The Story of Christmas
Christians celebrate Christmas to commemorate the birth of Christ who they believe is the son of God and the redeemer of the world. The birth of Christ was the fulfillment of biblical prophecies and God’s promise to send a messiah or savior to redeem the world from the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Christmas began in a lowly manger in Bethlehem where Jesus Christ was born. His parents Mary and Joseph had traveled long and far to Bethlehem, also known as the City of David, to register under the Roman census, as required by law. Since thousands of others also came to Bethlehem for the census, Joseph and Mary who was with child couldn’t find any lodging, except a stable where animals were kept. It was there that Mary gave birth to Jesus on what we now celebrate as Christmas Eve.
At the moment of Christ’s birth a bright star rose in the sky as angels appeared to nearby shepherds and sang “Glory to God In The Highest and Peace on Earth to Men of Good Will”. The angles told the shepherds to follow the star to the manger in Bethlehem where the savior had been born.
Three Kings, also known as the magi or wise men, saw the same star, and being astronomers, they interpreted this unusual celestial event to mean that a king had been born. They too followed the star to Bethlehem and brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh … expensive gifts appropriate to bring a king. Since they traveled by camel from a great distance east of Bethlehem, they arrived about two weeks later. This is why January 6th is also a feast day Christians celebrate as part of the Christmas season. In fact, Greek Orthodox and Other Eastern Catholic and Christian sects celebrate Christmas on January 6, instead of on December 25.
It is from these humble beginnings on the first Christmas that so many of our religious rituals and Christmas traditions originate.
The Manger Scene
Throughout the world, Christians set up manger scenes in their homes usually about 4 weeks before Christmas. These manager scenes traditionally contain a stable and figurines of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus laying in a manger, along with angels, shepherds, sheep, oxen, donkeys, cows and of course, the three kings and their camels. Some families have a tradition where they do not place the infant Jesus figurine in the stable until Christmas Eve.
Christmas is a time of joy when a savior came to light up a world that had been darkened by sin. Christ called himself “The Light of the World”, so it became a Christmas tradition to place candles in the windows and on Christmas trees. With the advent of electricity, electric lights and candles were used for both creative and safety reasons.
Tradition also holds that we use lights and candles as part of our celebration because Christ was born at the same time the Jews celebrated Chanukah of the Festival of Lights when there were candles in the windows. Some historians, however, dispute the fact that Christ was born in December … but the debate continues.
The Angel or Star on Top of the Tree
Even though the Christmas tree was brought into the Christmas tradition as a way of incorporating it with Winter Solstice celebrations, it became a tradition to have either a star representing the Star of Bethlehem … or an angel representing the angels that appeared to the shepherds on Christmas Eve sit atop the tree.
Midnight Mass and Services
Catholics traditionally celebrate a special midnight mass on Christmas Eve to commemorate the birth of Christ on that first Christmas Eve. Usually these services have beautiful musical programs sung by a choir and a procession to the manger in addition to the mass itself. Many other Christian Denominations celebrate midnight services with similar programs.
The tradition of singing Christmas carols and hymns is based on the biblical accounts of angels singing on earth when Christ was born. Singing praise to God has long been part of the Christian worship ritual … even in the early Church. Over the years new Christmas hymns were created as well as secular Christmas songs.
Christians believe that Christ was the first Christmas gift, given to us by God, to save us from our sins. This is one reason for the exchanging gifts at Christmas. The second reason for the gift giving tradition is to commemorate the gifts that the three kings gave to the Christ child. Many people feel that gift giving represents an over-commercialization of Christmas. Whether or not this is true, giving Christmas gifts is a beautiful tradition deeply rooted in the Christian religion and culture.
There are countless other traditions and rituals that evolve from that first Christmas night. They are all beautiful and have stood the test of time. Merry Christmas.