THE SPIRIT OF THE FIRST CHRISTMAS
by F. VERNON CHANDLER
In much of Europe, the Christmas season is a time of festive lights, decorated trees, special holiday shopping markets, feasting, merriment and parties.
Downtown Heidelberg, Germany is noted for their Christmas market where vendors erect numerous decorative stalls to sell various Christmas gifts and other delicacies. Along the main walking street, colorful lights line the store fronts and most every store window has a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. The air is filled with the smells of cinnamon and mulled German wine. The sounds of recorded Christmas music gently flow from the various stalls and shops.
Much of the Christmas celebrations in Europe are not too unlike what can be found in cities and towns throughout the United States. The only major difference between Europeans and Americans at Christmas is that Europeans feel quite safe when walking their city streets after dark!
When we trace the origins of much of our modern day Christmas culture, we find various sources. The ancient Romans held a festival called Saturnalia in December. Beginning on December 15, the Romans observed seven days of feasting, revelry and merrymaking in honor of Saturn. Variations of the December Saturnalia festival eventually migrated throughout much of Western Europe and were always associated with indulgence of food and drink. From the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, we find the celebration of thegod Mithra, god of light. This celebration of light was later associated with the winter solstice which marked the beginning of lengthening daylight.
The origin of Santa Claus and gift giving can be traced to the altruistic bishop named Saint Nicholas who lived in Asia Minor, now known as Turkey, during the fourth century.
Many years later much of Western Europe shared legends of a gift bearing Saint Nicholas riding through the skies on a horse, often accompanied by an elf who whipped the children who misbehaved. The Dutch called Saint Nicholas SinterKlass and it is from the Dutch that we have Santa Claus in America. The Yule log came from Scandinavian mythology. In December a huge log was found and hauled into the house. The log was lit afire in honor of Thor, the Viking god of thunder and war. It was believed that Thor would bless the family with prosperity during the following year in reward for this ceremony.
The Christmas tree, mistletoe and holly have German origins. These evergreens were brought into homes during the cold months of winter with the belief that they enhanced fertility.
Probably the only aspect of modern Christmas culture that can be attributed to America is the increasingly materialistic aspect of this holiday time. Indeed, the Christmas shopping season, which now begins just after Halloween, is a "make or break" time for many American businesses. For most of western civilization, the modern Christmas season is a joyous time of feasting, decorating, partying, and gift buying.
But what about those folks who can't participate in the festivities of our modern Christmas culture? It was a Saturday night in December 1994 and I was sitting in my study struggling to write a Christmas sermon for the inmates at the nearby state penitentiary where I was employed as chaplain.
I was feeling quite frustrated. How could I write and deliver a joyful Christmas message to a congregation of inmates, many who were serving long sentences and for whom family no longer existed? There was no chapel at the prison. We used the visitation room for our chapel programs. Sunday worship services were scheduled to begin and end prior to the start of visitation at 9 a.m. As such, many inmates had to choose between having breakfast and going to chapel. There was a solitary artificial Christmas tree with a couple of branches missing, decorated with donated ornaments, in the visitation room. A few other festive Christmas decorations of snowmen, reindeer, and Santa Clauses adorned the walls of the room.
I often wondered if the tree and decorations did more emotional harm than good for the inmates. The decorations reminded each inmate of what he was missing" outside the wall. "
I went back and re-read the Christmas story from Luke again. Joseph and the pregnant Mary were required to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem to participate in a census. It was just Joseph and Mary. They left their families behind in Nazareth.
Once arriving in Bethlehem, they found that there is no lodging to be had or perhaps Josephsimply did not have funds for some of the more expensive rooms that might have been available.
At this point, Mary begins to have labor pains. The only shelter they can find is in a stable. Among the sounds and smells of farm animals, they make their way along the stable pathway that is no doubt littered with animal manure. Mary's labor pains increase. Joseph desperately looks forsome place for Mary to lie down other than the manure covered ground, but he is not successful. From what we can discern from Luke's account, it appears that Mary gives birth while lying on the dirty ground. After the baby Jesus is born, Joseph locates a nearby feeding trough filled with fodder. It is in this manger that the newborn baby is laid to rest.
As my imagination pictured the actual scene of the first Christmas, it dawned on me that the inmates at the prison probably knew and understood the true "spirit" of that first Christmas much better than those of us who are caught up in the spirit of our modern Christmas culture.
The true spirit of that first Christmas was one of loneliness, despair, hopelessness, homesickness, degradation and humiliation. There was the physical pain of childbirth for Mary and there was Joseph's emotional pain in not being able to do better for his wife and son. And there is no mention of a meal or food in Luke's account. Might we assume that both Mary and Joseph also knew the pains of hunger during that night in the stable?
Once I made this connection, I felt a burst of energy and I rewrote my Christmas sermon. In my new sermon, I tried to help the inmates realize just how much they had in common with Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the Bethlehem stable. There was nothing joyous and festive about that first Christmas.
The true spirit of that first Christmas was more akin to the spirit you find among inmates in prison; the homeless huddled under a bridge or waiting in a soup kitchen line at a homeless shelter; the unemployed family facing eviction from their home or apartment; the lonely man or woman in a nursing home for whom there are no family visits; the man or woman who can't afford needed medical care; the man or woman who is hungry and has no money for food; the man or woman grieving the loss of a loved one.
If you wish to truly share in the spirit that was the first Christmas, stay away from the shopping malls, the festivities and the partying. Go to where humans suffer. Go to where humans are marginalized from society. Go to those places where loneliness, despair, grief, hopelessness, homesickness, degradation and humiliation are paramount.
Find those humans who suffer and try and be with them in their suffering. Give of yourself to those who suffer. Here you will find the true spirit of the first Christmas. And if you can truly connect and help with the suffering of another, you will find an inner joy and meaning that far exceeds that which can be found in the festivities, partying and materialism of our modern Christmas culture.
F. Vernon Chandler is a Unitarian Universalist minister, a military chaplain and a former editor of the Universalist Herald.