Friends, I’m really glad to be writing to you today! I’m always glad to write to you, but especially now seems like a good time.
Click here for an audio of the first lecture in our series about 圣诞快乐, and what it really means. You can click here for the master list of the lectures in this series – I update it each week. I hope you enjoy them!
Here where I live people have so many happy memories and hopes for this time of year. People decorate their houses with many very traditional ornaments and lights, and they try to create an atmosphere of joy and peace and family and “connection” with people, with the past, with a hope for peace and joy in the world.
Here are a few photos of my own home in Canada, and of my neighbourhood – what do you think?!
Now, for many 中国人 Christmas is completely new! You’re getting your first tastes of it now, and you’re seeing it in a way that might seem a little confusing to people in the West. There things about this holiday that are very special, which are sometimes very hard to find, in the mix of everything else that is added to the special part! “Christmas seems to be a jumble, an untidy mix, of very many things!”
Where did Christmas come from? What does it mean, at least, in its original meaning? What does reindeer and fat old men wearing red clothes have to do with it? Why do people spend so much money on gifts? Why are there songs about drummer boys and reindeer and dances and snow? Why are there songs about a baby being born in a barn with the animals?
OK, many questions! Let’s start with the beginning, where it comes from.
1. The ancient Romans had a special festival to celebrate the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. They called it “Saturnalia,” and it was a time of feasting. People had celebrated this holiday for hundreds of years, and it had its own traditions which are long gone from us.
2. During these Roman times, in the first century of our era, 神 came to earth to live among humans, in The Teacher (耶稣基督). The way 神 did this was most unusual: He came to earth as a baby, to live out human life fully, as we ourselves experience it. There is virtually no question among serious historians that The Teacher actually was born and did live in the ancient land of Israel. So we’re talking about real history here, not legends and myths.
Something unusual about the birth of The Teacher: He wasn’t born into a wealthy family, of great status and power. In fact, He was born into an ordinary family, in a questionable family situation: Mary, His mother, was pregnant before she and her husband Joseph were married. People of that society looked down on families like this! They also looked down on children born of such families. The prejudice against Him was so bad that when His pregnant mother was about to give birth, no one in the town would take her in to give her a safe place to deliver the baby: the only place offered to them was a stable, a barn for farm animals. 真奇怪！
Most other people in the area took no notice of a baby being born, because it happens every day. No one cares for a baby born in a barn! Some shepherds who were out taking care of their sheep that night were startled to see some powerful angels in the sky, singing about the birth of a new King: the angels told the shepherds to go see the baby in the barn – and they did. The only ones who recognized that the baby was special were shepherds – by the way, in that ancient society, nobody liked shepherds – it was one of the lowest occupations you could have!
Around this time there were court advisers for Eastern kings, who studied the stars – they determined, by looking at the stars, that a great King was about to be born. They came in a caravan to give recognition to the new King, to establish an alliance with Him! By the time they arrived, the baby was about 2 years old. This provoked the local king of the country to be very disturbed: he was afraid that someone was going to lead a revolution against him! The Eastern court advisers left gifts of alliance with the baby and returned to their home country. But the local king decided to take action to prevent the rebellion: he ordered his security police to kill all the baby boys in the area!
Joseph, The Teacher’s father, was warned about this, and he took Mary and the baby on a secret trip across the desert into Egypt – they were refugees! Life was very hard! They stayed out of their own country for something like 2 years, until it was safe to return.
Why am I telling you all this? Because the heart of the story of Christmas is here: 神 is trying to reach people – all people! Not just the wealthy and wise and powerful, but also the poor, the ordinary, the people no one else cares about! The way 神 did it was wonderful: He became one of us! He grew up as one of us, experiencing life as we experience it, in joy and sorrow, hard work and pleasure, oppression and hope. He did this so that you and I can be certain of one thing: no matter what you’re going through in life, 神 understands you! Not just because He’s 神, but because He has actually been here and tasted life as you taste it. You can trust Him and follow Him!
“Yes, but why so poor? Why so powerless?” Because most of the people who have ever lived on this earth, in all history, were poor and powerless! Don’t worry, 神 cares for the rest of us, too – but He doesn’t want to leave anyone out. Most people pay attention to the wealthy and powerful and ignore the poor. To Him, no one is too poor, too broken, too weak, too useless. 神 reaches everyone. This is very good, because some days we are not at our best! 神 reaches to all humans, at our weakest and our worst! Do you like it?!
There’s a lot more to the story of The Teacher – I’ll tell you more of those stories later. I just want to make sure you hear this one first!
3. “So, what does all of this have to do with Christmas?” The word “Christmas” comes from the old Latin and Greek languages, and it means, “special day of Christ.” Now, no one knows the exact day on which The Teacher was born. The evidence, from the stories in the Library, suggests that it must have been in spring or summer – because the shepherds were out in their fields with sheep, and this wouldn’t have happened in winter. But no one knows for sure!
“So why is Christmas in December, and why is there all this talk about snow?” Hundreds of years after The Teacher was born, people began to look for a way to remember His birth, and they wanted to create a special day for it. The most natural time for them to celebrate it seemed to be during the old Roman holiday of Saturnalia, during the winter solstice time. For various reasons, it became December 25, and this began to be celebrated in the West in the 4th century. In the Eastern Roman Empire, people celebrated on January 6 or 7.
In the beginning, the celebrations took on the customs of the old Roman holidays: feasts, giving gifts to each other, bringing families together, worshiping. Later, as the Good News about The Teacher spread to more countries, people of the new countries, with their own traditions, began to celebrate Christmas in the same way: in northern Europe people used to cut down trees and bring them inside their homes for their old winter holiday. They would decorate the tree and worship it like a god. So now, as followers of the The Teacher they began to do it for “Christmas,” only they would worship 神, not the tree! Many other customs started like this, as people of many nations celebrated the original birth of The Teacher, when 神 came to live among us as one of us.
4. Many traditions and customs were gradually added to Christmas over centuries: many brilliant songs and stories and images. Christmas became a vital part of Western culture, and its original meaning wasn’t completely forgotten … until rather recently.
“How did Santa Claus and the reindeer and Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman and so many other traditions get caught into this?” The answer may surprise you: American marketing! During the 20th century the Americans brought many of the old traditions together and added new ones, and by making movies and songs and images and advertising, helped move Christmas to a whole new experience. Santa Claus was invented by an American writer in the 1880′s, who drew on older traditions from other countries and made a new image. Reindeer pulling a sleigh with presents, the North Pole, etc. gave way to songs about red-nosed reindeer lighting the skies on a foggy Christmas night, so that Santa could enter every home by going down a chimney, to leave presents under every Christmas tree in the world. Frosty the Snowman was a song-story that became popular in the 20th-century. Many American movies had Christmas as the setting and theme – and many popular songs fill the stores and radios of people all over the world now, which originated in American marketing.
Nowadays Christmas means, to many people, a wonderful time to celebrate family and friends, to eat together, to give gifts to each other. The newer traditions and customs, added to the old ones, tend to hide the original story, and so most Western people really don’t understand the meaning of the baby born in a barn, even if they’ve heard the story. When they find out the meaning, they’re usually quite surprised! A holiday is a holiday, so I’m glad that we can celebrate and enjoy it at all! But the real power of the holiday is not in all the songs and noise and lights and money spent – it’s in the original story behind the holiday.
I don’t know what you’ll be doing for Christmas this year, if you’ll do anything at all — maybe you’re saving all your money for 春节, Spring Festival instead! My family will all come together — we have a decorated tree in our home (I’ll put up a picture for you later). We’ll eat together, watch old Christmas movies together, play cards together, read books together, love each other. We’ll give gifts to each other, too. We’ll pray and thank 神 that He has loved us so much that He came here to be one of us for awhile. We will also try to find a way to welcome friends who have no family nearby, who would be alone. 神’s great gift is friendship with Him – and with each other.
In Canada our customary greeting is “Merry Christmas” – “merry” is an old-fashioned word which means “happy, joyful, fun.” We usually combine it with “Happy New Year,” too, since the holidays are only separated by one week. So please allow me to extend my wishes to all of you, for a very Merry Christmas, and a very Happy New Year! I hope that someday I’ll get to share this holiday with you. I’ll write more later.