That first Christmas was not very merry. Mary and Joseph probably spent many days walking across hard terrain from Nazareth to Bethlehem because they had to register in Caesar’s census in the town where Joseph’s family originated. No cars, no airplanes, maybe a donkey but that was about it. She was in the final days of her pregnancy, so the arduous travel was even more challenging.
Joseph might still have been wondering about how the pregnancy came about, but he was accepting of the circumstances, according to Matthew’s Gospel. Arriving in Bethlehem there was no room at the inn, not even a no-name seedy motel. Luke’s Gospel suggests that they found a shelter — a barn, a cave, some place that housed animals — where she gave birth; the child’s first crib was a feeding trough for the animals, a manger.
Luke tells us that angels announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds singing the Gloria. Matthew recounts the story of the magi following the star, and the magi inadvertently tipped-off the murderous King Herod; because Herod, trying to kill the Messiah, sent troops to kill all of the newborn boys under the age of 2, the Holy Family then had to flee into Egypt to protect the newborn Jesus. No Santa’s sleighs, no cheerful bells ringing, no trees bedecked with lights, no lovely carols, no reindeer or eggnog or wrapping paper or 70% off sales.
That first Christmas was hard, scary, lonely, foreboding. That first Christmas also changed the world forever, the birth of Jesus Christ revered by billions of people throughout history as the Savior; so powerful a symbol that his birth changed the western calendar (Gregorian calendar) with human history divided “B.C.” (Before Christ) or “A.D.”(Anno Domini, or the Year of Our Lord). Christianity and its various denominations became the world’s largest religious group, with Christian beliefs, rituals, laws and traditions dominating much of history for the last two millennia.
So, how did we get from that hardscrabble journey to Jingle Bells? Throughout human history many cultures and traditions found ways to brighten the dark, cold months of winter with various festivals that bring light, warmth and good cheer to the long winter nights. The evolution of the observance of the birth of Christ into an occasion for celebration, gift giving and the beautiful Midnight Mass as well as Macy’s windows came through centuries of observances, accelerated in the 19th Century in Victorian England with the development of our modern notion of Christmas as a confection full of songs and candles and jolly St. Nicholas now become Santa Claus. The commercialization of Christmas in the 20th Century tracks the rise of the modern retail economy with its department stores, shopping malls and now, online emporiums where everyone with an Internet connection can fantasize about the Nieman Marcus Christmas catalog.
Politics has also been part of the Christmas tradition ever since Caesar’s census order made that trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem necessary. For better or worse, politicians often seek to exploit faith and religious tradition for their own purposes. Jesus Christ led a faith revolution in ancient Judea, and he became such a powerful threat to the established political order that the Romans had him crucified. In today’s world, politicians find religion so threatening that they either seek to appropriate it for themselves, or they ban religion entirely. Authoritarian regimes throughout history have persecuted people based on their religious beliefs — the most grotesque example being the extermination of Jews in Germany in the Holocaust perpetrated by supposedly good Christian Germans. Today we are also seeing a modern example in the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims that continues to boil in the Middle East and fuel the tragedy in Syria.
Catholics and Christians believe that Christ’s birth calls us to live by His teachings as expressed in the Gospels and letters of the New Testament — to love one another as He has loved us, to be merciful, to be peacemakers, to be meek, to be poor in spirit in order to gain the kingdom of heaven. We believe St. Paul’s exhortation that charity is patient and kind, and that charity endures above all else. We believe that the sum and substance of the Gospel teachings call us to serve others, to work for social justice as our daily manifestation of our faith.
The Gospel commitment to charity and service, to justice, calls us to respect all human life and dignity. The birth of Jesus Christ gave rise to the great Christian religions and traditions, but we must not forget that Jesus Christ, himself, was Jewish. We Catholics and Christians must respect our brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith, and all other faith traditions, as part of our own commitment to live the Gospel. In that spirit, we should certainly greet each other with the hopeful, mirthful good cheer and glad tidings of this season. But we should also resist, as a matter of Christian principle, efforts to deny other expressions of good cheer, hospitality and welcome to the whole human family. In particular, we should resist politicization of our expressions of faith-filled respect for every person we encounter. Every expression, every act of kindness that extends joy, love, peace, welcome to others is an expression of the real meaning of Christmas.
Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Joy and Peace in this Season, and Always!