On Dec. 25, people around the world celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ. Literally meaning Christ’s Mass, the phrase derives from Middle English and Old English and traces its origins to the translations of the Hebrew word for “Messiah,” meaning “anointed.” In recent years, this very religious holiday has taken on a more commercial image, but this in no way lessens its theological impact. To best understand Christmas, one has to look at its origins, what it originally meant and what it has come to mean today.
According to the biblical accounts found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, went to Bethlehem to take part in a census. While traveling, the couple tried to stay at an inn with their newborn son, but there was no room and they were forced to sleep in a manger with sheep and other animals, a popular scene in today’s Nativity. While there, the shepherds came to adore Jesus.
Three kings, or wise men, from far away named Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, who were following the Star of Bethlehem, came before King Herod of Judea to ask where the king of the Jews had been born, so they could pay him homage. Herod was fearful of this prophecy, but hid his feelings when he asked these Three Magi to send for him once they had found him. These three kings presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, representing Asia, Africa and Europe respectively, but were told in a dream not to return to Herod and went home by a different route.
Today, Christmas has become a holiday with aspects that represent the world in which it is celebrated. The traditional Christmas colors represent the red blood of Jesus, shed in the crucifixion; the green of eternal life, in particular the evergreen tree; and the gold of one of the three gifts of the Magi, symbolizing royalty. The Christmas tree is a “Christianization” of a pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the winter solstice, particularly the triangular shape of the fir tree, representing the Trinity, a symbol which traces its roots to Germany. Poinsettias, traditional Christmas decorations, are native to Mexico.
Even the Christmas meal features traditional elements. Some regions, such as Sicily, serve 12 kinds of fish. In Poland, fish is also popular, although lamb is increasingly served. In Germany, France and Austria, goose and pork are favored. In the United Kingdom, a standard Christmas meal often includes turkey or goose, meat, potatoes, gravy, vegetables and sometimes bread or cider. The possible combinations are endless.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas without gifts, particularly for the children. Gift-giving was a popular custom in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which celebrated the good fortune of the ancient deity Saturn and the success of the autumn harvest. Gifts were given to demonstrate prosperity and the reading of verse to friends and family could be seen as a precursor of the modern greeting card. Santa Claus, who traces his roots to the Dutch St. Nicholas, has been turned in modern times into Father Christmas, a jolly, well-nourished man who brings gifts to children who have been good.
But despite the influence of various countries and cultural myths, Christmas is still about the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, performed miracles, founded the church, died by crucifixion as a sacrifice for humanity to achieve atonement, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, from where he will return. On this holiday, we celebrate life, the joy of family and the spirit of humanity.
We wish everyone a merry Christmas.