue. When they arrive in Bethlehem, about a 3 day walk from Nazareth, a long journey for someone nine months pregnant, the upper room, the guest room, is crowded. Mary goes into labor and because there is no room for a woman to give birth in the middle of aunts, uncles and cousins they seek the privacy of the lower area where the family animals are kept and fed. Through translation and cultural accommodation we often envision Jesus being born in someone’s barn because all the hotels were full. That is putting a European lens on the story. Mediterranean culture is all about family and Christmas is about family for those who are able to be with their families. Christmas can be about being with families we choose when we cannot be with our biological families, but Christmas is about incarnation, about being present for the people around you, loving them and letting them love you. Sometimes all this love can be overwhelming. Christmas is also about finding a quiet place for Jesus in your heart where you can embrace and care for that relationship.
Is Christmas about giving presents? The presents are actually about the Epiphany story and in some cultures that is still the day presents are exchanged. Matthew tells us that a group of foreigners, magi, following a star sought out a child born King of the Jews. The Jews had been held in captivity in Babylon about five hundred years earlier. The stories of their prophets about a messiah apparently lived on in that area after the people were released and returned to Jerusalem. We know too, that not everyone returned. These magi were probably traveling from the area we call Iraq in a caravan with merchants. Jerusalem was on a major trade route. Magi would consult the stars and advise merchants like reading their horoscope. Good day to travel, avoid this place, stop today, bad omens, etc. They were fascinated by this particular star and connected it to the Jewish stories. After consulting with Herod in Jerusalem, they traveled to Bethlehem. Once they found the child, who was probably a toddler at this time, they brought out of the merchandise that they were carrying, gifts they thought suitable for a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh. From this story has come the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas, but the only person that received the gifts in the story was Jesus. They did not give him the gifts because they liked him or because he was poor, but because they were following the protocols for visiting a king. I think sometimes we forget the “king” part of the story at Christmas. We focus on the cute baby surrounded by cute animals and exotic shepherds and wise men. Giving gifts is a part of the longer story of Christmas, but we must remember to whom we should be giving the gifts and why. Jesus, because he is our king, our Lord. Then giving to others out of charity or affection is put in perspective.
Finally, I think we must remember that the greatest gift was given by God to all of humanity. The gift of presence. Through Jesus, God showed up at our Christmas party and offered to stay and help clean up the dirty dishes afterwards. In Jesus, God is present with us, yes for the celebrations, but also for the “this is a mess”, “I’m tired”, and “I am not in the mood days.” That is the true gift of Christmas.
This Christmas may feel a bit strange, perhaps you are having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit, but that is ok. Jesus is still here and that is the true “spirit of Christmas” and the only one that really matters.