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Traditions and Christmas

As you savor a candy cane this Christmas, say “Danka Schoen” to the Germans, for that confectionary treat was first created in Cologne. As you admire your poinsettia, say “gracias” to Mexico, where the plant originated. Say “merci beaucoup” to the French for the term noel, and give a “cheers” to the English for your mistletoe.

But as we enjoy our traditions and festivities of the Christmas season—customs that have been collected from around the world—let’s save our most sincere and heartfelt “thank you” for our good, merciful, and loving God. From Him came the reason for our Christmas celebration: the baby born in that Judean manger more than 2,000 years ago. An angel announced the arrival of this gift to mankind by saying, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy . . . a Savior has been born to you” (Luke 2:10).

         This Christmas, even in the light of the sparkling Christmas tree and surrounded by newly opened presents, the true excitement comes when we turn our attention to the baby named Jesus, who came to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). His birth transcends tradition: It is our central focus as we send praises to God for this unspeakable Christmas gift.

Home for Christmas

Christmas 1982 found me on assignment in a place many of my friends couldn’t locate on a map. Trudging from my worksite back to my room, I braced against the chill wind blowing off the bleak Black Sea. I missed home.

When I arrived at my room, I opened the door to a magical moment. My artistic roommate had completed his latest project—a nineteen-inch ceramic Christmas tree that now illuminated our darkened room with sparkling dots of color. If only for a moment, I was home again!

As Jacob fled from his brother Esau, he found himself in a strange and lonely place too. Asleep on the hard ground, he met God in a dream. And God promised Jacob a home. “I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying,” He told him. “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (Gen. 28:13–14).

From Jacob, of course, would come the promised Messiah, the One who left His home to draw us to Himself. “I will come back and take you to be with me so that you also may be where I am,” Jesus told His disciples (John 14:3).

That December night in 1982 I sat in the darkness of my room and gazed at that Christmas tree. Perhaps inevitably I thought of the Light that entered the world to show us the way home.

Christmas at MacPherson

About 230 families and individuals live at Macpherson Gardens, Block 72 in my neighborhood. Each person has his or her own life story. On the tenth floor resides an elderly woman whose children have grown up, gotten married, and moved out. She lives by herself now. Just a few doors away from her is a young couple with two kids—a boy and a girl. And a few floors below lives a young man serving in the army. He has been to church before; maybe he will visit again on Christmas Day. I met these people last Christmas when our church went caroling in the neighborhood to spread Christmas cheer.

Every Christmas—as on the first Christmas—many people do not know that God has entered into our world as a baby whose name is Jesus (Luke 1:68; 2:11). Or they do not know the significance of that event—that it is “good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (2:10). Yes, all people! Regardless of our nationality, race, gender, or status, Jesus came to die for us and offer us complete forgiveness so that we can be reconciled with Him and enjoy His love, joy, peace, and hope. Indeed, all people, from the woman next door to the colleagues we have lunch with, need to hear this wonderful news!

On the first Christmas, the angels were the bearers of this joyous news. Today, God desires to work through us to take the story to others.

One Size Fits All

Like most children, I thoroughly enjoyed Christmas. With great anticipation, I would snoop under the tree to see what toys and games awaited my eager grasp. So I felt deflated when I started getting things like shirts and pants. Grownup gifts were no fun! Then last Christmas, my kids gave me some cool socks with bright colors and designs. I almost felt young again! Even grownups could wear these socks, as the label reassured me: “One size fits all.”

That welcome phrase “one size fits all” reminds me of the best gift of Christmas—the good news that Jesus is for everyone. The point was proven when the first invitation sent by angel choirs was to shepherds on the bottom rung of the social ladder. The news was underscored further when the VIPs—the wealthy and powerful Magi—followed the star to come and worship the Christ-child.

After Jesus began His ministry, an influential member of the Jewish ruling council came to Him at night. In the course of their conversation, Jesus invited “whoever believes” to come to Him. The simple act of faith in Christ grants eternal life to those who trust in Him (John 3:16).

If Jesus were just for the poor and marginalized, or only for the famous and fortunate, many of us would not qualify. But Christ is for everyone, regardless of status, financial situation, or social standing. He is the only gift truly fit for all.

The Drummer Boy

“The Little Drummer Boy” is a popular Christmas song written in 1941. It was originally known as “Carol of the Drum” and is based on a traditional Czech carol. Although there isn’t any reference to a drummer boy in the Christmas story in Matthew 1–2 and Luke 2, the point of the carol goes straight to the heart of the meaning of worship. The carol describes how a boy is summoned by the Magi to the scene of Christ’s birth. Unlike the wise men, however, the drummer has no gift—so he gives what he has. He plays his drum, saying, “I played my best for Him.”

This echoes the worship Jesus described when He told of the widow and her two coins: “ ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on’ ” (Luke 21:3-4).

All the drummer boy had was his drum and all the poor widow had were her two coins, but the God they worshiped was worthy of their all. He is worthy of our all as well, having given His all for us.

The Seventh Stanza

In the summer of 1861, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife, Frances, died tragically in a fire. That first Christmas without her, he wrote in his diary, “How inexpressibly sad are the holidays.” The next year was no better, as he recorded, “ ‘A merry Christmas,’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

In 1863, as the American Civil War was dragging on, Longfellow’s son joined the army against his father’s wishes and was critically injured. On Christmas Day that year, as church bells announced the arrival of another painful Christmas, Longfellow picked up his pen and began to write, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

The poem begins pleasantly, lyrically, but then takes a dark turn. The violent imagery of the pivotal fourth verse ill suits a Christmas carol. “Accursed” cannons “thundered,” mocking the message of peace. By the fifth and sixth verses, Longfellow’s desolation is nearly complete. “It was as if an earthquake rent the hearth-stones of a continent,” he wrote. The poet nearly gave up: “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.”

But then, from the depths of that bleak Christmas day, Longfellow heard the irrepressible sound of hope. And he wrote this seventh stanza.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep! The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men!”

The war raged on and so did memories of his personal tragedies, but it could not stop Christmas. The Messiah is born! He promises, “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5).

Christmas Rest

As a boy I delivered newspapers in order to earn money. Since it was a morning newspaper, I was required to get up at 3:00 every morning, 7 days a week, in order to have all 140 of my papers delivered to their appropriate homes by 6:00 a.m.

But one day each year was different. We would deliver the Christmas morning newspaper on Christmas Eve—meaning that Christmas was the only morning of the year I could sleep in and rest like a normal person.

Over the years, I came to appreciate Christmas for many reasons, but one that was special in those days was that, unlike any other day of the year, it was a day of rest.

At that time, I didn’t fully understand the meaning of the true rest that Christmas brings. Christ came so that all who labor under the weight of a law that can never be fulfilled might find rest through the forgiveness Christ offers. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). In a world that is too much for us to bear alone, Christ has come to bring us into a relationship with Him and give us rest.

The Birth of Christmas

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and then to shepherds with good news for the world (Luke 1:26-27; 2:10), was it good news to this teenage girl? Perhaps Mary was thinking: How do I explain my pregnancy to my family? Will my fiancé Joseph call off the betrothal? What will the townspeople say? Even if my life is spared, how will I survive as a mother all alone?

When Joseph learned about Mary’s pregnancy, he was troubled. He had three options. Go ahead with the marriage, divorce her publicly and allow her to be publicly scorned, or break off the engagement quietly. Joseph chose option three, but God intervened. He told Joseph in a dream, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20).

For Mary and Joseph, Christmas began with submitting themselves to God in spite of the unthinkable emotional challenges before them. They entrusted themselves to God and in doing so demonstrated for us the promise of 1 John 2:5: “If anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them.”

May God’s love fill our hearts this Christmas season—and every day—as we walk with Him.

What Christmas Is All About

Fifty years ago A Charlie Brown Christmas was first broadcast on American television. Some network executives thought it would be ignored, while others worried that quoting the Bible would offend viewers. Some wanted its creator, Charles Schulz, to omit the Christmas story, but Schulz insisted it stay in. The program was an immediate success and has been rebroadcast every year since 1965.

When Charlie Brown, the frustrated director of the children’s Christmas play, is discouraged by the commercial spirit of the holiday season, he asks if anyone can tell him the real meaning of Christmas. Linus recites Luke 2:8-14 including the words, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (vv. 11-14 kjv). Then Linus says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

During this season filled with our own doubts and dreams, it’s good to ponder afresh God’s great love expressed in the familiar story of Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, and the angels who announced the Savior’s birth.

That’s what Christmas is all about.

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