The Meaning of Christmas

Saturday, December 13, 2003



A few years ago, in 1999 to be precise, I was asked to write an article on the meaning of Christmas for a newsletter to a group of Ugandan immigrants living in the United States.

My audience was mix of Islamic, Rastas, native religions, and Christians who were raised without traditions such as Santa Clause (apparently, he never made it sub-Sahara East Africa). Most of the readers had spent at least a decade in this country, and become familiar with our customs, without understanding the meaning or history of those customs.

Knowing my seminary background, and my personal connections to this community through my wife, the group asked me to write about Christmas and what it means to me from a religious and cultural perspective. The group included many close friends I would consider family. Like any family, we had many discussions and debates with each other about a variety of religious topics. I was given a two day deadline, and the article was a bit scattered. Some of the content addressed questions being asked by this African community of mixed religious background. What follows is the article published for this newsletter.


My earliest memories of Christmas are of near sleepless nights eagerly awaiting the arrival of Santa Clause on a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer delivering toys to all the good girls and boys. I would lie in bed in anxious anticipation wondering if I would receive a plentitude of presents, or a lump of coal and a switch with which to be beaten. I knew that Santa would not come if I did not get to sleep. I could hardly sleep with all the excitement of my wonder.

I suppose this experience may be hard to imagine for those who did not grow up in the United States. Perhaps the feeling is somewhat like waiting in the lines in stores around the holidays when you need to be somewhere else. What has all this to do with the true meaning of Christmas? What is the true meaning of Christmas?

There are those who have grown cynical in America regarding the commercialization of Christmas. We all have seen stores begin sales and holiday decorating as early as Halloween. Beginning around Thanksgiving, most of us start putting on a few pounds. We feel pressured to consume and to buy. If you are anything like me, you put off your shopping till the last minute, and are forced to rush only to wait in those long lines I referred to already.

Recently, I heard a priest from Senegal deliver a sermon describing his first experience of Christmas in America. He was overwhelmed with the tradition of gift giving in this country. Though one can grow cynical at all the commercialization, this priest found it quite appropriate that we would celebrate God's gift of Himself to humanity with gifts to each other. Our sense of expectation of the gift exchange is symbolic of our longing for ultimate gift of salvation from our God!

I am aware that most people in my readership were not born in America. Many are of the Islamic faith, and a few may hold to other religious back-grounds, including Egyptology, Rastafari, Nation of Islam, traditional African religions, animism, ancestor worship, Eastern spirituality, and other spiritualities chosen for personal reasons, or associated with your people, tribe or heritage.

Let me begin my interpretation of Christmas with a qualification. I am a Christian of the Roman Catholic tradition. As such, it is impossible for me to describe what Christmas means to me without describing my faith in the One for whom the day is named - Christ's Mass!

That being said, it is not my belief that salvation is impossible outside the Church. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved...(1 Timothy 2:4) I believe that all people are born with a fuzzy awareness of divine holy mystery. We all sense that there is something more to reality than what meets the eye.

I believe there is one God, who created all things, and reveals Herself to human beings. I believe that human beings all share a common nature, created in the divine image! Yet all human beings are effected by sin, which gives rise to strife and division in the human family. Organized religion is a way of giving expression to this innate sense of the sacred which we all share by our common humanity. Because there is one God revealing Himself to one people (all of us), religions have similarities and commonalities that many of us like to sweep under the rug.

Regarding salvation in Jesus Christ, the Bible says that: There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved. (Acts 4:12) Many Christians do believe that it is clear in Scripture that you cannot be saved without turning your life over to Jesus Christ. Jesus said: I am the way and the truth and the life. (John 14:6) However, I believe that just as you do not need to know a lifeguard's name before he will jump into the water to save you from drowning, God can save those who don't know his name or know Him by a different name than I.

In the same way, I personally believe that when a Muslim who knows little of Christ, yet repents of her or his sins, and submits to Allah, placing her or his trust in Allah, that person has submitted to the one revealed in the person of Christ!

In other words, for me, Jesus is Allah in the flesh, and the experience of Allah is an experience of Christ! The same could be said of Chi, Jain, Zoarastar, Tao, Brahma, Ra, and the Great Spirit of the Native American. Where mercy and justice conflict, I believe that God has revealed in Christ that mercy will win out. I also realize that from the Islamic point of view, a Christian experience of God is really an experience of Allah, or no experience of God at all.

Each person is absolutely unique! People congregate in communities that form unique cultures, and each culture develops its own religion. Each religion is a valid expression of the human experience of the divine! I am absolutely convinced that Jesus is alive today, and shares in the divine nature. At the same time, I am not so narrow minded as to be unable to recognize that every religion contains great truths and expressions of the human experience of the one true God.

I am also an American. The story of Santa Clause, Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer, the Grinch who stole Christmas, O' Henry's Gift of the Magi, and the story of Scrooge in The Christmas Carol, are all part of my heritage. However, none of these stories is as central to the whole Christmas celebration as the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was in God's presence, and the Word was God..., and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:1 and 1:14) Saint Ireneas wrote 1800 years ago that God became human that we might become divine! The ultimate meaning of the celebration of Christmas lies in the fact that we assert that God loved Her own creation so much that He decided to become part of it.

The Gospel confirms the Psalmist's prayer: What is humanity that you should be mindful of them, the children of humanity that you care for them? You have made them little less than angels, and crowned them with glory and honor. (Psalm 8) A God who would condescend to become human is a God who cares about us: Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

After the coming of Jesus Christ, we no longer look to the heavens for our salvation. We look around us to our brothers and sisters! Christianity is an extreme form of humanism. We proclaim that a man is God. Through him, we recognize that the Holy Spirit dwells within the hearts of human beings, and the Christ is reflected in all of us created in the image of the divine!

Mother Theresa of Calcutta was inspired to reach out to the dying untouchables of society because she saw in them the face of Christ! What a profound message to the oppressed first century Jewish minority within the Greco-Roman Empire? And what a profound message to us today!

In the face of tragedies such as recent earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan, and genocide and wars in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Ireland, Palestine, East Timor, Kosovo and other disasters throughout the world, the Christmas message is that God loved us enough to join our circumstances. He condescended to suffer with us on our behalf to satisfy justice for our sins.

Growing up in Ohio, I remember every Christmas Eve, I would go to midnight Mass with my mother. While my mom went to sing in the choir, I would sit with my brothers with our grade school friend. Our friend’s mother was drunk every year and fell asleep before Mass would end. The church would be packed to capacity. It was always standing room only if you were not there at least forty-five minutes early. There would be old people and young, rich and poor, folks dressed in their very best suits and dresses, and folks wearing jeans or uniforms from the late shift at work. This is what Christmas is all about! We gather together to celebrate that God has come among us and called us all, sinners and saints, to be Her people: regardless of race, class, age, gender, orientation, or appearance.

I have had many heated e-mail discussions with some of you about the African origins of Christianity. There are those in this readership who maintain that the Christian Trinity is nothing more than the myth of Isis, Horus, and Osiris stolen by the West.

Osiris was a god in human form. Jesus was the one God of the universe made human flesh. Osiris and Jesus were pictured as a shepherd. There were stories of how they multiplied loaves of bread. Winged beings escorted Osiris to paradise. Angels ministered to Jesus. The Ankh became the symbol of life to the Egyptian. The cross became the symbol of life to the Christian. Osiris was slain by the gods, and brought back to life by Isis. Jesus was slain by humanity and rose by his own power. The resurrection of both gods is celebrated on the longest day of the year in the early spring.

For the Christian, Easter is the greater celebration than Christmas. Without Easter, there would be no celebration of Christmas. The resurrection event is the cornerstone of Christian faith, upon which all else rest. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. (1 Corinthians 15:14)

Easter is the celebration of God’s triumph over death and sin. Ironically, the Christian celebration of Easter is named after the day that the Babylonians celebrated the feast of the goddess, Ishtar. Despite the parallels to myth, the Christian experience of the resurrection is based on the historical fact that Jesus’ closest disciples were willing to lay down their lives defending their own experience of His resurrection at Passover time. Furthermore, every true Christian can attest to the life changing effect the living Christ has had in their lives today! However, all this is the topic of another article.

The story of Osiris arose hundreds of years before Christ. Three gods from the Egyptian pantheon of gods did predominate to form a sort of trinity. Furthermore, some Egyptian priests came to the conclusion that Osiris, Horus, and Isis were merely manifestations of the one true God. The Hindus made a trinity of sorts with three gods: the creator, the sustainer, and the destroyer. Indeed, trinities are a common expression of religious truth. Prophecies and oracles the world over foretold of the day that God would come to His people. The great North African Bishop of the fourth century, Saint Augustine believed that the similarities between other religions and Christianity were prophetic of the coming of Christ.

At the time of the Osiris cult before Christ, the Jewish slaves escaping from Egyptian tyranny hoped for freedom initiated by a great Messiah – the Anointed One of the Most High God! Christ is Greek for Messiah which is Aramaic for Anointed One. Like the child waiting for Santa Clause, the Jews waited for the redeemer of Israel who would bring in the Reign of God. The Jews also developed a sort of trinity of Yahweh: Yahweh the Lord, the Shenika of Yahweh (the Glory of the Lord), and Hokmah or Ruah, the Spirit if Yahweh.

Christians inherited the fierce monotheism of the Jews: Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone! (Deuteronomy 6:4) Yet, the New Testament is clear that Jesus is God, the Father is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Jesus prays to the Father, and is lead by the Spirit. Jesus and the Father send the Spirit. In other words, they are distinct persons, yet, only one being. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not a belief in three separate gods. Nor is it a belief in three aspects of one god.

By persons, Christians are not saying that there are three separate individual centers of consciousness and will. The Greek word persona is derived from the word for masks that actors wore in the theater. Yet, the persons of the Trinity are more than masks of God. They are identities formed and completed on the basis of relationship. At the same time, there is only one God: one nature, being or essence. There is no logical contradiction, because there is no confusion of categories. Person-hood is not the same as being, essence, or nature.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity expresses the incomprehensibility of the one God. Christians believe that there is one God, who is community in Her deepest nature! God is mystery beyond human understanding and language. We who are created in the divine image come to understand who we are in our deepest nature through relationships! We apprehend the Trinity from Scripture and experience, but we never truly comprehend the doctrine. We experience God as Father, watching over us, disciplining us, and protecting us. We experience God as Spirit dwelling in our heart. We experience God revealed as brother and friend in the person of Jesus Christ. Christmas is ultimately the celebration of the birth of this Jesus Christ. He is the reason for the season!

Christianity originated in Palestine and spread throughout North and East Africa, the Middle East, and Europe in the first century of the common era in the West. Originally, the church in Alexandria, Egypt, played a prominent role in the formation of the great creeds produced by the councils of the church. Monasticism started in southern Egypt. Great African saints include Cyril of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage, Athanasius and Anthony of the Desert, and many others.

With the rise of Islam, Christianity lost many adherents in North Africa and the Middle East in the seventh century, and was completely cut off from Sub-Sahara Africa till about the seventeenth century. Missionary activity picked up in the 1600's, but was set back by the arrival of slave traders, who often came on the same ships from Europe as the preachers, priests and nuns. Today, Christianity has had a resurgence throughout Africa, and is becoming the fastest growing religion in many East and Central African nations. Uganda is predominately Catholic today.

For the Christian, the Christmas season begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving in America, with the first Sunday of Advent. "Advent" derives from the Latin for "The Coming". Jesus is the great coming of the promised one – and more. Jesus is the true God made true man. He is the human as divine, and the divine as human. He is the human face of God. In all his words and deeds, he reveals all that humanity could wish God to be, and all that any human being could wish to become!

The Advent season is celebrated over four weeks ending on Christmas day. Nobody knows the exact day that Jesus was born. December 25th was chosen by early Christians to contrast with the Roman celebration of the birth of the sun god celebrated on the winter solstice, when the sun would begin its journey back up the horizon. In fact, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 385 AD, the Christian priests complained that the new influx of believers would pray to the sun, rather than the Son.

Most Christian churches face the rising sun, and many new converts in the Roman Empire would stop outside the church to say a prayer to the rising sun before entering the church on Sun-day morning. Sunday worship was actually chosen by early Christians to differentiate themselves from the Jews, who celebrated a Saturday Sabbath. Let no one, then, pass judgement on you in matters of food and drink or with regard to a festival or new moon or Sabbath. (Colossians 2:16) Sunday was the day Jesus was reported risen from the tomb. The Bible refers to Jesus as our Sabbath rest (cf. Hebrews 4) Jesus' disciples remembered him as Lord of the Sabbath: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27b-28) The Bible never explicitly said that the Sabbath has to be on a Saturday. Rather, it states to rest every seventh day: Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord, your God. (Exodus 20:9-10)

There are parallels of traditional Christian worship to sun worship. However, Christian worship is ultimately about a relationship with God, rather than about festivals, traditions, and holy days. With 1,600 years hindsight, it seems quite appropriate that we would celebrate the birth of the Son of God on the day of the solstice. How appropriate that we celebrate the coming of God into the midst of our struggles during the winter? The joy of our celebration overcomes the bleak atmosphere of these cold December days.

Returning to Christmas, the Christmas season really begins with Advent, four Sundays prior to Christmas day. The liturgical colors in the church change from the green of ordinary time, representing the earth, to purple or blue, representing penance. Many people associate the notion of penance with pain. However, the literal meaning of the Latin and Greek words found in Bibles is to turn to God (penetentia [lat.] and metonoia [greek]). Advent is a season of turning back to God in joyful expectation.

Advent is celebrated as a time of intensified prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In order to make the season more meaningful, many Christians will create a wreath of evergreen leaves. Evergreens are symbolic of eternal life offered through Christ. The holly is a popular evergreen because the red berries symbolize the fire of the Holy Spirit and the blood of Christ by which we are saved. This is how red and green came to be associated with Christmas. The circle formed by a wreath symbolizes God's endless love. The wreath is usually placed lying flat on a table. Four candles are placed in the wreath. Fire represents Christ as the light of the world. Three candles are a dark purple or blue for penance. The fourth is a lighter purple or pink.

During the first week of Advent, one of the darker candles is lit, usually before the family dinner. Special prayers are said that express our hope in the Lord. During the second week, two candles are lit each night. During the third week, the pink candle is lit with two of the darker candles. The lighter candle is representative of a brighter joy, because we are almost at the hour of coming of the great King! All four candles are lit after the fourth Sunday until Christmas day! Through the Advent Wreath, we are daily reminded that Advent is a time of hopeful longing and expectation. The readings proclaimed at church on Sunday reinforce the prayers said at home.

Christmas Eve, the Advent wreath is replaced by the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree was introduced to Christian tradition by the great reformer, Martin Luther. Again, the evergreen tree symbolizes eternal life. The tree is decorated with lights to symbolize that Christ is the light of the world. Gifts are placed under the tree to remind us that God gave Himself to us in the birth of Christ. The tree will be left up from December 25th for the twelve days of Christmas ending on January 6th with the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. This feast celebrates the epiphany of God to the wise men and the presentation of Jesus at the temple for his circumcision. Though it is not common in North America, many Latinos will participate in posadas during the days of Christmas. Posadas are re-enactments of Mary and Joseph's search for a place to stay during the census when Jesus was to be born. Those participating will go house to house looking for a place to stay. Participating households will offer food, and there will be a large feast at the end of the journey, where all will remember the birth of the Lord.

Usually, good holiday music, food, and the gathering of family and friends accompany the tree decorating on Christmas Eve in North America. Many Christians will attend mid-night Mass after the tree has been decorated. Some will continue to celebrate late into the night. The children are usually sent to bed earlier, and gifts that parents have hidden away are placed under the tree.

Christmas gets its name from "Christ's Mass". Many Christians honor their ancestors and heroes of the faith. For example, we Roman Catholics often ask for the prayers of saints and ancestors. In medieval Europe, a way of honoring the dead was to dedicate a Mass to them. The Mass is the celebration of the proclamation of the Word (the telling of our faith story, which we believe is God's word) and the Lord's Supper.

The Mass is always Christo-centric, even when offered in celebration of the feast day of a saint, or as an offering for a deceased member of the Church. The priests offer the Mass daily. Sunday Masses are never dedicated to the dead, but only to the Lord alone. Christmas derived its name because it was another Mass that was not dedicated to anyone other than Christ, even when it falls on a weekday.

The story of Santa Clause is an odd development for the Christmas season. Originally, there was a Christian Bishop named Nicholas (emphasis on the last syllable, with the second syllable almost silent). He was a Bishop in the early 300's in Turkey. His death was honored on December 6th with special Masses.

Stories and legends grew of his tremendous charity. One story has it that he freed three daughters from a life of servitude by throwing bags of gold in their windows on Christmas Eve. Santa is derived from Santos, a romance language word for Saint. His feast day on the 6th was celebrated with gifts of candy to children in Holland. In the children’s stories in Holland, he has a helper named Black Pete, who is actually a Moore - a Black-African-Muslim. Dutch settlers to the Americas brought Santa to the United States. However, he was not well known for quite some time. Santa as we know him today was a marketing creation of the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930's. He became associated with Christmas only because his feast day fell in the same month.

Other stories associated with Christmas are Rudolf the red nosed reindeer. This was a television creation made at the time of the civil rights movement. It teaches children to respect differences in others. Scrooge in The Christmas Carol teaches us the importance of a generous heart, as does The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. O'Henry's Gift of the Magi is also a parable about generosity that is a total self-giving like the love of God in Christ.

Other religions in America also celebrate traditions in this season. The Jews celebrate Hanukkah, or the Feast of Lights. This feast celebrates the rebuilding and dedication of the temple in Jerusalem after the Greek occupation. African-Americans have created the celebration of Kwanza to celebrate their heritage, remember the principles of strong community, and to offer thanks to God.

Christians celebrate Christmas day is celebrated by Mass or church services for those who either could not stay awake till midnight Mass, or who belong to churches in denominations who do not have midnight services. There is the exchange of gifts, and a large meal. In America, the meal usually consists of ham or turkey and copious side dishes. Families usually invent some of their own traditions too. For many people, the gathering of family and friends is the greatest joy of the Christmas season.

There are some practical things that all of us can do to combat the ever-growing commercialization of Christmas. First, learn what the symbolism means so that you can be reminded of the reason for the season. Christians can use these symbols as springboards to talk to others about the true meaning of Christmas. Even if you are a non-Christian, you will appreciate the season more with an understanding of the symbols.

Second, use the Advent season as a time of true preparation by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Again, you do not need to be explicitly Christian to join in these activities.

Third, limit your gift giving as much as possible to family members. If you come from a large family, a Kris-Kringle style of giving may help to prevent too much focus on commercialism.

Fourth, agree to give hand made gifts and cards, or to limit spending permitted for gifts among family members. Consider asking that your gift be a donation to charity.

Fifth, send cards that acknowledge the spiritual meaning Christmas.

Finally, if you are Christian, do not forget to go to church during this season! The body of Christ will help nourish your spirit during this busy season.

Christmas is a celebration of three comings of Christ. First, we celebrate the historical coming of Christ. The readings in the Church proclaim the story of Jesus' birth to a young virgin. We are reminded of his lineage, the conditions of his birth in the poverty of a manger, the angelic proclamation to the shepherds, his presentation at the temple, and the visit of the three wise men. The stories are told in the opening chapters of the gospels of Matthew and Luke for those who would like to read the narratives on their own.

Second, we celebrate the presence of Christ come among us today. Christians believe that the Spirit of God is always active in the world, gently guiding us and prodding us toward conversion. Nothing happens without a reason. There is not a stray molecule anywhere in the universe. Christmas is a celebration of God coming among us today! The Church often uses sacraments and symbols as signs of grace, and people are often aware of the power of the Spirit present in these activities. However, God's grace surrounds us all the time. Christmas celebrates God’s coming into our everyday lives - our work, our family, and our friendships.

Third, we celebrate the hope for the day when Christ will come in glory to gather the saints. One day, all who are being saved will be with the Lord in paradise. Whether we come to the Lord through natural death, or whether the Lord will come to us at the end of the world, Christians look forward to eternity with God. This will be our greatest happiness! As children anxiously await the arrival of Santa Clause, the Christian waits in joyful hope for eternity with our God!

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 11:39 AM

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