Welcome to the December Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture quotes taken from the American Standard Version
A WORD FOR TODAY, December 2012
December 1, 2012
Today is December first, and among many traditions it is a day to begin counting down the days to Christmas. There are many different Advent calendars. Some are filled with chocolate, some tell the story of Jesus day by day. Some have activities for the children to do. Several television stations are counting down the month with movies or television shows. Some online stores are having daily specials. Many adults will begin reading devotionals with a message about Christ and hope and faithful living each day. How are you planning to count down the days to Christmas?
In the next month we will also celebrate the season with other traditions like caroling, baking and parties. These traditions draw us together, unite us with a common heart and prepare us for what is to come. Christ will come whether we count down the days to Christmas or not, but the traditions bring us closer together and they remind us of our past. The traditions of our culture, of our family, of our church help to keep our hearts and minds in what truly matters: our faith in God and our hope in His promises. We just need to keep the traditions and the days we celebrate, pointing toward the One who is our Savior. Do we live for the Lord and glorify Him in all we do?
“One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord: and he that eateth, eateth unto the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, unto the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. For none of us liveth to himself, and none dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; or whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” Romans 14:5-9 (ASV)
Several years ago I counted down the days to Christmas by looking at traditions from around the world. Every country has something special about the way they celebrate Christmas. It is fun and amazing to see how we differ and how we are the same. Many of these traditions are secular; after all there is a Santa Claus type figure in almost every country. Other places focus heavily on the religious aspects of the season. Some places celebrate Christ’s birth on different days. Other places commemorate different aspects of the Christian story. Each custom has special meaning for those who practice it year after year. Are they necessary? No, they are certainly not necessary for the salvation of God’s people. Yet, when these traditions are given to God they do well to draw us closer to Him and help us to grow in faith and live in hope in this world.
I am bothered by some of the traditions. I cannot imagine Christmas without Christ, and some of the practices are so unusual, so seemingly un-Christian. Unfortunately, even in Christian countries Christmas has become little more than a secular holiday for many. It is up to us to keep Christ in Christmas, and perhaps even to find a place for God in those traditions that veer away from Him. We won’t study these traditions to judge those who have forgotten the manger, but to find the light in the darkness. Jesus is there, in some way: in grace, in forgiveness, in relationships, in generosity, in hope and in love.
During this Advent season, I’m going to reprise the writing from 2003, looking at those traditions from other countries. You, my dear readers, get a bonus for the next twenty-five days because I will be posting every day until Christmas. Please forgive the reruns, but I will try to edit as necessary to make them more relevant to our lives today. I hope you will be blessed by this Advent journey, and that you’ll find ways of putting Christ into your own Christmas traditions, and maybe even pick up a few new ones.
"Be ye therefore imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for an odor of a sweet smell." Ephesians 5:1-2 (ASV)
Music plays a very important role all over the world during Christmas celebrations. Caroling in the streets, choral services at church and singing around the fireplace is the one way Christians throughout time and space have found to join together in worship and praise of the God who loves so much as to give His Son for the sake of the world. We all have our favorite Christmas carols that we enjoy hearing: both religious and all the other fun songs that have come out of the season.
One old time favorite is the song about Good King Wenceslas. This song is based on the real life of a king of Bohemia, located in what is now known as Czechoslovakia. As the story is told, King Wenceslas was a kind and good man, a believer in Christ our Lord. His mother despised his faith and his brother killed him because of it. He is the patron saint of Czechoslovakia. In the song we hear the story of an act of kindness by the king. He saw a poor man trying to locate wood for his small hearth in the dead of winter. The king gathered a feast and traveled through a blizzard to feed the hungry man. When his page became cold, the king told him to follow in his footsteps, for there he would find the way easier. The page found warmth in his master's footprints and was able to go on. Thus we hear the message of Christ, when we follow in Christ's footsteps, we find blessings we cannot imagine.
Wenceslas lived in the 10th century, in a castle that was near Prague. Though the castle is long gone, there is a tree that was supposedly planted on the day of his birth and watered with his bath water. He was young when he became duke, so his mother ruled as his regent. She refused to give up her power, hated Christians and persecuted them. She was overthrown, but Wenceslas always struggled against those who were displeased by his desire to share his Christian faith. He only ruled five years and was murdered in 929.
The Christmas celebration in Czechoslovakia is a quiet and peaceful time with the activities revolving around church activities. Families attend a Pasterka, a midnight mass on Christmas Eve to welcome the Christ child. They fast for a day and then feast on cod roe soup. The Christmas celebration lasts for three days. The young girls practice one unusual tradition; they put cherry twigs in water on December 4th. If the twig blooms before Christmas, the girl will be married in the next year. St. Nicholas, known in Czechoslovakia as Svaty Mikalas, visits the homes of good boys and girls. He comes to earth by climbing down a golden rope with an angel and the devil. Bad children receive switches from the devil. They come on St. Nicholas Day, which is December 6.
“Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16 (ASV)
The Christian population of India is relatively small compared to other religions, so Christmas is not widely celebrated. They celebrate like everyone else with worship, family and plenty of fun. Since so many other nations have influenced India, the people use traditions from all over the world. There is some gift giving. Father Christmas delivers packages while traveling in a horse and cart, though Santa also appears in the stores to entertain the children. Caroling is an important part of the celebration for many people, and householders keep plenty of homemade treats to share with the singers. The head of each household gives gifts to the children and the servants. The servants return the gift with a lemon, a symbol of high esteem, to wish the master a long life of prosperity. Baksheesh, or coins, are given to the poor.
Christmas is a brilliantly colored holiday. They use bright red poinsettias, tropical plants such as mango leaves and candles to decorate homes and churches. Nativity scenes are displayed in every window in Bombay, families take great pride in their presentation. Children wear colorful dresses and perform native dances. Though there are some evergreens, most people use mango or banana trees for their Christmas tree. In many places around India, small clay pots with oil are lit and put on flat rooftops or walls. These lamps make the home twinkle with light and draw the attention of passers-by. When non-Christians see these lamps they ask what they mean, giving the people a chance to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Christmas often gets lost in the hustle and bustle of the holiday in countries where it is widely celebrated. Since so many people decorate their homes with lights and tinsel, since everyone is busy preparing sweet treats and good food, since the stores are packed with people searching for the perfect gift, it is hard to know which people are really celebrating the birth of Christ. We try to keep the focus on Jesus, enjoying advent scripture readings and other traditions that build up to the joy of Christmas, yet those practices are often hidden from the world. I doubt that a stranger would see much different about my life while I am out shopping or celebrating that would make them ask me about Jesus.
In a place like India, where believers are few and far between, it is much easier to notice something different about their lives and to see the light of Christ that shines. The lighted lamps set them apart and open the opportunity for evangelism. Can the world see something different in our life? Does the light shine through our Christmas traditions in a way that makes our neighbors ask, “What does that mean?” Do we do things that make people want to learn about Jesus and are we willing to share His story with them during this hectic season?
“For he is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and he came and preached peace to you that were far off, and peace to them that were nigh: for through him we both have our access in one Spirit unto the Father.” Ephesians 2:14-18 (ASV)
‘Tis the season of Christmas programs on television. One station is counting down the days to Christmas by playing favorite Christmas shows like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Even in light hearted children shows like these, the story revolves around some sort of conflict. Writers use conflict to draw you into the story, to make you part of it. You root for the good guy and against the villain. In Rudolph, the conflict involves Rudolph and his strange red, glowing nose. The other reindeer make fun of Rudolph, but in the end he saves the day.
One favorite movie is “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” In this story, the Grinch is a character who despises Christmas, so he tries to steal it from the Whos, but instead of being sad about the loss of their gifts, they sing for joy about the real reason for Christmas. The Grinch was going to destroy the presents, but the kindness of a tiny Who named Cindy changes his heart and he returns all the presents to the people. In the end, he celebrates Christmas with the Whos and begins a new life. Young Cindy became a peace child, entering into the world of the bad guy with the hope that he would be transformed and live in peace.
In ancient days and some not so ancient times, children have been used for political and military purposes. Treaties were often built on the promise of a ‘peace child,’ a youngster from a clan or a kingdom given to another to guarantee peace. The peace child was given to the neighboring clan with the promise that nothing would happen to the youngster. If harm came to the child at any time, the treaty was broken and the people could take revenge for the life of the child. Usually both sides offered a child, and peace reigned until they were grown. Then hostilities returned until a new treaty could be made.
New Guinea is a small country where there was often bitter fighting between people from neighboring villages. They fought constantly over water rights, borders, or property protection. The chiefs would often exchange their infant sons to keep the peace between their villages. These children were like adopted sons, cared for by their adopted families. If not, the fighting would begin again. A Canadian missionary in New Guinea told the people that God sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, as a peace child.
The people in New Guinea focus on Christ as the peace child in their Christmas celebrations. He came to break down the walls between people, offering grace and peace to all those who hear His voice and joining them into one body. When the people heard the story of Christ, the Prince of Peace, they became Christians and began spreading the word of the most wonderful—and lasting—peace child they would ever know.
“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.” Matthew 25:37-40 (ASV)
Many of our Christmas traditions seem to have nothing to do with the birth of Christ, like Santa Claus in the United States. What does flying reindeer or the North Pole have to do with the Savior of the world? It may not be at all related, but these mysteries are not unique to the United States. Superstition and magic have long been a part of the holiday celebration.
In Poland, Christians believe that Christmas is a very special, almost magical time of the year, and so some of their old traditions are especially superstitious, including fortune telling. From this we get the old saying “As Christmas goes, so goes the rest of the year.” If there is no snow on Christmas, it is said that Easter will be covered in white. “If the Christmas tree sinks in water, the egg rolls on ice,” is another saying. A cloudless Christmas Eve will bring plenty of eggs from the chickens, so they say “Stars that shine bright on Christmas Eve will make hens lay plenty of eggs.” If a woman is the first to enter into the house on Christmas Eve, it is seen as a particularly bad omen: all the heifers born that year will be female. It is a good sign when men enter first. After dinner the family turns out all the lights except a candle, and then as the candle is extinguished they watch for the direction of the smoke. If the smoke goes toward a window, they will have a plentiful harvest. If it goes toward the door, someone in the family will die. If it goes toward the stove, someone will get married.
The young girls have many beliefs relating to the possibility of marriage. On Christmas Eve they grind poppy seeds in the hopes of a quick marriage. When they go out of the house after dinner, they listen for a dog to bark. The sound indicates from which direction her husband will come. They eavesdrop on their neighbor’s conversations. If they hear the word “Go” they will get married in the coming year. If they hear “Sit” they will be maidens for a long time. On the way to midnight mass, they blindfold one another and touch the fence posts; what they feel will indicate the type of man they will marry. Before bed, the girls wash their face without drying. The towel is placed on the end of the bed and she will dream of her future husband.
Most countries have traditions involving food; the Polish people are no different. First they fast for twenty four hours before the celebration. Then, at dusk, they go outside to watch for the first star in the sky. As soon as it appears, they go in to a hearty meal. They begin with a wafer called an ‘oplatek.’ It is a transparent wafer with a Christian symbol. It is broken and shared with everyone at the table. They crumble the wafer in their food and eat it with the meal as a symbol of their unity. Many of these wafers are sent in Christmas cards, particularly to those who are far from home. The sender breaks off a small piece of the wafer to show that the loved one is with them in spirit if not in body. Christmas dinner is for only the immediate family, no guests, however a place is set at the teble for Baby Jesus. If someone arrives at the door in need of a meal, they are welcomed and seated in His seat. Though Christmas is a time for family, it is a time when we should expect the unexpected. We are reminded by this Polish tradition that Christ comes not only in the manger, but also in the needs of those around us.
“Ye offspring of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. The good man out of his good treasure bringeth forth good things: and the evil man out of his evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. And I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” Matthew 12:34-37 (ASV)
The churches and many homes of Belgium display ornate handmade nativity sets throughout the Christmas season. Some of these nativities have been around for hundreds of years, passed on from generation to generation. Nativity plays are popular events, often performed in sixteenth century costumes, the same type of clothing that would have been worn when the tradition began. In some villages, three men are chosen to portray the journey of the wise men to Bethlehem. They go caroling from door to door, receiving gifts of food. Since the food is eaten immediately, men are as likely to be chosen for their size as for their singing ability.
Even though most Christians celebrate the Nativity of Christ on December 25, many countries center certain celebrations on other dates during the season. For example, today is St. Nicholas Day which is the feast day for a saint who is best known for his generosity. He was the Bishop of Myra, born of a wealthy family but orphaned early in his life. One story about his life claims that he saved three girls from being sold into prostitution by their father by anonymously giving them enough gold for dowries. He was also known for being a lifesaver. He saved the lives of three innocent young men who were about to be executed and is credited with saving sailors from a storm.
The festival of St. Nicholas has always focused on children. During the middle ages, a boy was chosen on December 6 to be the ‘Boy Bishop,’ a title he held until Holy Innocent’s Day on the 28th of December. For many countries, Christmas gift giving is done on St. Nicholas Day. In Belgium, St. Nicholas (in the French speaking parts of the country he is called Pere Noel) visits on December 4th to find out which children have been good and which children have been bad. He returns on December 6th, finding the shoes of the children set on the fireplace filled with vegetables for his horse. The food is eaten and replaced with candies or small toys for the good boys and girls, sticks for the bad. The saint rides a white horse, or for some a donkey, and wears his bishop’s robes.
Gift giving traditions in any form, such as St. Nicholas, Pere Noel or Santa Claus) makes the celebration of Christmas a reward for good behavior. When those traditions are celebrated on other days besides December 25th, the children can better understand that the gift of Jesus Christ is given by the grace, mercy and love of God. We can easily confuse that gift with something that has been earned, but we know that we can never be good enough to receive God’s salvation by our own works. By separating the gift giving from the holiness of Christmas, children do not connect goodness with faith.
The stories of St. Nicholas and the other Saints provide excellent role models for children and adults. The traditions often help children learn to be kind and generous, to hold their tongues when they would rather be mean and angry. Children see lovingkindness in the story of St. Nicholas, and they learn that good fruit does not earn them the mercy of God, but that the mercy of God gives them the faith to live as He has called them to live.
“Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen of men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that thou be not seen of men to fast, but of thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall recompense thee.” Matthew 6:16-18 (ASV)
Gift giving is a tradition is many place, though they often differ on the timing. As we saw yesterday, some give presents around St. Nicholas day, others save the presents for Twelfth Night. The traditions involving the gift deliverers are as diverse as the timing. Nicholas is credited in some places, Santa Claus in others. There are also stories about angels and witches. Even the three kings or wise men deliver gifts to some children. Most of these traditions have revolved around the story found in Luke about the magi who visited the baby Jesus in the stable. They brought gifts; so many Christmas celebrations include gift giving.
The wise men are believed to have come from Persia, modern day Iran. The gifts they brought had great significance for the newborn child, prophetic in its defining Jesus as both King and Priest, and giving the gold, myrrh and frankincense to the holy family to help them survive their escape to Egypt. It is interesting to note that though this is the origin of so many traditions, the Christians of Iran do not give presents for Christmas. The children receive new clothes for the holiday and take great joy in wearing them.
Instead of partying, Iranian Christians fast during this season. In the early days of the Church, Advent was used as a period of repentance and preparation for entrance into the fellowship of believers. Baptisms were held on Christmas Eve. The Christmas fast, called the ‘Little Fast’ begins on December 1 and lasts until December 24. The ‘Big Fast’ takes place through Lent. The people eat no animal products like meat, eggs, milk or cheese. The people gather together at dawn on Christmas morning to receive communion and then they celebrate the ‘Little Feast.’ To break their fast they eat a feast of a chicken stew called harasa.
We focus so much on food during our holiday celebrations, that it seems odd for us that others choose to fast through this time of waiting and wonder. Yet, the Iranian Christians live much differently than Christians in America and other western countries. They are few in number; perhaps only 1% of the population in Iran is Christian. Fasting is often used for times of waiting, in preparation for what is to come. For the Iranian Christians, the month long fast helps them to focus their hearts and minds of the coming of their Lord in the manger in Bethlehem. It is a time of excitement and expectation that culminates in the worship of Christ Jesus on Christmas Day.
“But him that is weak in faith receive ye, yet not for decision of scruples. One man hath faith to eat all things: but he that is weak eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth set at nought him that eateth not; and let not him that eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest the servant of another? to his own lord he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be made to stand; for the Lord hath power to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord: and he that eateth, eateth unto the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, unto the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. For none of us liveth to himself, and none dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; or whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's.” Romans 14:1-8 (ASV)
Our images of Christmas often include snow covered streets and horse-drawn carriages. Families spend time around the fireplace with hot cups of cocoa, cider or mulled wine. Santa wears a heavy fur coat to keep warm on his travels around the world. If you look at your Christmas cards, you are likely to see a variety of snow covered buildings or trees, snowmen in white fields or snowflakes dancing on the cover. According to many of the traditional stories that we love, Christmas means cold.
Yet, there is no way you could say that Christmas is cold in Australia. December 25th marks the beginning of the summer vacation for students, with the days leading up to the holiday filled with final exams and graduation. They are ready to head to the waves to swim and surf the months away until school begins again. It must seem odd for the Australians to see pictures of snow on their Christmas cards, but since many are transplanted from other nations, they still enjoy the traditions of their homelands. Each person brings a part of his or her heritage to the celebration whether they are from Europe, America, the Middle East and the Far East. Christmas cards still have pictures of snow even though there is never a flake of snow to be seen.
There are some differences, however. Santa is usually pictured in a Victorian swimming suit, one of those long striped suits that make us laugh today. Christmas Day is not spent around a fire, but on the beach. They might go swimming, have water gun fights or play cricket. Decorations include native animals like koala bears and kangaroos rather than reindeer and polar bears. They have outdoor concerts by candlelight to sing Christmas carols. The Australians brought along their native foods, so turkeys and Christmas pudding are as available as cold cuts and seafood. A favorite dessert is vanilla ice cream with nuts, fruit and chocolate bits mixed in. They put the mixture into a pudding bowl to mould it – just like would be used for a traditional English pudding.
We live in a fairly temperate climate where we rarely see snow, so I wish sometimes wish we had a little snow for Christmas day, like we did when I was a kid. After all, we all dream of a white Christmas, don’t we? We often get caught up in those traditions, finding it difficult to celebrate if something is out of place. We wonder if it is really Christmas if we don’t put up those favorite decorations or eat that special cookie. I’m sure some of the traditions we’ve seen so far would be out of place in our celebrations because they are out of the ordinary, and yet those cultures would feel the same way if they didn’t have them. It might seem odd to us that the Australians celebrate at the beach with fun and frolic in the surf, but Christ is still the center of the festivities. Jesus is the reason for the season no matter what customs are followed for the day.
“So then, my beloved, even as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure. Do all things without murmurings and questionings: that ye may become blameless and harmless, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom ye are seen as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life; that I may have whereof to glory in the day of Christ, that I did not run in vain neither labor in vain. Yea, and if I am offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all: and in the same manner do ye also joy, and rejoice with me.” Philippians 2:12-18 (ASV)
One of the major complaints of many Christians, and others, is that Christmas begins much too early in America. We see Christmas displays in the stores early in the fall, and one television station was even playing Christmas movies months ago. The Christians do not complain in the Philippines. It is the largest Southeast-Asian country where Christianity is the predominate religion, and they focus on the Christ child for months. The signs of Christmas are visible in September; Christmas songs are even played in the stores and on the radio. One of the most played songs is Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” which is odd for a country that is in the midst of summer during the holiday season, but perhaps they love it because they will only know a white Christmas in their dreams.
Christmas begins on December 16 at a midnight mass where the story of Christ is read. At the end of the reading, a star slides down a wire to stop above the nativity, just like the star that led the wise men to Jesus. For the next nine days, Christmas is celebrated with the firing of fireworks and the display of parols, which are star lanterns. On Christmas Eve a couple is chosen to perform the Panunuluyan pageant, acting out the search of Mary and Joseph for a place to spend the night. The couple, dressed in costume, walks from home to home, singing a traditional song asking the owner of the home for lodging. They are turned away with song. The people follow the holy couple on their journey. Just before midnight, Mary and Joseph end up in the parish church where they find a manger. A baby is laid in the manger to represent the Christ child and the people celebrate Misa de Gallo, a midnight worship filled with praise and celebration. After the service, everyone goes home for a huge meal.
Christmas in the Philippines is a “festival of lights.” Parols are hung in the windows; they represent the star the wise men followed to Jesus’ manger. These lanterns are often homemade, and some towns hold contests to find the most beautiful. Most children at some point in their life tries to make a parol, and some families hand down their expertise from one generation to the next. They begin building the parols in July, when bamboo is cut to form the star shaped lantern, which is covered with different types of paper, foil, lace, tassels and pompoms. They are a sign of hope and faith.
The wise men followed a star, which led them to the Savior of the world, the source of hope and faith for all the people. The people of the Philippines have seen the same star and have come to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ with such a fervent faith that they celebrate His birth for months. The parols light the ways in the streets during this festive season, and the people rejoice with grandeur and pageantry. It is probably not easy being a lone Christian nation in the midst of a region that has long rejected the Gospel, but the Philippinos act as stars shining in the darkness as they rejoice over the saving grace of God that came in the flesh of a tiny baby born in a manger so long ago.
“And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and made trial of him, saying, Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And he said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. But he, desiring to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor? Jesus made answer and said, A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho; and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance a certain priest was going down that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And in like manner a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion, and came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on them oil and wine; and he set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow he took out two shillings, and gave them to the host, and said, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, I, when I come back again, will repay thee. Which of these three, thinkest thou, proved neighbor unto him that fell among the robbers? And he said, He that showed mercy on him. And Jesus said unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.” Luke 10:25-37 (ASV)
The people of Denmark celebrate Christmas with so much joy and love. Since Denmark is located so far to the north, the days are extremely short and darkness covers the land. But the Danes do not let it get them down; they cover everything with candles to overcome the darkness. The Danes burn more candles per capita than any other country in the world. Even more than the beauty of the lights is the joy that comes from hospitality and fellowship with family and friends. They put a light in the window as an invitation to passersby, so that they will know they are welcome to come and enjoy the good things of Christmas with that family.
Their Christmas trees, which are decorated on Christmas Eve and lighted after dinner, are piled high with gifts because they give something to everyone, not just immediate family. If visitors come to visit, they are welcomed with the smells of cookies and cakes, which are always available. They believe that if someone leaves their home at Christmas without being fed, the visitor will take Yule spirit away with them. So, the kitchen is a place of constant activity as more good things are prepared for any guests that may come along. A recipe given by a Danish housewife might yield three to four hundred cookies!
The most important part of the Christmas meal is a rice pudding with cinnamon called grod. This treat is the first thing they eat, and there is an almond hidden in one portion. The person who finds the almond receives a special reward, usually a treat of marzipan. A portion of the grod is left for the Julnisse, a mischievous elf that lives in the barns or attics of their homes. They give him the treat so that he will not play too many jokes on the family and will watch the household for the next year. The idea of Santa Claus came to Denmark in the 20th century. Since that time the Julnisse have helped Santa deliver toys to the children.
The Christmas celebration begins on Christmas Eve and continues until the day after Christmas, and their homes are filled with people, food, singing and joy. Those without families are invited to the homes of friends, so no one is left alone during the festivities. It is a time to love one’s neighbor. Companies close every Friday so that employees can gather for lunch with friends and the shops close at noon on Christmas Eve so that everyone can finish preparing for the celebration. It is truly a joyous time, light not only by the light of so many candles, but also with the love of people.
“How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Jehovah of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of Jehovah; My heart and my flesh cry out unto the living God. Yea, the sparrow hath found her a house, And the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, Even thine altars, O Jehovah of hosts, My King, and my God. Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: They will be still praising thee. Selah Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; In whose heart are the highways to Zion. Passing through the valley of Weeping they make it a place of springs; Yea, the early rain covereth it with blessings. They go from strength to strength; Every one of them appeareth before God in Zion. O Jehovah God of hosts, hear my prayer; Give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah Behold, O God our shield, And look upon the face of thine anointed. For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, Than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. For Jehovah God is a sun and a shield: Jehovah will give grace and glory; No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly. O Jehovah of hosts, Blessed is the man that trusteth in thee.” Psalm 84 (ASV)
Lebanon has many traditions that are similar to the traditions of other countries. They fast for forty days, have Christmas markets, decorate with lights and feast on good food. They enjoy the fellowship of family and friends. Papa Noel leaves candies for the children in red stockings they hang by the chimney. The Christians gather around bonfires, sharing songs and stories; it is a time to renew and restore friendships. Dancers perform a dance called the Dabkeh, in which boys and girls do intricate footwork to special music while holding hands in a half circle. The most important meal of the season is eaten at noon on Christmas day; the entire family gathers to eat chicken with rice and Kubbeh, which is crushed wheat with meat, onions, salt and pepper made into a paste. Cookies and pastries satisfy the sweet tooth following the meal.
The Lebanese have two unique traditions. A special pudding called Mughly is made in homes where there is a newborn child, particularly a boy. The Mughly is shared with everyone who comes to visit. About two weeks before Christmas, children plant seeds that will grow and decorate the nativity. The seeds, from fast growing plants such as wheat, lentils, beans and chickpeas, are placed on cotton that is in small bowls. They water the seeds daily and they grow to be about six inches. Just before Christmas the plants are placed near the tree or the nativity, which is looks like a cave rather than a wooden stable. The plants remind us that our God is the living God. The nativity is decorated with figures made out of cut brown paper, and a star is hung over the scene.
Christmas is such a joyous season everywhere. The food, the fellowship and the traditions all bring people together to rejoice over the incredible gift of God’s Son who was born in that manger so long ago. Some traditions may seem meaningless, but there is always something that shows the heart of Christmas, such as the planting of seeds. Christians honor and worship the Living God who comes to us personally, saves us from our sin and gives us eternal life in Christ. The food, the singing, the dancing and gifts are all wonderful, but Christmas is far more than that. The celebrations plant seeds of faith in the hearts of those who do not yet believe as they watch Christians trusting in their God. Perhaps by the next Christmas Day, those seeds will have been watered by the living water and will have grown into hearts that love and worship the Living God.
“How long, O Jehovah? wilt thou forget me for ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall mine enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Jehovah my God: Lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him; Lest mine adversaries rejoice when I am moved. But I have trusted in thy lovingkindness; My heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. I will sing unto Jehovah, Because he hath dealt bountifully with me.” Psalm 13 (ASV)
Christmas in Wales looks very much like it does in other parts of the world, especially the rest of Great Britain. Holly and mistletoe, stockings and exploding Christmas crackers are all part of the celebration. They decorate with evergreens and stockings. They eat massive feasts of turkey and plum pudding. Yet, there are some traditions that go back to the old days that still make a Welsh Christmas unique.
A favorite treat at Christmastime in Wales is taffy. Brown sugar and butter makes this sticky and sweet delight. It is boiled and then pulled until it is shiny. Taffy pulling takes a group effort. Several people stretch the mixture and then squoosh it back together over and over again. They stretch, squoosh, stretch, squoosh, stretch and squoosh until the taffy is cool, smooth and delicious. Another uniquely Welsh tradition is the Mari Llwyd. One villager is selected each year to portray this character. The person rides around the village covered in white carrying a horse’s skull on a stick. He tries to ‘bite’ the other villagers with the horse head, and if he catches them they have to pay a fine. He travels with mummers, brightly costumed characters that perform pantomime to entertain the people.
The most important part of a Welsh Christmas is the singing. Every town and village has a trained choir that practices throughout the year to perform at special events. Each year, a new carol is written and adopted by the entire country to be used at Christmastime. The words of the new carol are given to every town and they hold a contest to pick the best tune for the words, which is judged at a national competition. The new carol is added to the great body of music that has been created over the thousand years since they began the tradition. In some places in Wales, the choir begins their rounds very early on Christmas day, caroling throughout the streets to wake the villagers for the Plygain, the main Christmas service that begins at 4 o’clock a.m. and lasts until sunrise.
Despite the festive atmosphere of Christmas around the world, it can be a difficult time for many people. It is even harder in the Northern Hemisphere where it is dark, damp and cold at Christmastime. The lack of sunlight has a very real, physical affect on the people and many suffer from depression. Add to that the difficulties of life: financial troubles, broken relationships and insecurity about the future. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking there is no hope, peace or joy to be found. Yet, during Advent we watch and wait because we who live in Christ know there is hope. We know it is found in Him. We sing to overcome the pain, worry, doubt and fear. We sing Christmas carols to praise God for His great and glorious gift of Jesus Christ. We sing songs to remember the hope, peace and joy He brings. We sing to thank God for His blessings and by rejoicing in His goodness we remember that Christ has overcome the darkness with His light.
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church; whereof I was made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which was given me to you-ward, to fulfil the word of God, even the mystery which hath been hid for ages and generations: but now hath it been manifested to his saints, to whom God was pleased to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: whom we proclaim, admonishing every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ; whereunto I labor also, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.” Colossians 1:24-29 (ASV)
Children often ask, “How can Santa Claus take presents to all the children all over the world in one night?” While it is still an impossible task, Santa is not the gift-giving figure in every country. It is been fascinating to see the different characters in gift-giving traditions around the world. He is known as Father Christmas, Papa Noel, St. Nicholas, Pere Noel, Svaty Mikalas and he is helped by characters like the Julnisse. The wise men also deliver gifts, as well as some other characters like La Befana. In Sweden, the Christmas Eve visitor is a gnome-like creature named a Jultomten. It is believed that the Jultomten live in the barn or under the floor boards of the house and take care of the animals and the family throughout the year.
The main Christmas meal is usually ham, pickled pigs’ feet, lutefisk, or dried codfish, and many different kinds of sweets. There is also a special rice porridge with a hidden almond. The lucky person to find the almond will be married that year. They decorate the Christmas tree, which is put up only a day or two before Christmas, with candles, apples, Swedish flags, glass balls, tinsel and straw ornaments shaped like animals. The tree is displayed until January 13, Knut’s Day. The Christmas festival was established a thousand years ago when King Canute ruled. vHe decided that they would celebrate from December 13 through January 13. On that final day, boys dress up as “Old Knut” and play practical jokes. The tree is taken down and all edible decorations are consumed. The tree is thrown into the snow with a promise to be reunited the next year.
Today is a special day for the Swedes: St. Lucia Day. Lucia was a Sicilian Christian virgin who lived during the fourth century, when Christians were persecuted for their faith. Lucia took food to the Christians who were hiding in underground tunnels. To light her way, she wore a crown of candles on her head. She was eventually arrested and martyred. No one really knows how the story of St. Lucia came to Sweden, but she is honored with a very special day. On the morning of December 13th, the eldest daughter in the home, dressed in white with a wreath of candles on her head, takes coffee, ginger cookies and buns to every member of her family in their rooms. While she is delivering her goodies, the family sings Lucia carols, songs of thankfulness and hope. December 13th is believed to be the darkest night of the year, so a festival with lights brings hope.
St. Lucia brought hope to the Christians who were hiding from persecution. She brought hope, not only with the food she shared, but also with her willingness to risk her own life for the sake of others. We wait anxiously through the darkness of Advent for the coming of the true light, Jesus Christ our Lord. The hope we have is because He willingly gave Himself for us, overcame sin and death and was raised to new life so that we might have the hope of eternal life. We celebrate Christ, not only with the tinsel and glitter, but especially with prayer and scripture so that we will draw closer and deeper into His heart. In this way we manifest the word of God that has been given to us in Christ Jesus, ready for His coming in the manger as well as in glory.
“I will greatly rejoice in Jehovah, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with a garland, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels. For as the earth bringeth forth its bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord Jehovah will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” Isaiah 61:10-11 (ASV)
Though there are some major differences between the time and ways countries celebrate, one thing remains the same all over the world: Jesus Christ is the reason for the season. The Egyptian Christmas is similar in many ways to other nations in that they decorate, sing songs of joy, make special food and gather to share the season with loved ones.
Christians in Egypt follow a different calendar than other Christians. Advent begins on November 25th and they fast for forty days. New Year’s Eve is celebrated on December 31 and the Egyptian Christians hold a special service they call “Self Evaluation Eve.” They stand in front of God and confess their sins from the last year, promising to serve God for the rest of their life. They pray, asking for forgiveness in candlelight, and then ask God to bless the beginning of the New Year with His goodness.
Every Christian attends worship on Christmas Eve with an entirely new set of clothing. If they are unable to afford a new outfit, they are given one by the church or by some community service organization. The ancient Egyptian language, Coptic, is spoken during worship. After worship, they break their fast on January 6th with a meal known as fata which consists of bread, rice, garlic and boiled meat. Christmas is then celebrated on January 7th, and is seen as a time of new beginnings. They visit family and friends, taking with them a shortbread called kaik, which they eat together with a drink called shortbat.
Most Christians around the world wear new clothes for the Christmas celebration, but few put such a heavy focus on having a new outfit. Since the birth of Christ falls so near the New Year, the new clothes are reminiscent of the day when Christ will clothe us all in a new garment, a robe of righteousness that comes from Him. I n Christ the old is gone and we are clothed with salvation.
“Jesus therefore said unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and go out, and shall find pasture. The thief cometh not, but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy: I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” John 10:7-10 (ASV)
The Christian population of Bangladesh is very small, but Christmas is a very popular holiday. Fellowship with those they love is an important part of the traditions. Groups of people who do volunteer work in the villages have special get-togethers called “baithaks” where they share stories and eat sweets and cakes. Elders are greeted in a special way: a younger person takes the right hand of the elder, touches it to their forehead and then gives it a kiss. The older person responds, “Ishawrer Aashirbad” (May God's blessings be on you.)
About a week before Christmas, the Bengalis clean inside and outside their homes. They re-plaster the outside walls, first with a layer of cow dung and then a layer of clay. These fresh, smooth walls are covered with paintings of flowers or nativities and Christmas greetings. The boys are in charge of making paper decorations of flowers and leaves for the front door. The way is lit with oil lamps that are hung on banana trees and kept burning all night during Christmas week. Colorful crosses made of bamboo with candles inside are hung from poles and placed on the tops of trees.
These decorations make a gateway for visitors to enter the home. They do the same for the churches, but even more elaborately. Banana trees are cut down and posted along the pathway to the church. They are bent to meet in the middle, making an archway under which the parishioners walk. Bamboo poles with holes are filled with oil, placed on top of the banana trees and lit to light the way. It makes the way very bright. Christians worship at midnight and morning masses to celebrate the birth of Christ. The churches are often so full, that communion by the only priest in the parish takes hours to complete.
The Bengalis go to so much trouble to make the entrances into their homes and their churches a very welcoming feature of their celebration. The fresh plastered houses with paintings, cut paper and candles must be a beautiful sight. It would certainly make any visitors feel welcome. Christmas is when we celebrate the coming of God’s mercy in flesh, the birth of Jesus Christ. He said He is the gate, the gate into salvation and eternal life.
“Owe no man anything, save to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbor hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet, and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this word, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: love therefore is the fulfilment of the law. And this, knowing the season, that already it is time for you to awake out of sleep: for now is salvation nearer to us than when we first believed. The night is far spent, and the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk becomingly, as in the day; not in revelling and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” Romans 13:8-14 (ASV)
The people in Venezuela are mostly Roman Catholic, so the celebration revolves heavily around the Mass and family. The Christmas season begins on December 16th, when families begin to display their presebres, which means manger. The nativity scenes are often quite ornate with landscapes of mountains and valleys, rivers and seas. Some presebres include rather unusual items: model trains are mixed with the traditional animals and stable, cartoon characters stand with the wise men to honor the child. The Baby Jesus is not added to the presebres until Christmas Eve at midnight. Margarita, a Caribbean island, has a live presebre. On Christmas Eve the townspeople have a procession to take a baby to lay in the manger.
Every day from December 16th to Christmas the people attend an early morning mass called Misa de Aguinaldo. The roads are closed until 8 A.M. in Caracas so that people can go to church safely. The people get to church by roller-skating through the streets. The children tie strings on to their big toes and put the strings out of the window at night before they go to bed. If a roller-skater sees a string still hanging as they roll by, they pull on the string to get that sleepyhead out of bed.
The main Christmas celebration takes place on Christmas Eve. They attend the Misa de Gallo at midnight and then return home for a feast. The main dish is called hallacas, a mixture of corn flour dough filled with chicken, beef or pork, olives, raisins, eggs and spices wrapped in plantain leaves. Each region has a unique mixture, so families make hundreds of these treats to share with family and friends. They also serve pan de “jamón,” which is a long bread filled with cooked ham and raisins. The “dulce de lechoza” is a dessert made of green papaya and brown sugar, slowly cooked for hours and served cold. Ponche crema is a beverage that is served, either with alcohol or not.
Baby Jesus brings presents to children on Christmas Eve, and they are opened after dinner. The official celebration of the holiday ends on January 6th, the Day of the Reyes Magos which is the day of the three wise kings. The children receive more toys and candy on that day. They leave straw in their shoes beside their beds for the camels and wake hoping it will be replaced by goodies. If they find a black smudge on their face, they know that Balthasar kissed them while they slept.
“Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee. But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this might be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. 34 And Mary said unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God. And behold, Elisabeth thy kinswoman, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that was called barren. For no word from God shall be void of power. And Mary said, Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.” Luke 1:26-38 (ASV)
The patron saint of Spain is the Virgin Mary, so the Christmas celebration begins on December 8th which is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. A group of boys perform a dance called “los Seises,” at the cathedral in Seville. “The dance of six” has changed a bit over the years and now features ten costumed boys dancing together with precise movements. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception recalls when Mary learned she would bear the Son of God and received the seed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christmas in Spain begins on December 8th and lasts until January 6th. It is a festive and joyous time, with many of the traditions you can see all over the world. The markets are filled with good things: pomegranates of Andalusia, Valencia oranges, and Arragonese apples along with walnuts and chestnuts from Galicia. There are also flowers, marzipan candies, baked goods, candles, decorations and handcrafted Christmas gifts. Choirs sing while people shop.
The main Christmas celebration begins with a special mass late in the evening on Christmas Eve. They follow this service with a huge feast that goes well into the night. In Spain, it is called “Noche Buena” or “the Good Night.” They party until dawn, eating and singing around nativities and Christmas trees. They say, “Esta noche es Noche-Buena, Y no es noche de dormir,” which means, “This is the Good Night, therefore it is not meant for sleep.”
Gift giving happens on King’s Day, January 6th when it is believed the three kings offered their gifts to the baby Jesus. The children put their shoes on the doorstep filled with hay or straw. Over night the three kings fill the shoes with good things. Balthazar, the king who rides a donkey, is a favorite among Spanish children because they believe he is the one who fills the shoes. Throughout the Christmas season, the three kings are seen around town at hospitals and orphanages to spread Christmas cheer.
One very unique tradition in Spain involves swinging on special swings which are hung in the courtyards. Since Christmas happens at the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, they swing to encourage the sun. They also build bonfires and jump over them, believing that it will ward off disease in the coming year.
There is so much about Christmas that is almost hard to believe. Why do we do the things we do at this time of year? But the greater questions involve the work of God in Christmas. How is it that God would select a young girl named Mary to bear the flesh of the Savior? God’s ways are higher and greater than our ways; it is beyond our scope to fully understand His purpose and His plan. Yet, one of the most incredible things about Christmas is that it is a time of the miraculous, a time to believe in what cannot be. The Savior Immanuel, God with us, is born in Bethlehem. No wonder it is such a time of joy.
“Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, from within him shall flow rivers of living water. But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believed on him were to receive: for the Spirit was not yet given; because Jesus was not yet glorified. Some of the multitude therefore, when they heard these words, said, This is of a truth the prophet. Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, What, doth the Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said that the Christ cometh of the seed of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was? So there arose a division in the multitude because of him. And some of them would have taken him; but no man laid hands on him.” John 7:37-44 (ASV)
Until recently, the Greek celebration of Christmas was a very quiet affair, more spiritual in nature with none of the glitz that is often found in other countries. Yet, that seems to be changing as more traditions from other countries come into use in Greece. The largest Christmas tree in Europe can now be found in Constitution Square in Athens. Lights are strung over every street in the major cities and many Christians decorate their homes with Christmas trees. The children go from house to house singing ‘kalanda’ or Christmas carols while playing triangles and drums. They are rewarded with treats or money.
As is true of most countries, food plays a major role in the celebration. The feast includes roast pig and 'christopsomo' or ‘Christ bread.’ The Christ bread is sweet, shaped and decorated to indicate the family business. It is served with figs or nuts and honey.
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, and thus an important saint in Greece, he plays a role in the Christmas celebration. Gifts are given to the children on St. Nicholas Day. There is another gift-giving saint in Greece named St. Basil. St. Basil’s Day is January 1st, and he comes to the homes through the chimney. The family leaves a log in the fireplace for him to step on as he comes into the home. It is strange that he comes through the chimney since the Greeks keep a fire burning continuously between Christmas and Epiphany to ward off mischievous gnomes called Kallikantzaroi. Though they are not dangerous, they are said to visit during the twelve days of Christmas causing mischief around the house. The hearth fire is believed to keep them away.
Another way to deal with the Kallikantzaroi is one of the most popular Greek traditions. St. Basil is associated with water, so in nearly every home you will find a shallow wooden bowl of water that has a piece of wire strung across the top. The wire holds a wooden cross that is wrapped with basil. The water in the bowl keeps the basil fresh and is used to bless the house every day. Someone, usually the mother, takes the cross and basil and sprinkles water in every room of the house during the twelve days of Christmas. On St. Basil’s Day, all the pitchers in the house are emptied and refilled with fresh water called “St. Basil’s water.” The renewal of waters ritual is often accompanied by offerings to the ‘naiads’ or spirits of springs and fountains.
It is amazing how many Christmas traditions have seemingly unchristian roots. The renewal of waters ritual probably goes back to ancient times, long before Christ even walked the earth. Yet, there is a health benefit to changing the water. Harmful bacteria can form when the jars are left to stand too long. By changing the water regularly, they ensure their supply is safe and clean. While there may be no real, visible benefit from the blessing of the rooms, we can see Christ in the cross and in the life of St. Basil. When we look at these traditions, we are reminded that the world is imperfect, but Christ is always perfect. He is the Living Water.
“Know ye not that they that run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? Even so run; that ye may attain. And every man that striveth in the games exerciseth self-control in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, as not uncertainly; so fight I, as not beating the air: but I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage: lest by any means, after that I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected.” 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (ASV)
Ethiopian Christians do not ignore Christmas, but it is not the most important holiday for them. They do not give many gifts, and if they do it is usually clothing. They celebrate according to the Julian calendar, so Christmas falls on January 7th. Though much of Africa only recently converted to Christianity, Ethiopia has been Christian since 330 A.D.
They fast for forty days then they attend a special Mass on Christmas morning. Everyone wears white and they each get a candle as they enter the sanctuary. They walk around the church three times, and then stand for the entire service, since there are no seats inside. They stand in concentric circles, with the men and women separated. The choir stands outside the circle to sing. Sometimes the service lasts three hours. Following the service, they gather together to eat. The meal is usually eaten outdoors since the weather is warm and shared with other families. They eat chicken stew with injera bread, which is like a pancake. They use the injera bread to dip out the stew for eating.
Ethiopians call Christmas “Genna.” It comes from the word gennana which means imminent, and refers to the coming of Christ to save the world. The word also stands for a game which is much like hockey that the youth play. Legend has it that the shepherds were playing genna when the angels came to tell them about the birth of the baby Jesus. A leader of the community attends the game and a prize is given for the winner.
Playing sports is not unusual as a Christmas Day activity. Many families in other countries gather to enjoy some sort of activity. We all know that the reason for Christ’s coming is not a game, it is very serious business to the God we worship, for He knew that Christ was the only way we could be saved. Now, we live in His righteousness, in His glory, and we wait expectantly for the prize we’ve already received: eternal life. Sports were important to the Romans; they played many games, so Paul used the example of preparing and working toward the goal. But he also reminded them that the prize is greater than anything they can get by winning a race. Though the Ethiopian youth have fun playing their genna on Christmas Day, it is not until after they have worshipped the King.
“Behold, Jehovah's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, so that he will not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue muttereth wickedness. None sueth in righteousness, and none pleadeth in truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity. They hatch adders' eggs, and weave the spider's web: he that eateth of their eggs dieth; and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper. Their webs shall not become garments, neither shall they cover themselves with their works: their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood: their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; desolation and destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they know not; and there is no justice in their goings: they have made them crooked paths; whosoever goeth therein doth not know peace.” Isaiah 59:1-8 (ASV)
Circumstances have changed significantly since I wrote about Iraq’s Christmas nine years ago. In 2008, Christmas became an official holiday. The war was officially over a year ago, as foreign troops officially withdrew from the country. Though life in Iraq is different today, the Middle East remains a place of conflict and the message of peace continues to be elusive.
Christmas hasn't changed for the Iraqui Christians. The celebrations are simple, quiet and solemn in Iraq. Christian families gather together on Christmas Eve to read the story of Christ by candlelight. The story is read by one of the children and it is followed by a bonfire of thorns. They sing together as the pile burns. If the thorns burn to ashes, the family will have a prosperous year. When the fire has finished burning, everyone jumps on the ashes three times and makes a wish. On Christmas Day another bonfire is lit in the churchyard to welcome everyone to worship. The bishop leads the people into the church carrying an image of the baby Jesus on a red pillow. After the service, the bishop blesses the people by touching one person and speaking a blessing of peace. That person then touches the next person who touches the next until every person has received the touch of peace.
It is hard to imagine any sort of peace found in the Middle East even at this time of year. Fear, violence and hatred are a part of their daily lives. Yet, the peace we know in Christ Jesus is a different kind of peace. Conflict exists everywhere that there is separation between peoples, even in America. The battles we fight might be different, but no matter how much we cry out for peace, it is impossible to find in this world.
The Christmas celebration in Iraq is very simple, but they know where to find the true peace: in Jesus Christ our Lord. The story of Jesus brings hope in a world where there is no hope. The light of the candles and the bonfire shine the light of Christ into the darkness of this world. The fire overcomes the thorn bush, representative of the crown of thorns worn on Christ’s head at His crucifixion. The thorns pierced His head by the suffering and humiliation they represent did not win. Christ overcame it all for our sake. In Iraq, they understand that peace is not found on the streets, but in the hearts of those who believe in the only one who can bring it, the child in the manger to be born in Bethlehem. The Christians of Iraq share the love of Christ and touch of peace that passes all human understanding as the celebrate that birth that changed the world.
“And he answered and said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that which he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables; because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And unto them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; And seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive: For this people's heart is waxed gross, And their ears are dull of hearing, And their eyes they have closed; Lest haply they should perceive with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And should turn again, And I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, that many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things which ye see, and saw them not; and to hear the things which ye hear, and heard them not.” Matthew 13:11-17 (ASV)
Christmas in Mexico is a festive and colorful time with parties, plays, singing and treats. Many people take vacation for two weeks before Christmas and all government offices are closed. Beginning on December 16, children re-enact the posada, which means journey. The children dress up in costumes representing the Christmas story and go door to door, singing and searching for a place where Mary and Joseph can stay. In some cities, the children are welcomed into a different house each night. In others they end up in a different church. The festivities follow with prayer and singing and a telling of the Christmas story. After the story the children smash piñatas which are filled with nuts, fruit and sometimes candy. The Santos Pereguinos or holy pilgrims, re-create the journey each night until Christmas, stopping at a different house or church each night.
The Mexicans eat a special bread called Rosca de Reyes which is a big oval wreath shaped egg bread with dried fruit and sugar as decoration. A baby Jesus figurine is baked right into the bread. The person who finds the figurine becomes the godparent of the baby Jesus and has to throw a party on February 2nd, which is “El dia de la Candelaria” or the day of the Candle or Light. It is a day of purification, the day when all the Christmas decorations are put away.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, the people all attend a special mass to welcome the Baby Jesus. The people make a grand procession to the church, and lay gifts at the manger. In Mexico, poinsettias are very common, often growing like weeds on the side of the road. Legend tells of a poor boy that took some of the stems to the church as a gift for the baby Jesus. He had nothing to give the Christ child so he picked some of the plants from the side of the road. The other boys made fun of him, but when he set them beside the manger, a beautiful red star shaped flower appeared at the top of the branches. Poinsettias are not quite what they seem. We think of the red as the flower, but they are brightly colored leaves. The flower is the tiny yellow florets in the middle. The plant grows like a weed but they were believed to have healing properties, good for heart troubles and skin infections. The poinsettias we buy today are cultivated and come in a beautiful array of colors.
The poinsettia plant is beautiful but its life is fleeting with leaves dropping soon after Christmas. Who would have thought this plant, which is considered a weed by many in Mexico, could hold healing power? As we look at these Christmas traditions, and even at the Christmas story itself, it is amazing to see how God can use even the playful activities of children and a baby born in a manger to bring healing and peace to the world.
“Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. Jehovah hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the King of Israel, even Jehovah, is in the midst of thee; thou shalt not fear evil any more. In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not; O Zion, let not thy hands be slack. Jehovah thy God is in the midst of thee, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love; he will joy over thee with singing.” Zephaniah 3:14-17 (ASV)
Christmas in Austria includes many of the usual traditions like Christmas trees, special worship services and sweets to satisfy any hungry belly. The gift-giver is the “Kristkindl,” a golden haired cherub who symbolizes baby Jesus. The Christ child is believed to come down from heaven on Christmas Eve to decorate Christmas trees. Village squares are filled with booths selling beautiful Christmas ornaments and delicious treats. The churches are decorated with evergreens, candles and a marvelous crèche.
December 5th is known as Krampus Day. The Krampus is an evil looking character, something like a devil, with bulging eyes and a long red tongue. The Krampus usually wears an ugly fur and is decked out in cowbells and rattling chains, making a great deal of noise as he moves. On Krampus Day, children and adults go to the village to throw snowballs and make fun of the Krampus. It is a time of fun and laughter, and a reminder to the children to be good for St. Nicholas who comes on December 6th.
One of the most important aspects of Christmas in Austria is the music. Special concerts are held during Advent to share the wonderful music created by Wolfgang Mozart, Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss, Franz Schubert and others, all of whom created so much of the music we love. Contemporary and traditional Christmas music is shared everywhere from the marketplaces to castles, fortresses, city halls, cruise boats and chapels in tiny Alpine villages.
Of course, it is hard to forget that one of the most beloved Christmas songs came from Austria. “Silent Night” was written when it seemed as though there would be no Christmas Eve for St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria. In 1818, as the priest prepared for the evening worship, he discovered that the organ was not working. How could they have a service without music? Franz Mohr, the young priest, wrote the words to this beautiful carol and Franz Gruber composed the music on a guitar. To this day, “Silent Night” is not heard in Austria until Christmas Eve, and then it is repeated every hour. It is known as the “song heard round the world” since it has been translated into hundreds of languages and is sung everywhere at Christmastime.
Music has always been an important part of all Christian worship, as we join in one voice to rejoice over the blessings of God and sing His praises along with the angels in heaven. There are few songs that generate the same emotion as “Silent Night.” In the dark of the night, as we long for the coming of the One who would be born the Light of the world, the simple words and tune of this beloved song fills our heart with a deep understanding of the wonderful gift from God.
The Advent season has been a hustle and bustle of preparation and parties, family and festivities. Yet we can sing “Silent Night” and put aside the chaos of Christmas for just a moment to remember what it really means. Christ the Savior is born to bring us hope, peace and forgiveness, born to bring light into the darkness of our lives. May we never forget that in the midst of the noise of the holiday, the first Christmas was a silent night when only a few knew of the great event that was happening in a stable in Bethlehem.
“Ascribe unto Jehovah, ye kindreds of the peoples, ascribe unto Jehovah glory and strength. Ascribe unto Jehovah the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come into his courts. Oh worship Jehovah in holy array: tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, Jehovah reigneth: The world also is established that it cannot be moved: He will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; let the field exult, and all that is therein; then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy before Jehovah; for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth: He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.” Psalm 96:7-13 (ASV)
Since immigrants imported most of the Christmas traditions in America over the years, much of what we take for granted had their beginnings in other nations. The delicious food, wonderful music and beautiful decorations we enjoy were brought to this country by our ancestors and are part of the incredible melting pot culture of our nation. Some of those traditions have become popular all over the world; things like Christmas trees, Santa Claus, “Silent Night” and chocolate chip cookies are available almost everywhere during the holidays.
One of the most popular traditions that came from Germany is, of course, the Tannenbaum or Christmas tree. Though the actual origins of this practice are disputed, there is little doubt that the first indoor trees came from Germany. One story credits St. Boniface, an English missionary, with the original Christian use of the fir tree. The story is told that Boniface climbed a mountain where there was an oak tree the pagans revered to chop it down. The pagans were sure lightning would strike Boniface if he tried to harm their sacred tree, but when his ax barely touched it, the tree broke into quarters and fell down. Boniface built a church on that spot and many pagans became Christian. The saint used the evergreen tree, with its triangular shape, to teach about the Trinity. The tree came to be known as “God’s tree.” By the twelfth century, Christians had begun hanging the tops of evergreens from their ceilings in celebration of Christ’s birth. The evergreen is also used because it is always green, a symbol of hope in the midst of the cold, dark winter nights.
A German legend credits Martin Luther with the first decorated indoor Christmas tree. It is said that he took a small tree into his home and put candles on the branches to recreate the stars twinkling through the trees on a winter night. The Christmas tree was once known as “the Paradise Tree,” a reminder of the good blessings found in the Garden of Eden. The decorations included food items like gingerbread cookies and paper flowers. In the nineteenth century, hand blown glass ornaments became popular and are still one of my favorite parts of the German holiday traditions. In many homes, a glass pickle is hidden in the branches of the tree. The first child to find the pickle on Christmas morning is rewarded with a special treat.
There is a legend in Germany that says that the rivers turn to wine, animals speak to each other, tree blossoms bear fruit, gems are found in the mountains and church bells can be heard ringing from the bottom of the sea, but only the pure in heart can see the magic of this special day. Though there really is no magic, there is certainly something very special about Christmas; even the trees speak out praise to God. Jesus once told the temple leaders that if they quieted all the people, all of creation would sing out for joy. It seems to be especially true at Christmastime when we enjoy the beautiful evergreens that so lovingly grace our homes.
“Ye have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:38-48, ASV
It is Christmas Eve, and all over the world people are getting ready for the celebration. Some are putting up their Christmas trees. Others are wrapping those last minute gifts. Chefs are preparing the special dishes and families are traveling. Children are anxious for night to come so the gift giver can bring whatever surprises he has for them. Christians are preparing to gather to worship the King who was born in a manger.
Christmas in Nigeria is a happy event, when families gather together. Those who have moved to the cities travel home to be with those who still live in the villages. It is a time for sharing, and those who have been successful take gifts to those who are less fortunate. The gift-giving often involves money as they help each other through tough times. Once they are settled in after the long trip home, local relatives visit and ask for assistance. The gift-giving is done in elaborate packaging, and is often done at lavish parties. Sometimes the bills are stuck onto the sweaty foreheads of people dancing or thrown in the air and caught by those nearby.
Nigerians love good food and loud music, and Christmastime is the best time to satisfy their wishes. The focus of the food tends to be meat, and the families go out and buy live chickens, goats and cows to be slaughtered and eaten on Christmas Eve. Children play with the animals and taunt them until then. The traditional meals eaten at Christmastime depend on the region where the people live, with a variety of special foods prepared like lyan or fufu (pounded yam), Jollaf Rice, pepper soup, boiled beans and fried plantains. They drink a traditional palm wine. Sometimes they eat the same food several times during the day because they travel from house to house visiting with family and friends. It is considered rude to refuse to eat, so they enjoy the meal whenever it is offered.
Unfortunately, it is not all fun and games in Nigeria, as well as other places around the world. There is no doubt that Christians continue to be persecuted, even in our modern era, and those in Nigeria have experienced this much too recently. Last Christmas, the Boko Haram Islamist sect bombed three churches, dozens of people died. Similar attacks occurred in 2010. Christian deaths in Nigeria number in the thousands as the sect fights for sharia law in Nigeria, which is a country deeply divided between two religions. The north is mainly Muslim, while the people in the south tend to be Christian. Officials fear that the violence will continue this Christmas.
A posted article this morning tells the story of one young girl who lost a brother in last year’s bombing. She says she feels safe, not because the security is tightened, but because she knows that she has Jesus. She told the interviewer, “I only pray to God to give them a heart.” Most of us will never fast that test of faith, but we are reminded on this Christmas Eve that the Christian life is not always perfect. There are signs of persecution, even in America, but let’s look to the example of that young girl in Nigeria who understands that it is not up to us to fight our persecutors, but to pray for them and trust in God. The world does not like the story of Christmas or the incredible gift we have in Jesus, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that He came to live and die and rise again for the sake of the whole world. We don’t live in a perfect world, and we may never really be perfect, but we can be faithful this Christmas by living the way God has called us to live, by sharing His message of grace with our friends and our enemies.
For the past twenty-four days, we’ve been learning about the Christmas traditions from countries all over the world. We have barely even started to see the wonderful ways people spend the holy day. We will continue to hear about a few more traditions over the next few days, but I thought we should stop and see what God has to say about this special day. The following is a list of the Christmas story as it was promised and as it occurred.
The Story of our Savior’s Birth
The Light, Genesis 1:1-5 "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day."
The Fall, Genesis 3:8-15 "And they heard the voice of Jehovah God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Jehovah God amongst the trees of the garden. And Jehovah God called unto the man, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. And Jehovah God said unto the woman, What is this thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. And Jehovah God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, cursed art thou above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed: he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel."
The Promise, Genesis 22:15-18 "And the angel of Jehovah called unto Abraham a second time out of heaven, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith Jehovah, because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is upon the seashore. And thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies. And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed. Because thou hast obeyed my voice."
The Prophecy, Isaiah 9:2-7 "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Thou hast multiplied the nation, thou hast increased their joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, thou hast broken as in the day of Midian. For all the armor of the armed man in the tumult, and the garments rolled in blood, shall be for burning, for fuel of fire. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of Jehovah of hosts will perform this."
The Place, Micah 5:2-5 "But thou, Beth-lehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting. Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she who travaileth hath brought forth: then the residue of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel. And he shall stand, and shall feed his flock in the strength of Jehovah, in the majesty of the name of Jehovah his God: and they shall abide; for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth. And this man shall be our peace. When the Assyrian shall come into our land, and when he shall tread in our palaces, then shall we raise against him seven shepherds, and eight principal men."
The Mother, Luke 1:26-38 "Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee. But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this might be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. And Mary said unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God. And behold, Elisabeth thy kinswoman, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that was called barren. For no word from God shall be void of power. And Mary said, Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her."
Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55 "And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath looked upon the low estate of his handmaid: For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; And holy is his name. And his mercy is unto generations and generations On them that fear him. He hath showed strength with his arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart. He hath put down princes from their thrones, And hath exalted them of low degree. The hungry he hath filled with good things; And the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath given help to Israel his servant, That he might remember mercy (As he spake unto our fathers) Toward Abraham and his seed for ever."
The Birth, Luke 2:1-7 "Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrolment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to enrol themselves, every one to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David; to enrol himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child. And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."
The Proclamation, Luke 2:8-16 "And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you: Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased. And it came to pass, when the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing that is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger."
The Mystery, John 1:1-14 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not. There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. There was the true light, even the light which lighteth every man, coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth."
God knew what He was doing from the beginning of time, from when the light was first spoken forth to when the Light became flesh to save us. He wove the story throughout history so that we would all have a part in His Redeeming grace. We benefit from the work of those who were called before, and are now called to continue the work of redemption by sharing this story with everyone. Our traditions are one way we can share God's stories with others. And as we begin new traditions, perhaps things we've learned during this Advent, we will continue to witness God's mystery and majesty to those who will come after us.
On this Christmas Day, as we enjoy our own traditions, let us give thanks to God for the greatest gift of all, His Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Let us committ to a life of faithfulness and bold proclamation of all God has done. He is in our midst in the stories, but He is in our midst in our everyday life. During this advent, we have even seen God in the most unusual places, in the most incredible situations, in the most 'unChristian' traditions. But when we give glory to God, He will be glorified. Hallelujah!
Grace and peace to you on this glorious Christmas Day. My Christmas wish, from my house to yours is that God will bless each of you with His love, His mercy and His hope. I pray you have a wonderful day and that you are blessed in the New Year.
“And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons: freely ye received, freely give.” Matthew 10:7-8, ASV
Many of our Christmas traditions come out of England, like Christmas cards, which were created during the Victorian era, and the story “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. One of my favorite Christmas traditions from England that we’ve tried to continue is the pulling of Christmas crackers. The crackers are brightly colored tubes that are filled with gifts and candy and a popper, which is a chemically impregnated strip like the strips used in a cap gun. Two people pull the cracker until it pops. The cracker will break unevenly, and the contents are given to the person who still holds the bigger end. Each person usually gets their own cracker so no one misses out on the fun. Inside the tube is a paper hat, which is then worn during Christmas dinner.
Some people in the United States are able to take vacation between Christmas and New Year, but according to the traffic reporters this morning, not many. The roads were crowded again with rush hour traffic. The party is over, I guess. This is not true everywhere; in England December 26th is a holiday called Boxing Day. The Boxing Day tradition goes back about eight hundred years, and is a time for remembering and taking care of the poor. In ages past, and even in some places today, Boxing Day was when the alms boxes located in churches were opened to distribute the gifts to the poor. It has also been traditional for the large landowners to give their servants the day off to spend with their families, with gifts of food from the family’s Christmas dinner to share.
December 26th is also St. Stephens Day. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is remembered for his acts of kindness and caring for the widows of the early church. He was one of the seven chosen to take care of the charitable responsibilities of the church in Acts 6, and he was stoned because he was boldly vocal about the Jewish leaders’ unfaithfulness to the God they claimed to worship. “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who announced the coming of the Righteous One. Now you have betrayed and murdered him,” said Stephen.
The beloved Christmas Carol about Good King Wenceslas was set on Boxing Day. It tells the story of a king who braves the cold and snowy weather to take his gifts of food to a poor family on St. Stephens Day. The song talks of the king’s page who is helping his master in the work of charity, but who has difficulty walking through the deep snow. The king answers, “Mark my footsteps, good my page; tread thou in them boldly; thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.” So the page walks in his master’s footsteps and finds the way much easier, just as our Christian journey is much easier when we walk in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus.
“For though I was free from all men, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, not being myself under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, not being without law to God, but under law to Christ, that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak: I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. And I do all things for the gospel's sake, that I may be a joint partaker thereof.” 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (ASV)
As we have seen through this Advent journey, there are aspects of Christmas around the world that goes back much farther than to the birth of Christ. In many cases, Christians used the traditions with which they were familiar and dedicated them to God to help spread the Gospel message to those still in darkness.
The festival of Saturnalia, the winter solstice celebration, came from Roman pagan traditions. Since we do not have the exact date of Christ’s birth, the church decided to celebrate the Nativity at the same time. Even today the Christmas commemoration in Italy is marked in conjunction with the pagan festival of the birth of the sun. The Italian word for Christmas, “Natale,” means “birthday.” The streets are brightly decorated and the Italian people follow other familiar traditions. Zampognari or bagpipers appear out of the mountains to play in the markets and squares. The feasting consists of many delicious dishes, but the sweets are especially wonderful. Nuts and honey are main ingredients in many of the treats, believed to bring luck and sweetness to the coming year.
The Nativity scenes that we love and place in our homes and churches were first created in Italy. St. Francis of Assisi asked Giovanni Vellita to create a scene to use in church and then St. Francis conducted the mass in front of it, inspiring awe and devotion. Since then, people have created the most beautiful scenes that include the stable with the holy family and the animals, particularly the ox and the ass who are believed to have kept the Christ child warm with their breath. The scene includes grottos, hills, trees, lakes and rivers. Figures are added daily as new characters visit the child, such as the shepherds, wise men, and ordinary folk from the village. Some scenes include local heroes, zampognari and other characters. Baby Jesus is added on Christmas Eve. In the midst of a celebration that does not always seem Christian, Christ is still the center.
The gift-giver in Italy is La Befana. The story is told that La Befana was busy cleaning her house for the coming of the Christ child when she was interrupted by the wise men on their journey to Bethlehem. They asked for hospitality, but she sent them away. When she realized that the wise men were going to see Jesus, she went to find them but was too late. She now travels the countryside looking for the baby, leaving gifts at all the houses with children just in case He is there. La Befana is described as an old woman, a crone or a witch and she visits on the eve of Epiphany, which is Three Kings Day.
Though we are in the world, in Christ we are no longer of the world. All around us we face the traditions and practices of a world that does not know God, not just at Christmastime. Ultimately, most of what we do has roots that go farther back than the Nativity. People were growing plants, hunting for food, building shelters and wearing clothing long before the world knew God and before Jesus was born. Many of these things also have ancient religious meanings. We cannot reject everything because it may have some significance to the faith of another person. However, as Christians we are to dedicate everything we do, everything we think, everything we say to the Lord God Almighty, that it might be used for His glory.
"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him. And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written through the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah, Art in no wise least among the princes of Judah: For out of thee shall come forth a governor, Who shall be shepherd of my people Israel. Then Herod privily called the Wise-men, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and worship him. And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshipped him; and opening their treasures they offered unto him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. Now when they were departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I tell thee: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. And he arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt did I call my son. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the Wise-men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the male children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had exactly learned of the Wise-men." Matthew 2:1-16 (ASV)
We are shocked and appalled when we hear stories of innocent children who are harmed by senseless violence. The most recent example, of course, is the shooting in Connecticut. It is on our hearts and on our minds as we go into a new year. Should we make changes to the way we do things? Would new regulations help? How can we help people be better and reject impulses that lead them to do these horrific acts?
The children in Connecticut are on our mind because the situation was so horrific, but children die every day as a result of violence. Statistics show that about five children a day die due to child abuse, some form of child abuse is reported every ten seconds. They are innocent victims who have no control over their lives. They count on the adults who are charged with their care to do what is right and to raise them with everything they need, including a safe place to dwell. Even while we are concerning ourselves with the reasons and solutions to the problems that lead to incidents like that in Connecticut, we should be considering the ways we can help abused children find peace and hope.
The numbers really don’t matter; every act of abuse against a child breaks our heart. I think that today’s story about the innocent children who died at Herod’s hand is one of the worst in the scriptures because we know that they were killed out of the greed of one man. How could he choose to kill any child just because he was afraid a little baby might one day be king?
We imagine this to be a horrid event with blood running down the streets as thousands of children are slaughtered. The reality is that Bethlehem was a small town, and even with those visiting to register, the number of those killed was probably less than a dozen children. It does not make the incident less horrific: one innocent life is one too many. One child suffering for whatever reason is one child too many.
What we often forget is that the blood of those children are on our hands. Our own sin brought Jesus into this world. We blame Herod for the death of so many, but he is no different than us; his sin is no greater than ours. I can’t imagine any of us laying a hand on a child to guarantee our job or position, but how often do we think of ourselves before we think of the effects of our actions on others? How often do we accept that our own sin can cause another to suffer?
On this day we remember the children who perished at the hands of King Herod on that horrible day so long ago. Many children died because Herod was afraid of losing his throne. What he did not understand is that our Lord Jesus Christ was not born to rule as an earthly king, but He was bring forgiveness to us, to transform our lives and reconcile us to God our Father. As we recall those innocent lives lost, we should also remember the children who perish every day in the violence and selfishness of this world. Even more so, let us pray that God will kill the vices in our lives that affect those around us, that we won’t bring harm to others through our selfishness. May God help us to understand how our actions affect others and think first before acting, especially when we might bring harm to an innocent child.
“Brethren, I count not myself yet to have laid hold: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded: and if in anything ye are otherwise minded, this also shall God reveal unto you: only, whereunto we have attained, by that same rule let us walk.” Philippians 3:13-16, ASV
I might be a little premature, after all, we still have several hours left in this year, but it appears we’ve survived 2012. It is already after 4:00 am in New Zealand and thus they have made it to the year we were never going to see.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that we lived through the predicted end of the world. I recall twelve years ago, when we turned over into the new millennium. We were living in England at the time and the world was afraid that all the computers were going to crash because they couldn’t handle the change from the twentieth to the twenty-first century. My friends from America had decided to see if I survived and then they would relax. It was a funny joke, but the reality was that if the Y2K bug was real, we would have all gone offline as soon as the computers in New Zealand hit that moment. We are all very connected these days, and what happens to one happens to us all.
Of course, we have survived the year, but the problems of the year will not end with the stroke of midnight, no matter where the clock strikes twelve. The people in our nation and the world who had financial issues last year will not magically have jobs or money at 12:01. The people who are sick today will still be sick tomorrow. Those who have lost homes or property, family or friends will not get them back just because we are entering a new year.
Now, while we can’t change the past or guarantee that our lives will be restored at the coming of the new year, we can begin anew. Many people are making resolutions about the things they want to change about their life. Some want to be healthier; others want to look for a new career. Many are committing to a change in their relationships. New Year’s is a time for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a time to begin new habits and follow a different path. It is a time to put aside the past and look forward to the future.
Many churches, especially black churches, will hold what they call “Watch Night” services this evening. It is thought that these watch night services we started back in 1862 on the eve of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Rumor had it that the slaves would be freed at the stroke of Midnight on January 1, 1863, so they gathered together to wait anxiously for word that they were no longer slaves. It was called, “Freedom’s Eve.” When they heard the news, the congregants shouted for joy, sang songs, and fell to their knees in thanksgiving and praise to God. They have continued to hold those services to commemorate their freedom, praise God for another year and look forward to the next.
We are not slaves as they were, but many of us are slaves to our past. We are trapped by our financial circumstances or by unhealthy relationships. We are trapped by sickness and pain. We are enslaved by by the fear that our troubles will continue into a new day.
Paul had an incredible confidence in the promises of God and the reality of life in His kingdom, and yet even Paul knew that the journey was not over. He knew that eternal life was a real, present gift, but that it was not complete right now. Yet, we are always moving toward that day when we will live in God’s presence forever. The world in which we live is imperfect, and we will still face difficulties. We will continue to suffer and experience pain, but we do not need to dwell in the past. We do not even need to wait until we change the page of the calendar, because every day is a new day. Every day is a day to begin living as Christ has called us to live, in hope and in joy and in peace, despite the difficulties we may face.