Christmas has always been my favourite time of the year. Streets and homes are lit in bright colours. Chimneys and trees are decorated. Families who haven’t seen each other for some time meet again for some holiday cheer (or drama depending on your family :)). Children rejoice at their end-of-year school vacation and, of course,… PRESENTS! So, is that the true meaning of Christmas?
When I was a child…
… Christmas was a very special time. We didn’t celebrate Christmas on December 25, but December 31. It was a combined Christmas and New Year celebration, and I cherished every minute of it!
In those days, it wasn’t about the Christmas tree – in fact we never had one. Nor was it about the presents – we didn’t have those either. Yet the house always buzzed with excitement and trepidation days before the big event. And everyone had a role to play.
My brother and I helped decorate our walls with all kinds of garlands – both Christmassy and New Year’s Eve-y.
And I would accompany my dad to Giza’s biggest open market. It had everything, and I mean EVE-RY-THING! The baker next to the car mechanic. The vegetable market across from the butcher’s. The live animal market down the street from your favourite textile store.
Vegetables market in Giza, Egypt.
Picture by Khaled Elfiqi / EPA
I loved following my dad through the market’s maze of dirt roads, jumping over potholes, soaking-in every scent, colour and noise.
“I see you bought half the market again!” my mother would exclaim as we entered the house laden with bags over bags of meat, fish, bread, vegetables, fruits and a plethora of delicious Egyptian sweets.
All of our close friends were about to gather at our home that evening. There was no doubt as to why we were meeting, and who or what we were celebrating. And as evening time neared, my excitement grew, for I knew my dad would soon take out his Tabla (Egyptian drum), and our home would be filled with music, songs and laughter. Not to mention – delicious scents of the great feast that was awaiting us!
God had gifted himself to us in our own image – our mortal human form – so we can live forever. This was a time of great rejoicing and thanks giving!
It’s 5 minutes before midnight.
The music stops. The chatter breaks down. The house lights get shut. Candles are lit. Incense scents replace the earlier food smells. And we would all kneel down in our living room.
We kneel before God in prayer and praise
H. usually led the prayer, with everybody else chanting after him in beautiful harmony and unison, as we welcomed the New Year:
“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (I am who I am – Exodus 3:14)
Adonai (The Lord)
Sabaot (of Hosts/Powers)
El Shaddai (God Almighty)” (Hebrew)
“Almagd lellah fel 2a3ali, we 3ala el 2ard el salam, we belnas el massarra” (Arabic for Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men – Luke 2:14)
“Kodous Allah. Kodous el qawi. Kodous el 7ay allathy la yamout” (Arabic for Holy God. Holy the Strong. Holy the Living who does not die)
“Kyrie Eleison. Kyrie Eleison. Ya rab er7am” (God have mercy)
And many more…
We kneel before God in prayer and praise.
Photo by Matej Novosad from Pexels
The true meaning of Christmas
This was the true meaning of Christmas to me as a child. A time of Joy and Rejoicing. A time of Community. A time of both loud and quiet celebration of the birth of Christ – the rebirth of humanity. A time of new and hopeful beginnings.
This year more than ever, tainted by Corona restrictions and lock-downs, I’ve come to an important aha moment. I’ve come to realise just how much the Christmas we celebrate today in Western societies, and in my own home for that matter, has nothing to do with the Christmas I learned to love and cherish so much as a child.
Christmas is meant to be all about celebrating Jesus – God incarnate. Our Redeemer. And Our Saviour. But, in a secular world, that’s precisely the bit we ignore, discard, or relegate to an ignorant superstitious past.
A tale of two Christmases
We seem to have at least two kinds of Christmases today:
the Secular one, and
the Christian one.
The Secular Christmas has become the most popular kind in my view. Where Christ-mas is X-mas. Where pine trees are decorated. Where Santa Claus (originally inspired by St. Nicholas) is reminiscent of some “pagan deity” who sees everything, knows who’s naughty or nice, and bears gifts to the “good” children all around the world. Where reindeers fly, and elves rule the toy production industry. We light the biggest Christmas trees to attract shoppers, so we can keep feeding our lucrative capitalistic venture. We enjoy kissing under a mistletoe, and exchange expensive gifts. We might still get together with family for a drink or a meal. But Emmanuel – God is with us? Christ? No one knows His name.
The Christian Christmas on the other hand has been relegated mainly to churches. We might enjoy nativity plays (well not this year). Sing Christian carols and celebrate special mass in church (thank God for Zoom).
The Christian Christmas has become something you “go to”, and…
… then you’re done.
A temporary sense of Community, albeit an important one in a secular world where the belief in a Creator has become the exception rather than the rule.
And after the “Christian” bit is over, we go back home where the Christmas celebration and family reunion revolve again around the decorated Christmas tree and the gifts underneath.
There are a few families who still celebrate and pray together on Christmas day, sing Christian Hymns at home, and praise the Lord. But these are rather the exception than the rule. After all, that’s what the Church visit was for.
The Church within
Because I love Christmas so much, part of me is saddened that our secular society has managed to strip this celebratory act of all of its meaning; turning it into just another commercial gimmick to sell even more stuff no one needs. And YES, I am well aware that Christ was neither born on December 25 nor January 7 – but that’s not the point.
The point is that I miss my childhood Christmas.
Even though we did not go to Church that day, we WERE a Church! We gathered as believers, connected in Christ, to celebrate the birth of the greatest King of all. That was my true meaning of Christmas, and O! how I miss that.
My family is no stranger to the Secular Christian Christmas. My daughter and I go to Church (well, again not this year), sing a bunch of carols, get back home and open presents. My husband doesn’t believe in God, and so our home festivities are relegated to the secular type. Although I do get to have a handcarved wooden Manger at the feet of our Christmas tree.
Ironically, the secularisation of Christmas, with its Santas, Elves, Reindeers and Trees has not necessarily made it any friendlier to non-Christians as it seems – see this article for one such perspective.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course, I enjoy the family reunions over Christmas around a good meal. But, once again, that’s not the point. The point is…
I miss those Christmas/New Year celebrations of my childhood – this year more than ever. I miss…
… the friendly gathering. I miss…
… the laughters. I miss…
… the jokes. I miss…
… the singing. I miss…
… that sense of Community. I miss…
… the spiritual praise of our Lord.
I miss having Church within my home.
Maybe it is in the waiting for God,
not in the wandering from store to store,
that we find our way.
Maybe it is in the friendship of God,
not in the frenzy of crowds,
that we are led to go to the manger.
Maybe it is in the steadfast love of God,
and not in the pile of stuff under the tree,
that we find what we have been searching for all our lives.
Maybe, just maybe, God of Advent,
this year will be different.
Maybe, just maybe,
we will let you lead us to Bethlehem.
– Thom Shuman
I wish you all a Merry Christmas! May your lives be filled with Peace. Love. And God’s many Blessings.
O COME LET US ADORE HIM, CHRIST THE LORD IS BORN!
- Article: Gallup study on the secularisation of Christmas in the USA
- Article: What is Christmas: Understanding the History and Origins
- Article: From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: the surprising origins of Kris Kringle
- Youtube video: Mary did you know – by Voctave featuring original songwriter Mark Lowry