When I was a child it was our family tradition to gather on Christmas Eve for dinner. After dinner, my father would always read the traditional Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke in the Christian Bible. We would then take turns opening gifts, one at a time, starting with the youngest and ending with the oldest. As our children came along, my wife and I continued this tradition. However, our family grew, both in numbers of people and in wisdom and experience. We are now a culturally diverse and interfaith family, and yet we wish to maintain with integrity this old and valued Christmas Eve tradition. And so, over time, while all other aspects have remained consistent, the Christmas story we share has changed. Following is the story as we share it now:
Our Family Christmas Story
For many thousand years, people around the world realized that during the autumn days got shorter and nights grew longer. But they also realized that at a certain point, this trend would change and once again the days would become longer and the cold would gradually be replaced with warmth. And so, they began to celebrate what they called in one way or another “the return of the Sun” around the time of the Winter Solstice. Today, the Winter Solstice is still celebrated by people all over the Northern Hemisphere. We all rejoice in the knowledge that the long darkness is going to be replaced by longer times of light and the cold of winter soon will be replaced with the warmth and beauty of spring. People in many different countries who are part of different religious traditions have all created special celebrations of light and warmth.
When Christian culture began to spread in many parts of the world, this new religion did not have any major holy days to celebrate. Christians saw all the others around them having a great time decorating and giving gifts in celebration of the returning sun, and they decided this would be a good time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. To Christians, Jesus was often called the “Light that has come into the darkness.” So it made sense to them that while everyone else had a celebration of light, they could too. In Rome, December 25th was celebrated as the birthday of the Sun and it was the largest and most joyous holiday of them all. So, about 350 years after Jesus died, Christians in Rome began to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th making this already special day special for them as well. At first, it was just those Christians who lived in Rome who celebrated Christmas. In time, however, the joy of this season became a major celebration for Christians in all parts of the world.
For our ancestors going back many generations, and for our family today the celebration of the Winter Solstice includes a remembrance of the birth of Jesus. We fill our homes with candles and lots of colorful lights, with decorations of all kinds and especially brightly lighted Christmas trees, and we celebrate the fact that no matter how dark the world may be, even a tiny little light can make the darkness go away. And even though we know Jesus was really not born this time of year, we always share the story of the birth of Jesus when we gather for this very special holy time.
The Birth of Jesus
Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem during a time of feasting and celebration in the Jewish culture. It was a very busy time in Bethlehem. Also, the Bible tells us the reason that Joseph traveled to Bethlehem was due to Roman Emperor Caesar’s tax registration and so the town was probably filled with folks even more than usual.
Careful reading of the Bible in light of the cultural norms of that day shows that at least a few days before Mary gave birth, she and Joseph were taken in by one of the local homes, most likely that of a close relative. The host family likely already had guests in their upstairs room, so there was no space for them there. So, the homeowners graciously made room for Joseph and Mary in their own living quarters. They kind of doubled up just like we do when lots of family members come to visit.
When Mary went into labor, the men would have left to give her privacy, and the women of the household would have come to Mary’s side for help and support. Shortly after Mary gave birth to Jesus, late in the evening, Joseph and the men would have been called back into the house to see the new baby boy, and there would have been a big party, which was always a traditional part of the birth of a baby boy, particularly if it was a first child like Jesus was.
Not too long after Jesus was born, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes, dedicated to God, and placed in a manger in the family home, which would have been cleaned and made up with fresh straw. Remember, in those days, families kept their animals inside their homes at night to protect them from robbers and wolves. Today the birth of Jesus is usually shown with the baby in a stable, but it is more likely that he was born right inside the home of a relative.
No doubt the news soon spread around the village that a baby boy had been born (the music and shouting during the party would have helped that happen), and that both the mother and baby were doing well. Soon, however, there was to be news of a different kind. Shepherds showed up from a nearby field and told the village that a great light had shined around them. They said an angel (which means “messenger”) had told them that this baby was no ordinary baby, but the Messiah, the one who was going to save the Jews from the Roman occupation of their country. Their report caused great wonder all over the region, and everyone sang songs of glory and praise to God for this new baby.
Of course, word of this reached the ears of the rulers, and they were very upset. They decided to kill the baby in hopes that they could maintain their power and control over the country. And so, Joseph, Mary and their baby boy were forced to flee from their native country and cross into Egypt as refugees in order to survive.
The story of the birth of Jesus reveals much that demonstrates the true spirit of Christmas: people opening their homes and their hearts, joyfully giving to others in need, welcoming others into their homes, and helping others wherever they can. And just like when Jesus was born, even today we all like to get together with our family and share good food, tell stories, and give gifts to one another. We also take food and gifts to the homeless, and to elderly people in nursing homes, and to others who are in need in our community. We take special care to welcome the immigrants and refugees who have had to leave their homes and countries in search of safety and security. And, of course, we love fill our homes with beautiful, colorful lights to remind us that sometimes, when things seem really dark, and headlines in the news make it look like it’s only going to get darker, just when it seems the darkness is going to take over the world, the light starts to return. That is something worth celebrating.