The Lessons of Christmas
Biblically speaking, Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ, in a manger, in a stable, in the town of Bethlehem. It had been a long day, and an even longer night for Joseph and Mary, who went door to door looking for shelter, but there was nothing available. Finally, an innkeeper said there was space in his stable, and it was there among the hay, lambs, and cows that the immaculately conceived son of God, Jesus Christ was born. His birth was immediately hailed by the angels who called out to a group of shepherds nearby, telling them that the Saviour had been born. Three Wise Men of the East followed the North Star to where baby Jesus lay and showered him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Christmas is a celebration of joy and hope.
The little-known facts about this story are what followed this event. The jealous King Herod ordered the death of all male children below the age of two-years-old for fear that he would be displaced as King by Jesus before his time. Families lost their children for the sake of another child they did not know. Yes, Christmas is about joy and hope, but it is also about forgiveness and sacrifice.
For every child dreaming of the perfect white Christmas, the magic of elves, reindeer and Santa Claus is a given. The jolly immortal with a beard as white as snow is based on a real man- Saint Nicholas (3rd century BCE) – a man who lived much ahead of his time and truly knew the meaning of Christmas. In his generosity and kindness, he saved girls from living a life of sexual slavery and even paid off their dowries. He was the protector of people- from orphans to sailors to prisoners, at the risk of his safety. He was the bringer of gifts – the gifts of life and laughter.
The 25th of December is the most popularly celebrated day in the world, a time for magic, family, friendship, generosity, and a celebration of people like Saint Nick- and all modern-day Santa Claus’ just like him.
The Christmas tree, traditionally put up in every home in early December, marks the beginning of the season of laughter and encouragement. But have you ever wondered where this tradition started? A commonly accepted story is that Martin Luther King noticed the beauty of the forested trees lit up by the light of the stars. He cut down a fir tree, took it home, and decorated it with candles as a symbol of the Christmas sky. Christmas is a reminder of nature and all its beauty and tenderness that we take for granted.
You have probably seen a Nativity set up – the artwork and statuettes dedicated to project the birth of Jesus Christ. But have you ever wondered, who even thought of that? And why did they? 800 years ago, St. Francis of Assisi directed the first-ever nativity story- a real live re-enactment held in a cave in Italy. Live animals and people served as a reminder to others what the Christmas season is truly for. Not just for the act of gift-giving, but the reminder to have the true Christmas spirit of giving and being a good person.
Christmas is all about family and close friends, tied together with traditions. In several homes, families meet on Christmas Eve (in some families this happens on Christmas evening) for a cosy family dinner, replete with roast duck and orange sauce, turkey and cranberry sauce, chicken roast and stuffing, delectable cold cuts, et al. Then the entire family makes their way to midnight mass, after which they gather for homemade wine and homemade cake, both made with secret and closely held recipes in the family for generations and exchanging and opening presents under the Christmas Tree. In India, many families made sweets which are now associated with Christmas – rose cookies, kalkals, dodol, jujeps.
The day after Christmas, Boxing day was treated as the official day of giving. Servants would get the day off – the family would eat leftovers from Christmas dinner – and would receive a Christmas box from their employers. Churches would collect money from churchgoers through the year and unbox and hand out the contributions on Boxing Day. This is a reminder that you can be generous all year round- give and never stop giving.
My own experience of Christmas has taught me the greatest lessons of all-the lesson of oneness and togetherness; where you can buy Christmas turkey from a Muslim butcher and buy salt-meat and meatloaf by the kilo in Kalmans- a Hindu owned shop; where there are long queues of Hindus in New Market waiting to buy Christmas cake from the Jewish bakery, Nahoums, prepared by Muslim bakers; when Park street is most crowded and more heavily lit than during the Pujos; when long lines of non-Christians are lined up outside St Paul’s Cathedral to attend Midnight Mass; in Kolkata the fourteen-day Christmas carnival where you can buy momos, dosas, jhal farezi and biryani off the street; the annual Anglo-Indian party on the street of Bow-Barracks that brings together Indians and foreigners, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians alike; the Christmas tea parties and Christmas night raves- just some post-midnight mass antics. The Christmas of my childhood in Calcutta has taught me love and strength to all, to be at peace with yourself and others and respond to every call.