- Is Santa Claus real?
- Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25?
- Where was Jesus born?
- Christ before Christmas
- Mary: The mother of Jesus and “the servant of the Lord”
- Joseph: The earthly father of Jesus and the “forgotten man of Christmas”
- How many wise men were there? And when did the magi visit Jesus?
- Transform traditions into truth
- Turn holidays into Holy Days
In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York City’s The Sun newspaper. She asked, “Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”
News writer Francis Pharcellus Church soon responded in the newspaper’s editorial section with one of history’s most reprinted newspaper editorials: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
He went on to explain “the existence” of Santa Claus in terms of the love and generosity that Christmas ushers in every December. He encouraged her not to be swayed by the skepticism of the age.
If only the answer were that simple.
As with many holidays, there is history and myth intertwined in the traditions and origins of Christmas. But, for Christians, the most important, valid information comes from God’s word.
What does the Bible say about the jolly old man we see every Christmas in malls and store advertisements and for whom small children await in eager anticipation on Christmas Eve? The figure we know as Santa Claus who brings gifts piled up on a sleigh pulled by reindeer all the way from his home at the North Pole?
The short answer, of course, is nothing.
But there’s more to the story about Santa.
There really was a St. Nick, and we can learn so much from his life.
If practiced as first intended, Christmas traditions can convey spiritual truth and joy. And the purpose of this paper is to examine God’s word to find that truth and joy.
Christmas is not just a holiday. It’s a holy day. It’s not a myth. It’s a fact.
Let’s navigate the traditions and embrace the wonderful truth of the living Savior we celebrate this holy season.
Is Santa Claus real?
There’s reality behind the story and history of Santa Claus.
There actually was a man known as Nicholas who was born in AD 280 in Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey. He was bishop of the church in Myra, participated in the First Council of Nicaea, and helped the church find the best language to describe the Incarnation of Jesus.
St. Nicholas was beloved because he spent his life helping the poor and underprivileged. He was the first to initiate programs for mentally challenged children. His love for children led him to visit their homes at night disguised in a red-and-white hooded robe to leave gifts of money, clothing, and food in their windows or around their fireplaces.
After his death, he was made the patron saint of sailors since his church was located in a port city and had an extensive ministry to those who traveled the sea. He was later named the patron saint of Russia. Nicholas was one of history’s most venerated saints, with more than five hundred songs and hymns written in his honor. Christopher Columbus arrived in Haiti in 1492 and named the port after him. By the year 1500, more than seven hundred churches in Britain were dedicated to him.
The Dutch especially appreciated his life. They spelled his name Sint Nikolass, which, in America, became Sinterklass, or Santa Claus.
His popularity grew through a poem written by Dr. Clement Clark Moore, a theology and classics professor at Union Seminary in New York. In 1822, he penned the classic, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known today as “The Night Before Christmas.” Artist Thomas Nast illustrated the book, creating the figure we now know as the jolly Santa Claus.
That’s the reality behind the story of Santa Claus. St. Nicholas’ selfless lifestyle was based on his love for God and people.
Now, let’s look at the actual Christmas story and why it should matter so much to our lives.
Christmas nativity scenes all over the Christian world will once again be unpacked and displayed to relate the story of that glorious first Christmas: a beautiful young woman protected by her equally attractive young husband, adoring shepherds with their sheep, and three majestic kings from the Orient bearing their magnificent gifts for the baby lying in a manger.
But very little that blessed night happened the way our decorations depict it. Let’s discover why.
Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25?
According to our traditions, Santa Claus visits our homes on December 24, Christmas Eve. And we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25. But, do we know why we observe Christmas on that day?
The night Jesus was born, the Bible tells us that the shepherds were in the fields tending their sheep (Luke 2:8), something they did not do in the winter. The Roman census, which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, would not have been possible in winter either.
It is most likely Jesus was born in the springtime. Early scholars estimate the time around March 25 or sometime in April. But Christmas was not celebrated as a holiday for nearly four centuries.
For many years, the Romans had celebrated the “birthday” of the sun each year on December 25 since that date is near the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the beginning of the winter season. Pagan festivals marked the occasion for centuries before Christians began using the “birthday” of the sun as the birthday of the Son.
By 1038, the Mass of Christ was called Cristes Maesse, from which we get the word “Christmas.” In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi assembled the first nativity scene.
And so Jesus’ birthday is celebrated on December 25, and St. Nicholas is the “patron saint” of the holiday.
And we give gifts to celebrate the greatest Gift.
Where was Jesus born?
Christmas actually began centuries before that blessed night in Bethlehem, as we will see later when we examine Old Testament prophecies.
The little town’s greatest claim to fame before the birth of Jesus was the fact that King David grew up there, just outside of Jerusalem. He tended his flocks there as a boy and called Bethlehem his home, so that is why it is known as the “City of David” to this day.
For centuries, wandering tribes used caves in this mountainous area as temporary shelters from the elements. And they were often used as homes for gypsies, nomads, and their families and animals.
In time, people settled there, establishing the town they called Bethlehem, or “house of bread,” so named for the fertile fields amidst surrounding valleys. A road linking Jerusalem with Hebron to the north and Egypt to the south gave the area significance.
Bethlehem’s location on this well-traveled route made it the perfect location for an inn, which was built near a cave and the hill later known as Golgotha. The cave was used as a stable for the innkeeper’s animals. The average cave size in the area was about thirty-nine feet long, eleven feet wide, low at the entrance, and nine feet high at the highest point.
Our modern-day nativity scenes depict Jesus and his family and worshippers surrounded by beauty and serenity. They are lovely, but they are not the way it all was. If you have been in a cave, you know why. There’s no light except the fire one lights inside, and then the smoke stings the eyes and fills the lungs. There’s no air circulation, so it feels damp and musty.
And animals were stabled here. Imagine the odors of a barn, multiplied many times. This was the scene where Jesus was born. He was placed, not in a wooden crib lined with hay, but on a feed stone feed trough chiseled out of a rocky platform, two feet off the ground. The Lord of the universe was placed where donkeys, mules, and sheep had been licking up barley and oats.
But don’t see this as mistreatment or a lack of compassion. The innkeeper offered what he had on a busy night during the census when every room in the inn was full.
The wonder of it all is that Jesus chose to be born here. He was the only baby ever to choose his birthplace. He could have chosen Jerusalem, or Athens, or Rome, but he chose Bethlehem. He could have chosen a palace, but he chose to be born in a cave.
Over time, the Romans attempted to eliminate the memory of Jesus’ birth here by planting a grove dedicated to their pagan god Adonis, the lover of Venus.
But when Constantine the Great became a Christian, he and his mother began to build churches to commemorate holy sites and cleared away all pagan rituals. In AD 330, they constructed the oldest church building in Christendom, the Church of the Nativity, commemorating what is believed to be the site of Jesus’ birth. It is the most visited site in all of Israel, bringing millions of pilgrims from across the world to the place of our Lord’s birth.
Why was it so important that all this happen in a cave? Not a house, or a palace, or a field, but a cave? For this simple reason: you enter a cave with low ceilings bowed down or on your knees. You come in humility.
That’s how the shepherds came in worship. They entered on their knees. Eventually, the door to the Church of the Nativity was lowered as well, with the result that even today pilgrims must enter it stooped down, in humility. And this is as it should be.
Christ before Christmas
The cave where Jesus was born is the only earthly element of the Christmas miracle that existed across the centuries as all the preparations for Jesus’ birth were being made. Once you’ve learned all that Jesus did to prepare the world for his first coming, you’ll be sufficiently grateful. And you’ll be prepared for his return—not as a baby in a secluded cave, but as the Conqueror and King of the universe.
Let’s begin at the beginning. According to God’s word, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). The baby whose birth we celebrate at Christmas “made the universe” (Hebrews 1:2), for “by him all things were created” (Colossians 1:16). He now “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). He is “before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
Think of it—a newborn baby created the mother who gave him birth and the shepherds who came to wonder and worship. He created the wise men who came eventually to celebrate his birth and the star that guided them to him. At the beginning of the Old Testament in the creation story, Jesus Christ himself created, and still sustains, all that is.
Even before time began, God knew that he would bring the Messiah (Hebrew for “Chosen One”) to die for our sins, to take our place and punishment, to purchase our salvation. And, step by step, the Old Testament revealed this Messiah: the Lamb slain from the creation of the world (Revelation 13:8).
Scriptures made clear his story in advance of his advent. He would be
- Descended from the line of Abraham (Genesis 12:2), Jacob (Numbers 24:17), Judah (Genesis 49:10), Jesse (Isaiah 11:1), and David (2 Samuel 7:12)
- Born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14) in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2)
- Eventually rejected by his own people (Isaiah 53:3)
- Sold for thirty shekels (Zechariah 11:12)
- Forsaken by his disciples (Zechariah 13:7)
- Silent before his accusers (Isaiah 53:7)
No detail was left unaddressed:
- At his death, his hands and feet would be pierced (Psalm 22:16).
- He would be crucified with thieves (Isaiah 53:12).
- No bones would be broken (Psalm 34:20).
- The soldiers would gamble for his clothes (Psalm 22:18).
- He would suffer thirst (Psalm 69:21).
- He would be buried in a rich man’s tomb (Isaiah 53:9).
- He would be resurrected (Psalm 16:10).
- He would ascend (Psalm 68:18).
- And he now sits at the right hand of God (Psalm 110:1).
All this was revealed centuries before it came to pass. And provisions for the spread of the gospel were being established too. All the preparation didn’t end with Jesus’ birth.
It was only just beginning.
A yearning for the Messiah
The Old Testament closes with the Persian Empire firmly in control. They have defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return home. Cyrus and his Persians dominate the world. But when the New Testament opens, the Romans rule the world. What happened?
In 332 BC, the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great defeated the Persians. The Jews overthrew Greek rule in 167 BC under Judas Maccabeus. But, in 63 BC, the Pharisees and Sadducees began a civil war that eventually destroyed the Jewish kingdom and led to Roman control. By the time the New Testament opens, the hated Romans had enslaved the Jews, and all the nation cried out for a Messiah, the One who would free them and save their people. There was a national yearning for the Messiah.
A common language for the gospel
By the first century, for the first time in western history, one language dominated the surrounding culture: koine or “common” Greek. If the letters/epistles of the New Testament were written today, Galatians and Ephesians would have to be written in Turkish, the Corinthian and Thessalonian letters in Greek, Romans in Italian, and Hebrews in Hebrew. But when the first Christmas came, everyone in the region understood Greek. The first Christian missionaries needed no language schools or interpreters. They could preach and write the gospel for everyone in a common language.
A universal peace for the church
Caesar Augustus brought political stability to the Roman Empire and ended the disastrous civil wars that had followed the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Thus, the first Christian missionaries could move about the known region in relative peace. Today, it would require moving freely from Israel through Syria and Jordan, across Iraq and Iran, through Turkey and Greece, and across Serbia and Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia), Croatia, Bosnia, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. It couldn’t be done today. But they could.
And there was a highly developed road system upon which these travels could be made. Augustus had developed the most comprehensive system of transportation the world had seen until our generation. Some of the roads built by him are still in use today.
The early Christian missionaries traveled with relative ease to any part of the known world. All the while, God had been scattering the Jewish people across the world to provide beachheads for preaching the gospel. These scattered Jews brought their message of one God and his promised Messiah. The Romans had exempted them from Caesar worship and allowed them religious freedom as a “religio licita,” a legal religion. The Romans would eventually apply this freedom to Christianity as a Jewish sect until the faith had gained a foothold across the Empire.
For centuries, God prepared the world for the coming of his Son. God did this because he could. And he rules on the throne of our world still today.
Mary: The mother of Jesus and “the servant of the Lord”
He also prepared the parents of Jesus for his birth.
Micah 5:2 announced the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. But Mary lived in Nazareth, some eighty miles away, a very long distance in those days of travel by foot or donkey.
So God prompted Augustus to take a census so as to make taxation more efficient and effective. And God had Augustus decree that each man or woman of the entire Empire must return to the city or village which was their ancestral home, where their family originated. And so millions of men and women and boys and girls rode and walked across the entire Empire to cities and villages across the known world, all so one young village girl could fulfill prophecy.
Mary was likely twelve or thirteen years old when the angel Gabriel visited her with the news that she would become the mother of the Messiah.
She was “greatly troubled” by the news, as she later told Luke when he was writing his gospel (1:29). She certainly didn’t understand how she could be the mother of the Messiah and yet a virgin (Luke 1:34). Yet, she yielded in obedience to God’s plan: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She called herself the Lord’s “servant,” a handmaid or slave girl, one who must do the bidding of her owner and master. She yielded her life completely to God that day. And history would forever be different because she did.
Why Mary? Think of all the women God could have chosen to be the mother of his Son: a daughter of the high priest or a member of the Sanhedrin, or one of the families of wealth and influence in Judah. Why her? Why was this peasant girl so highly favored (v. 28)? And how did God know she would submit to his will in this way?
She had already surrendered her body to God. She was indeed a “virgin,” as she claimed to be (v. 34). This was a surprising fact in first-century Nazareth. The village was constructed on a hillside, with a populous trade route below. This road, which connected Tyre and Sidon with Jerusalem, was populated with Roman soldiers, Greek merchants, and travelers from around the world. Many of the village girls dressed and acted so as to attract the men traveling along this route, seeing them as their way out of Nazareth to the larger world. But not Mary—she kept herself pure.
She had surrendered her mind to God as well. Do you remember the song she sang upon meeting Elizabeth after the Messiah had been conceived in her womb? (vv. 46–56). It is one of the finest psalms of praise in all of God’s word. And it is composed from passages in 1 Samuel, Psalms, Isaiah, Micah, and Exodus.
This girl (who would be considered a seventh-grader today) had memorized these parts of the word of God. And so she used them to worship her Lord and God. She knew the word and will of the Lord through years of study and devotion. She had surrendered her mind to God.
And now she would surrender her future to God also. To become pregnant when she was only engaged could cost her everything. Who would believe her story about an angel and a Son of God?
She was willing to give up her parents and family, to be abandoned by them. To give up Joseph, the man who would be her husband for life. To give up her future and even her life, as she could be stoned to death as an adulteress (cf. Deuteronomy 22:23–24). As long as she and the child lived, people would question her morals. And yet she was willing to do the Lord’s bidding, to surrender her future and all her ambitions to God.
And she would surrender life itself to his will. She would stand helpless and watch her boy die with nails in his hands and feet, a spear in his side. Those nails would pierce her own soul and that spear her own heart.
She would gather with her son’s disciples at Pentecost and receive his Holy Spirit. She would serve this child as her Lord the rest of her days on earth, and then in heaven.
Joseph: The earthly father of Jesus and the “forgotten man of Christmas”
Joseph was a carpenter from Nazareth who was betrothed to Mary when she became pregnant with the Messiah. He was descended from King David and is the only man in the New Testament besides Jesus to be called the “son of David” (Matthew 1:20). And so Bethlehem was his hometown as well.
Although carpentry was an honorable trade, a carpenter depended on the payment of his townspeople, and Nazareth was a very poor village. Joseph would later teach his craft to Jesus as he grew up (Mark 6:3).
As was the custom of the day, Joseph followed the normal three steps in making Mary his wife. First came the arrangement, made many years earlier. Her father agreed that, when she came of age, she and Joseph would be married.
Next came the engagement, when Mary turned twelve years of age and Joseph was in his thirties, as was the custom of the day. For an entire year, they were married legally but not sexually. Mary continued to live in her parents’ home while Joseph lived in his house. If Joseph had died during this year, Mary would have been called “the virgin who is a widow.”
Then finally would come the completion, when he took her from her parents’ home into his and they became husband and wife.
In his gospel, Matthew calls Joseph “just” or righteous (Matthew 1:19), which means “one who keeps the law.” As a result, he would not be able to wed a pregnant Mary. The rabbis forbade it. God’s law was clear.
This fact left Joseph with two options:
- He could divorce Mary publicly by calling her and her family before the entire town, accuse her of adultery, and divorce her before everyone. In fact, he could have her stoned as an adulteress (Deuteronomy 22:13–21; Leviticus 20:10).
- Or he could divorce her privately. With just two witnesses, he could go to her house and declare them divorced, pay the fine to the priest, and be done with her.
Either way, she would be destitute. Her own family would probably disown her, she would raise her child on her own, and she would live in shame. He saw those as his only options.
But God had another plan.
After Joseph had decided to divorce Mary privately, as the kindest thing for her, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).
He staked his life and future on this word from God, taking Mary as his wife and adopting Jesus as his own, thus making him legally a “son of David,” as he was.
The ancient prophet had announced that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). And so God moved the entire Roman Empire to force her subjects to return to their hometowns for a census so that Mary and Joseph would be made to return to Bethlehem, their family home. All so Jesus could be born there.
Joseph has been called the “forgotten man of Christmas,” but we can know he was obedient when it was difficult.
In the year 747 by the Roman calendar, or 6 BC by ours, the Roman Emperor had issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire world. This was so he could list everyone on his tax rolls, organized by towns of birth.
Everyone in all of Israel who was descended from David was forced to come to Bethlehem, with one inn available. When Mary and Joseph arrived, it was late at night. Due to the crowds, the innkeeper had already put out a sign: “No room.” But, he could not turn away a young woman who was great with child and ready to give birth.
He took them to the cave used as a stable, no place for a mother-to-be, but a shelter when nothing else was available.
And there the Son of God was born.
How many wise men were there? And when did the magi visit Jesus?
Nearly all of our traditions about the magi who visited Jesus are erroneous.
Our nativity scenes have three wise men since they brought three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the magi usually traveled in groups of twelve or more for safety.
They are often depicted as kings, although they were not. Psalm 72:8–10 speaks of kings from Tarshish, Sheba, Seba, and distant shores bringing tributes and gifts. However, Tarshish was a distant Mediterranean seaport located as far west as Spain. Sheba was in southwest Arabia, where Yemen is today, and Seba was south of Egypt, where Sudan is located today. The context of the psalm states that all nations and their rulers will worship the Messiah. The same is true of Isaiah 60:6.
As Matthew recorded, the magi, or wise men, came from the east (v. 2:1), likely Persia, which is Iran today. It is believed that invading Persians spared the Church of the Nativity in AD 614 because they saw a golden mosaic over the doorway which depicted the magi in Persian headdress and clothing.
Like the shepherds who were visited by the angel as they attended sheep, they were not welcomed in Jewish worship.
They were known as wise men as they were the most learned people of their society, scholars in philosophy, medicine, and science. And they were religious men. Their background gave them the necessary skills for following a star to find the Christ child, and their religious training gave them the expectations of an upcoming Messiah.
For centuries, wise men of the East had watched the stars as windows into the future, believing that they announced the birth of those destined for greatness. And so they believed the advent of a special star would announce the long-awaited arrival of the King of the Jews.
Unlike what many of us have been taught, the wise men did not follow the star to Bethlehem; they saw the star, then went to Jerusalem in search of the Messiah. There, the star appeared again: “The star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9).
To this point, the star could be a natural phenomenon, but nothing in the skies had ever pointed travelers to a specific house. But, that is what happened.
While our manger scenes depict the wise men at the birth of Jesus, that is not the case. They traveled over nine hundred miles to find the King of the Jews, which meant completing their journey took them several months from the time they first saw the star. It is more likely the Christ child was around two years old when they arrived with their gifts.
As we set up our nativity scenes this year, may we remember the real story of Christmas and how much planning our God put into sending his Son into our lives that we might know his Father.
Transform traditions into truth
When the angels of heaven appeared to the bewildered shepherds on the first Christmas night, “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9). God’s messengers brought his light to our dark world. The candle lit on that first Christmas has never gone out. And it never will.
Light a candle
One of the earliest Christmas traditions was lighting candles to symbolize this coming of the Light of God. Believers often still light candles in their places of worship and put them on their window sills at home.
Wherever they were lit, they brought the light of Jesus into a dark room and soul. In the medieval world, the tradition grew. Fathers told their children that the Christ Child returns to earth each Christmas Eve, hoping to find a home and heart open to him. They placed candles in their windows to tell Jesus that he was welcome in their home.
Such a tradition is worth repeating in our culture today. When Jesus first visited our planet, he fulfilled the promise made seven centuries earlier: “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16; Isaiah 9:2).
Christ was the first candle of Christmas.
His best friend, John, perhaps saw the effect of Jesus’ life and ministry more than any other person. Sixty years later, he would explain his Lord’s impact this way: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4–5). The candle he lit on the first Christmas shines still today.
Jesus spent his years on earth bringing the light of his love to our dark world. The first Candle of Christmas enlightens every soul that welcomes the glow of his grace.
When Jesus returned to his Father, he did not take his light with him. Instead, he handed it to you and me. Like Olympic torchbearers, we have been handed his flame. It now rests in your hands. It will spread through the world to the degree you give it to those you can.
Jesus was clear about this responsibility and privilege: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14–16). “You” is plural in the Greek. Every believer is the custodian of the candle of Christmas.
If Jesus is your Lord, his light is in your hands.
Many of our other Christmas traditions are equally spiritually significant. When we learn their history, we can find ways to relate their meaning to our lives and to the Christmas season.
Decorate a Christmas tree
From Christmas candles we turn to Christmas trees. According to tradition, the first led to the second.
Martin Luther, the great German reformer, was walking in a forest toward his home one clear evening. He looked around and was struck by the beauty of the stars shining through the trees. Determined that his family would share this beauty with him, he decided to cut down a small tree and bring it home.
He hung candles on its branches, signifying the stars twinkling through the tree’s branches. His fellow Germans picked up the custom and later brought it to our country. Now, 25–30 million real Christmas trees are bought each year.
The tree reminds us of the beauty of the world Jesus brought into being. And it also foreshadows the tree of Calvary upon which he died for us.
Now he calls us to take up his cross in our lives (Matthew 10:38). When last did it cost you something to follow Jesus?
Whenever you see a Christmas tree this year, think of the One who died on the first “tree of Christ” and be grateful. Then determine to pay any price to follow him.
Adorn your door with a wreath
The Christmas wreath predates Christianity.
In Roman times, and in Greek culture before them, a wreath signified victory in an athletic competition. Much like your Olympic gold medals, wreaths woven of leaves or made of gold were given to the winners of significant races and contests.
In the same way, you and I wear the wreath of eternal victory in Jesus. He has won the battle against sin and Satan. If he is your Lord, eternal security is yours. You are in his hand, and no one can take you from his protection and care (John 10:28).
When you see a wreath this Christmas season, pause to give thanks for the victory won for you by Jesus.
Plant a poinsettia
The Honorable Joel Poinsett was a member of President Van Buren’s cabinet and minister to Mexico. While traveling in the Mexican countryside, he was attracted to a beautiful plant he found growing there. Upon his return to South Carolina, he brought the plant with him and began growing it. It is named for him today.
The beautiful red leaves of the poinsettia plant, blooming especially during our Christmas season, remind us of the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross for us all.
When you set out these plants this year, pause to remember the fact that Jesus was born to die. We could not climb up to God, so he climbed down to us. He is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8).
Mistletoe is another ancient Christmas custom.
The medieval English believed that mistletoe possessed medicinal qualities and magical powers. They thought that when two enemies met under the mistletoe, a magical spell would cause them to lay down their arms and embrace. From that time to this, young men have hoped that the magic of mistletoe would help them with young ladies as well.
The mistletoe reminds us that Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). He alone can bring lasting peace between nations and souls.
Is there someone with whom you’re at odds this Christmas season? A person who needs your forgiveness? A person who needs to forgive you?
Mistletoe won’t help much, but the Messiah will.
Send a Christmas card
We will each send and receive Christmas cards (or emails) again this year.
The practice was introduced to England in the 1840s, as schoolboys sent cards to their parents for Christmas. The custom was exported to America in the 1870s.
When you receive a card in the mail, by email or in person this season, stop to pray for the one who gave it. When you send a card, pray for the one who will read it. And you will make the Christ of Christmas more real than any card ever could.
Turn holidays into Holy Days
Each of these Christmas traditions has a spiritual story to tell.
Each can draw you closer to the One whose birthday you celebrate this season.
Will your season be a passing holiday or full of life-changing holy days?
How do believers not get swept into the near-frantic atmosphere of modern-day Christmas? So many parties to attend, gifts to buy, and a big meal to prepare. Not to participate at all seems extreme and almost surrenders to the culture’s propensity to leave Jesus out of it.
While there are many ways to keep Jesus’ birth at the center of this season, let me offer some ideas that you might use or adapt to your Christmas observance to keep it holy. The term holy simply means set apart or different. How can your observance of Christmas be set apart or different from the culture’s gift-giving frenzy?
The word advent comes from Latin and means arrival. While often ascribed to more liturgical church traditions, Advent counts down the days to Christmas in a way that builds anticipation and instills the story of Christmas in our children and grandchildren.
Advent calendars are widely available, but be sure it’s observing Christmas as Jesus’ birth, not a more secular approach. You and your family could also have an Advent wreath observance.
Denison Ministries annually produces an Advent devotional guide in adult and children’s versions.
Give to missions
Have a discussion with your family about ministry or mission opportunities that you could support as a family. Many denominations and churches have special offerings this time of the year in support of missions. Many have community or missions projects to help meet local or global needs.
Perhaps your largest gift financially this year could be to missions. Make the gift a family decision. Allow your children or grandchildren not only to participate in the decisions but also to divide your gift among family members so that everyone gives. As a family, you could commit to praying or volunteering with ministries.
Bring your nativity scene to life
In recent years, “The Elf on the Shelf” has become a popular tradition. But I recently heard of a variation of that idea with a nativity scene.
Mary and Joseph and the shepherds could be scattered around your home and moved daily in search of a place for baby Jesus to be born. The baby does not appear until Christmas morning, when Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds all arrive at the manger scene. Maybe the wise men could still be traveling from the East.
There are a variety of ways to make the Christmas holidays holy days. Discover what works best for your family.
I might answer Virginia O’Hanlon’s question about Santa Claus differently than Francis Pharcellus Church did.
But I would not want to take the imagination, joy, love, or generosity out of it.
Rather, I would want to show little Virginia how so many of the ways we observe Christmas today tie us back to the first Christmas.
We don’t want to lose sight of the real story of Christmas.
And, yes, Virginia, there is a real Jesus.