The True Meaning of Christmas
Picture the orange glow of a flickering fireplace, warming the living room. Nostalgic Christmas songs like “Winter Wonderland” and “Jingle Bell Rock” play softly in the background. Meanwhile, an ornately decorated and lighted Christmas tree sits in the corner—the floor around it littered with neatly-wrapped presents.
Now imagine a dark, moist cave located near a fully-occupied inn. A tired mother cradles a wailing newborn wrapped in cloth in her arms. The piercing sound of the newborn’s cries echo throughout the cave. She gazes down at this child, her firstborn son, in quiet awe and full knowledge that that he is no ordinary child.
These two scenes contrast sharply, yet they both represent and embody Christmas to most people. In this post, I aim to uncover the way in which Christmas is celebrated in the majority of the world today, and shed light on the true meaning of Christmas—why it is so important for believers, and consequently, how believers are called to celebrate Christmas in a way that recalls this truth.
How Christmas is Celebrated in the World
Growing up, my extended family and I would take a yearly road trip to Lake Tahoe, Reno, Nevada and Disneyland around Christmastime. Every Christmas, I would be filled with a warm fuzzy feeling that I only felt at this time of year. Driving into the streets of Reno, I would see streets lined with festive lights, trees covered in ornaments, and inflated Santa Clauses and reindeer. My heart would burst with excitement in anticipation of playing in the hotel arcade to gather tickets to exchange for stuffed animals and other prizes. After getting our fill of gambling losses, stuffed animal wins, and hotel buffets, we would then travel south to Disneyland. Walking down the Christmas-themed Main Street as a 10-year old was the absolute peak of my life. In short, Christmas was awesome—it would the only time of the year when I felt like everything would be okay, and that I had no other responsibility in life than to purely have fun and spend time with family.
My childhood Christmas experience is hardly abnormal or unexpected. Our culture here in the U.S., which is now seeping into the rest of the world, has completely transformed Christmas from its early origins. Christmastime is no longer a humble celebration of the birth of Christ, but a lucrative opportunity for companies to promote and sell their products and appeal to the materialism of the masses. If you can afford it, Christmas is a time for family vacations, gift exchanges, and sumptuous meals. Christmas is also inextricably linked to a mythical Santa figure who will give you your heart’s desire if you are “good.” If you are deemed “naughty,” your punishment is nothing more than a lump of coal. Santa’s existence is used to incentivize good behavior in little children, who expect a return on their good behavior each Christmas morning. Even if you do not ascribe to the belief in Santa Claus, at the very least, you still practice the tradition of gift-giving to friends and family. Buying gifts each Christmas is almost a chore, an begrudging emptying of the bank account to purchase gifts for others, almost always done with the expectation of return. As such, Christmas in the world is all about us—our pleasure, our gifts, our return on hard-work and good behavior. While Christmas is an opportunity for family gatherings, reminding us of the importance of family, it is also ripe time for materialism—giving into strategic marketing and indulging in luxury items. Clearly, our culture has lost grip of the original intended meaning of Christmas.
What is Christmas really about then?
So, let’s backtrack a little to the origin of Christmas. No matter how much the world tries to twist and re-brand it, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Believers know Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s promises to the Israelites and the rest of the world to redeem our world from sin and reconcile sinners to their God. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, God’s Son sent from heaven to be born through virgin birth and therefore free from sin. Only Jesus was capable of living a sinless life, and therefore serve as a spotless Lamb to be sacrificed on the cross to bear the full weight of sin. Through his death on the cross, and resurrection three days later, He conquered death and brought the Kingdom of God to the world. The beauty of this story is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners and in rebellion against God. Now, all who believe in Him are redeemed from sin and given the identity of sons and daughters of God—and the promise of eternity spent with God.
Christmas serves as a reminder to those who believe in Jesus of several things:
God’s unbounded love for us in the form of his Son.
Jesus’s birth deserves celebration and reverence because his birth is the greatest act of love ever performed in history. The very idea that God himself would step down from heaven to be born as a feeble human baby so that he may grow up to suffer and die for the sins of mankind is outrageous, inconceivable, and precisely what separates Christianity from every other world religion. God is, in his very nature, love—and therefore, this act of sacrificial love should take center stage during Christmas.
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7 NIV)
God has an upside-down kingdom.
While Christmas in the Western world can sometimes be a bragging contest of the most glamorous vacations, lavish gifts, and more; Christ was the very epitome of humility and lowliness. Although Jesus was God in human-form, he took the “very nature of a servant,” associating with the outcasts of society (tax collectors, adulterers, lepers, the like). When Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees for spending time with these people, he responded that he “did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Therefore, Christmas should remind us of God’s humility and “upside-down” kingdom—in which greatness is measured by how much you give, not how much you have. What better example of this than Jesus himself? The Messiah that the Israelites had been expecting was a worldly prince, who would lead Israel to political glory. But, God surprised them all with a lowly carpenter’s son, who did not even have an inn-room to be born in.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-11 NIV)
But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:30 NIV)
I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32 NIV)
God is not Santa, He is a real, living, breathing God capable of both judgement and love.
Our culture’s obsession with and advertisement of “Santa Claus,” a mythical figure who is bound to grant your hearts’ desires paints a false picture of the true, living God. Where Santa is a false figment of imagination, the God of the Bible is a living, breathing God who is not subject to the whims of human hearts. God, the Creator of everything, created us with the sole purpose to worship and fellowship with Him. He is not a Santa, a genie, who is obligated to give us whatever we want. He does grant us good gifts, but only according to His wisdom—only if these gifts are good for us. Moreover, God is deserving of both fear and love. We should fear God’s anger against our unrighteous and sinful behavior, and love Him for having loved us first through his son.
He brings princes to naught and reduces the rules of this world to nothing. (Isaiah 40:23 NIV)
Do not be stiff-necked, as your ancestors were; submit to the Lord. Come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever. Serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger will turn away from you. (2 Chronicles 30:8-9 NIV)
We are broken, fallen, and in need of salvation.
Finally, Christmas should be a reminder to us all of why Jesus had to even come into our world in the first place. As the story of Genesis, and the rest of human history show—humans are by nature fallen and sinful, in need of salvation. Only through faith in Jesus can we be made righteous in God’s eyes—not by our doing but His. Without Jesus’s sacrifice, we are all deserving of eternal separation from God—everything that is good. Christmas should be a humbling reminder of our brokenness and need for a Savior.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23 NIV)
How Christians Should Celebrate Christmas
In light of this truth, Christians simply can’t follow the popular trends of this world in how it celebrates Christmas. Christians have more reason than anyone else to celebrate in full joy and knowledge of the significance of Christ’s birth. How then, should Christians celebrate Christmas differently? Here are a few ways we can celebrate Christmas while reminding others, and ourselves, how Jesus’s birth is Good News to everyone:
Give, expecting nothing in return.
The first way believers can truly embody the Christmas spirit is by giving cheerfully, without expecting anything in return. There is nothing wrong with the act of gift-giving in and of itself—but it is the heart with which you give that matters. In the same way that God gave to us through Christ’s birth into our world, so should Christians give to others. God also calls us to give to those who cannot repay us. We should therefore go against the grain of this world to give, not just without expectation of return, but also to those who cannot repay our giving. This is true Christ-like giving.
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7 NIV)
But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14:13-14 NIV)
Forgive, as God has forgiven us.
Another way in which we can respond to God’s act of grace through Christ’s birth is by forgiving as God has forgiven us through faith in Christ. Forgiveness is easier said than done, but Christians have more reason than anyone to forgive because we ourselves are the recipients of astonishing forgiveness. When we truly grasp the depth of our sins and God’s incredible mercy to us in the form of his son, we can’t help but feel stirred to forgive those around us for wronging us. Granted, even Christians struggle with forgiveness at times—so we must pray for the Holy Spirit to enable us to forgive when it is hardest to do so.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32 NIV)
Bless others with what we ourselves have been blessed with.
Jesus’s birth also reminds us of God’s love for the poor and forgotten. Christians should note that Jesus himself was a refugee. Shortly after his birth, Mary and Joseph were commanded to flee to Egypt to escape the decree by King Herod to slaughter all of the male children in Bethlehem under two years of age (Matthew 2:12-15). God’s status as a refugee should make us more conscious of and empathic to the plight of refugees around the world. During Christmastime, we should bless and care for refugees and other abandoned peoples with what we ourselves have been blessed with (such as through acts of service, monetary or tangible gifts).
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10 NIV)
Pray in gratitude for God’s love through his Son, and pray that His will be done in this world.
Finally, Christmas should stir in us a gratitude like no other. As Christians, we should respond to Christmas with prayers of gratitude and a plea for God’s will to be done on earth as it in heaven. Our world as it is still stands broken, awaiting the return of our savior. Until he returns, believers should pray that God continue His kingdom-expanding work on earth.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:10 NIV)
So, this Christmas, have fun with loved ones and embrace the Christmas cheer, but only do so in full reverence of the significance of Christ’s birth into our world that two thousand something years ago. Be the salt and light of the world by pointing others to the true meaning of Christmas.
P.S. Here is one of my favorite Christmas worship songs.