Christmas not only endures, but frequently transcends the times in which it finds itself. In Christian tradition, that first Christmas story should have been over before it started. A pregnant unwed mother has to travel many miles on a donkey, alongside an obscure carpenter that would soon be her husband. The great political machine decided it was time to take a census and forced thousands of people back to their home villages to be accounted for. To make it worse, they are poor and there is no place for the mother to have her child, other than a small stable for animals.
And yet it worked to an astounding degree – just like all the great inspirational stories over the centuries. Whether they were real or not ends up becoming beside the point. In the course of their retelling they not only inspire humanity but overcome its worst traits as well. Such stories live in all faiths, in all cultures.
This is certainly true of the Christmas message. A child who only merited a manger for his entrance into the world is celebrated in billions of homes around the globe. And it was through those crushing early circumstances of the birth that the nobility of those struggling in poverty and difficulty brought meaning to the centuries to follow. And the very traits of that first Christmas have survived through millennia and remain some of the noble characteristics of human living – humility, forgiveness, sacrifice, life over death, the outcasts over the strong, and, ultimately, the ability to change the world with only a few dedicated individuals. And it is the people demonstrating such character that continue to remind us that hope and peace on earth are still possible, despite the odds.
Whether one accepts the original story or not, there can be no doubting the effects. It’s nothing less than a cultural phenomenon and frequently brings on stories of personal redemption. There is likely more kindness, generosity, forgiveness, joy, peace, family gathering, and community well-being that have resulted from that ancient story that it remains impossible to deny its durability and power of message. One doesn’t have to be religious to feel it, or a humanitarian to be empowered by it. It is enough for every average family and every individual, despite their circumstances.
There are millions jaded by Christmas for multiple reasons – too materialistic, the loss of a loved one, a difficult childhood, feelings of isolation, or worse, depression. The problem becomes we grow so jaded that we fail to fully appreciate what Christmas, and the spirit that comes with it, is doing in transforming our communities.
And what is remarkable about the holiday season is that it is defined by some iconic figures that we for sure know aren’t real – the Grinch, Rudolph, Frosty, Elf, Santa, and even a special Christmas train to the North Pole. And yet the very infusion brought about by the presence of such characters is sufficient to bring joy to an entire community or a single child.
Yet the reason the original Christmas story carries weight, even with those who discount it, is because it speaks of human shortcoming, hate, slander, violence all wrapped up in one world – sin. The favourite Christmas carols form an interweaving of hope and despair, life and death, light and darkness, of sin and redemption. To be reminded that a child born in a manger ended up there because of devious power structures, inequitable economics and racial and tribal hatred is to recognize the genius that is the Christmas message – it overcame all of these deterrents with a message of hope..
At that first Christmas moment, the Creator entered creation, the Author entered the play, Word became flesh, the divine became human. It matters not that a person concedes to this, for it has played itself out in such a fashion for two millennia. Whether or not a person sees Christmas as religious or cultural, there comes that essential moment when she or he surrenders themselves to becoming more communal, more understanding, more generous, more … human. All this is a reminder that the Christmas story isn’t so much one of belief as it about the potential to be better than what we are on normal days. And that applies to entire communities.
The great promise of Christmas isn’t about radiating joy or giving to the outcasts, but our potential to do so at a far higher level that we are normally inclined. And we should be humbled by such a prospect. Our word “humble” comes from a Latin term humilis, meaning “on the ground.” The greatness of the Christmas message is that it didn’t happen in a mansion but a manger. Its messengers were shepherds not socialites. It cost nothing to produce such a pageant, other than the deep emotions of sacrifice, love, nobility, and the desire for good. It all happened “on the ground” and its ultimate power of persuasion is still found in average people, homes and communities today.
As long as people have the potential to live beyond themselves, to reach for the greater good and fight for a better humanity, then the Christmas message will always find homes in such hearts. Merry Christmas.