What Christmas Really Means

Christians traditionally exchange gifts to remind themselves of God’s gift of his son as a savior to human kind.

5 mins read
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The Security Council… Expressing deep concern at the dire and rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and its grave impact on the civilian population, underlining the urgent need for full, rapid, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access into and throughout the entire Gaza Strip, and taking note of the concerning reports from the leadership of the United Nations and humanitarian organizations in this regard, reaffirming its strong concern for the disproportionate effect that the conflict is having on the lives and well-being of children, women, and other civilians in vulnerable situations, and stressing the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence… UN Security Council Resolution 2720 ( 21 December 2023)

This Christmas, Bethlehem – the birth place  of Jesus Christ – is almost empty, with far fewer visitors than usual. BBC reports that Christmas celebrations have been cancelled this year and the thousands of tourists and pilgrims who would normally fill Manger Square are nowhere to be found. “The city is empty from happiness, from joy, from kids, from Santa. There is no celebration this year,” says Madeleine, a resident of Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank. The famous Christmas tree, usually in the middle of the square, is not there. There are no carols or Christmas market stands. Instead, a nativity scene, which shows a newborn Jesus surrounded by big rocks and barbed wire, has been installed as a tribute to the children of Gaza”.

The word “Christmas” is a derivative of the old English cristes maesse, or “Christ’s Mass”. There is nothing in the Holy Scriptures to say that Christmas is a religious holiday nor is there any guidance in the book as to how Christmas should be observed. This lacuna has enabled various cultures around the world to develop rituals and popular traditions of their own for Christmas.

However, varied they may be, these traditions and practices all underscore and demonstrate on  a common basis the spirit of Christmas, which starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and goes on till Christmas day (the four week period being called Advent). The spirit of Christmas is essentially encompassed in the practice of giving gifts to one another.

Christians traditionally exchange gifts to remind themselves of God’s gift of his son as a savior to human kind. The tradition of exchanging gifts goes back to ancient Roman times where a custom existed that people give gifts to one another in order to bring good fortune for the New Year. This dimension of hope and expectation of good things to come is especially relevant today as an unknown dimension of Christmas to people of the world who are looking at the prospect of lasting peace.

To many in North America, particularly in the United States and Canada, the Christmas season is heralded by the annual Thanksgiving parade which jointly celebrates the arrival of Santa Claus, a mythical saintly figure reputed to bestow gifts on the less fortunate; and the Feast of Thanksgiving, on which humankind offer their gratitude for all they have received throughout the year.

The symbolism of Christmas, particularly in its original setting, brings to bear the real significance of the event as a harbinger of peace and happiness and the heralding of understanding and compassion particularly of those in power toward their fellow beings.

Most scholars are of the view that Christmas originated in about the 4th Century where Christians began substituting the more tranquil practices of Christianity for pagan celebrations of the Winter solstice. Before the celebrations of Christmas, on December 17 each year, Romans had a festival called Saturnalia for Saturn, the ancient God of agriculture, ( to which the modern day feast of Thanksgiving may have some link).

This feast lasted a full seven days including the winter solstice, where the Romans feasted, postponed all warfare and commercial business, exchanged gifts and temporarily granted amnesty to their prisoners and freed their slaves.

Christmas is a time for introspection; of self-examination for self-worth. It is a time that all of the world has demonstrably shown their capacity to shed differences and work toward the common human goal of peace. We may live in a glamourous world of achievement and material ostentation. We may individually want to be identified with our own accomplishments but it is clear from what is going on in the world today that we need a shared future that would stop the carnage and misery that 2023 brought us .

We are in the throes of a millennium – just two and a half decades old – which we constantly hope would be one of peace and heightened international cooperation. One which would make our experiences of the previous millennium – of futile wars fought, the needless loss of innocent life, and the nagging feeling of self-deprecation of not giving enough to our less fortunate fellow beings, go away forever. We need a new era that would make us all serve the world without the prejudice of hatred and bigotry.

This is an era where we must be aware that civic consciousness primarily means people in power and in charge should instill in others who depend on them greater knowledge and awareness of international cooperation and sharing, in order that they could offer their specialized skills to the world, while fully understanding the contribution they are making to their fellow beings.

We must nurture our boundless spirit of giving, particularly to those in distress. When it comes to giving, we must not distinguish between our own people who are thrown out of a building which is destroyed by an explosion, and those who are rendered homeless by a mudslide. This quality is a great consolation and blessing to humanity which carries the message that we do not, and indeed should not shut our doors to those who genuinely need our help.

We must start a new life and family amidst an embodied diversity of a multinational culture reputed for its familial spirit of belonging and ever present hand of friendship. This expectation is particularly important to us, having experienced an environment of glamourous uncertainty and suspicion wrought by misunderstanding and discord.

Above all, at this time of great awakening, we must realize that the world moves in silent relapses of infirmity, seeking wisdom from its chosen few to mend its fences. There is never a quiet storm or timid typhoon in human conflict. Every step we take, every move we make, as those chosen to make things right, must make anonymity more rewarding than life itself – like the beauty of a flock of doves flying home together.

There is no doubt that, with the birth and life of Christ, the ancient world became one. Since then, we are one world on some occasions, only periodically, always in the winter of some personal tragedy, amidst our own private grief.

Not all the joys we share at the Nativity or coming of Christ nor tears that we shed when confronted with his death during the period of Lent would be much use to us unless we pluck from his own life the nettle of things done – something which can endure, something which we can value.

History would stand between his exemplary life and oblivion, giving us his sacred message, that we will be judged not by our achievements, but by our compassion.

We will be measured not by our materialistic accomplishments but by our capacity to give. We will be judged by the legacy we leave behind and the compromises we make with each other for the greater good of our own people, as global citizens.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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