While it is easy for those who have grown up in a Christian home to assume that everyone is familiar with the Christmas story, those who have grown up in another country and another culture often see the lights and realize that we are celebrating a holiday, without understanding the reason for our joy or the love of God that we associate with that celebration. Likewise, they often fail to understand the rich symbolism and meaning in our decorations, and the significance of the birth of Christ. For that reason I offer this brief explanation of our Christmas customs, with a prayer that it might help more people to share in the joy of Christ's birth.
Although Christ was born over two thousand years ago, His birth was far from ordinary, for His mother was a virgin. In fact, the angel Gabriel appeared to His mother (Mary) nine months before He was born, to tell her that she was going to conceive and bear a son. And, when she asked the angel how that could be possible since she had never been intimate with a man, he told her that the power of God would overshadow her and God would work a miracle causing her to conceive while she was yet a virgin. For that reason, the child that she bore was God's own Son, and He came into the world to take our sins upon Himself and to die in our place, so that through His death we might have forgiveness and everlasting life.
While the angels sang for joy as they heralded the birth of Jesus, the world at large took little notice of it. In fact, because there was no room in the inn, Jesus wound up being born in a stable far from the wealth and splendor that we associate with the birth of a king. Nevertheless, God used that birth to reveal His love for all, no matter now poor or afflicted they might be, and to make it clear that He does not favor the rich over the poor, or place any importance upon wealth and fame. In fact, riches can become a hindrance to finding peace with God, for only those who humbly acknowledge their sin and need of God’s forgiveness find it (Romans 3:10-28).
Although we do not know the exact day of Christ’s birth, we do know that He rose from the dead shortly after the spring equinox, and thus at a time when much of the world seems to be rising from the dead of winter to newness of life. Therefore, in keeping with that symbolism, early church leaders decided to celebrate His birth at the time of the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year). For, just as the solstice foreshadows the return of life in spring, Christ’s birth foreshadowed the spiritual return of life to the world at His resurrection.
[Note: Because of calendar changes, over the centuries, December 25 no longer falls exactly on the winter solstice, but neither does New Years Day and the winter solstice marks the beginning of the New Year.]
While Christmas customs vary from country to country, the use of a Christmas tree began in Germany and has become the standard practice in America. Since an evergreen tree does not become brown and dead looking during the winter, it is a symbol of life and thus a symbol of Christ who is the life of the world. Other evergreens used at Christmas, such as holly, also share that significance. However, by pointing upward to heaven the Christmas tree reminds us that Christ is the way to heaven. For the Bible tells us that He is “the way, the truth and the life,” and that there is no forgiveness apart from Him (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). Because He died to obtain that forgiveness for us, we need to stop trying to save ourselves and rely on Him to get us into heaven. There is no other way.
The ornaments on the tree represent the many blessings that are ours in Christ, and originally consisted of fruits, cookies, and other edibles. The lights on the tree point to the fact that Christ is the light of the world. Without Him we are in darkness, with Him we have light and peace, and all the blessings of heaven are ours.
We often place a star or an angel at the top of the tree, both of which were heralds of Christ's birth. The Bible tells us that when Christ was born angels appeared in the skies over Bethlehem singing “glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will to men,” and those angels told the shepherds of Christ’s birth. At the same time a star appeared in the sky, and that star led certain wise men to Bethlehem, and to the very place where the babe was (Luke 1 and 2).
Although those wise men arrived at Bethlehem some time after the birth of Jesus, they brought Him gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Thus, to a certain extent, the Christian custom of giving gifts at Christmas has grown out of their expression of love, even though, in some countries the baby Jesus is supposed to be the one bringing the gifts. Nevertheless, even though customs differ from country to country, the practice of giving gifts is, in itself, a reflection of God's love in giving us the greatest gift of all, the gift of His own Son.
[Note: Because of calendar differences, some eastern countries celebrate Christmas in January. Moreover, the festival of Saint Nicholas (known in America as Santa Claus) was originally celebrated on December sixth (the day of his death) and had nothing to do with Christmas. On that day, gifts would be placed in the shoes of Children. In England, a sock was used instead of a shoe, and that led to the custom of hanging a Christmas stocking by the fireplace, in hope that it would be filled with treats.]