The real meaning of Christmas


Now that “the Holidays” (as we call the Nativity of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ these days) are over, I’m actually breathing a bit of a sigh of relief. It seemed that the whole thing, in between spending more money than I care to say on toys my son will play with only once or twice, watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Christmas Story in endless repeat on television, and avoiding, to the best of my ability, the odious prospect of singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, was one big struggle to remember what the day is really all about; and, I admit, it was a struggle I, largely, lost.

I felt bad for my son, especially, as he’s four years old now and starting to understand what’s going on a little more than he used to. I came home from the store one day to find him asking me if we could go see Santa Claus; the only, and rather desperate, response I could give was to swiftly show him the Holy Icon of St. Nicholas of Myra. It’s hard for me to express the shame I felt in my own shortcomings as a parent as I watched him dig greedily into his stack of gifts on Christmas morning and spend the rest of the day fighting with my sister (of the same age) over whose toys were whose. Sure, he’s only four, and of course, he doesn’t know better, and yes, why not?, but I made a vow to myself a long time ago that I want to raise my children better than that.

Until I became an Orthodox Christian (read: until I became a Christian) a couple of years ago, I had no idea what Christmas was really all about. I knew that I got lots of free stuff and had a big meal. The closest I came to thinking about the Incarnation of God and its implications was some vague talk I heard about the birth of “Baby Jesus” and the occasional hearing of the cliche that “it’s better to give than to receive” (which, of course, I knew from experience was complete bologna). I feel that my children deserve better than that, and, if I’m going to raise them as Christians, I must give them better than that.

At more than one point during this Christmas season, I found myself wishing I was a member of one of those Churches that are still on the “Old” Calendar. I admit it: I love those years when Pascha falls on a different day from Easter, and the further apart the two are the better. I can hide eggs and talk about magical bunny rabbits and otherwise indulge guilt-free (other than trying to stick to my Lenten fast, which rarely works out) in the completely meaningless and utterly empty “holiday” of Easter and then, a few weeks later, actually commemorate the Resurrection of Christ. There’s something in me that wishes I could do the same with Christmas. On December 25, I could open presents and drink a little egg nog (even though I’d be violating my fasting rules) and have a little fun with that thoroughly secular and commercial “holiday” called Christmas; then, on January 7, I could really, truly, actually celebrate the birth of Christ the Savior and the Incarnation of God with its full implications concerning the union of humanity and Divinity, all while everybody else takes down the multi-colored lights and Santa Claus displays from their houses and yards.

I don’t see such a jurisdiction-jump in my near future, though. So, next year, I’m afraid, I’ll find myself in the same situation all over again. I’d love to hear any advice any of you have to offer here, especially those of you with non-Orthodox or non-Christian (and, yes, nominal Christianity is the same is no-Christianity) family that you celebrate Christmas with. What’s the trick?

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8 comments

  1. “the Holidays” (as we call the Nativity of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ these days)

    You're a soldier, right? Could You please do me a huge favour? The next time an American Orthodox or Catholic tells you how wrong it is to say “Happy Holidays”, feel free to discharge Your munition in his face. Thanks in advance.

    The (Winter) Holidays = Christmas + St Stephen + St Basil + the New Year + the Lord's Baptism + St John

    There's no point in sending half-a-dozen distinct greeting-cards when you can send only one for the entire season, right?

  2. I think you forgot St. Nicholas Day there…

    Okay, so, I see your point. I have the same issue with people who get all worked up when they see the phrase “X-mas” (not realizing that X is an abbreviation for “Christ” derived from the Greek spelling thereof).

    BUT (big but) you and I both know that “Season's Greetings” and “Happy Holidays” are now used as code words by the “non-offensive” crowd. It's not simply a coincidence that at the same time Nativity scenes (not that I'm a fan of them anyway, but that's another story) disappear from the public eye, “Happy Holidays” steadily replaces “Merry Christmas.”

    I'd add that I could easily say “Happy Holidays” any time of the year, considering that everyday is the Feast of some Saint or commemoration of some event on the Church calendar.

    There's a lot of things that irritate me which probably shouldn't. This is one of them.

  3. I hope You realise that the Orthodox countries who use the Old Calendar have the same commercialism-related problems You ennumerated. — I mean, it's not like in their cases, the two (the religious and the secular) are separated, or anything.

    I was also constantly covered in gifts and stuffed with food by my loving grand-mother, who raised me, and by my mother. And they also spoke to me oftentimes simple things about Christ, and His teachings, life, and sacrifice would pierce through my heart. When I looked at their faces (when saying these things or offering me the presents), I saw a love streaming from there that I could not describe, but which I could feel deeply. It wasn't a worldly joy. It was trancendant. They also told me simple human things about poor children, who don't get that joy on Christmas as I did, and the heart-warming teachings of the Saviour on that topic. It stayed with me forever. You have to reach the heart of your child with the love of Christ and the love of neighbour and the love of the innocent souls of children and of the misfortunate: there's just no other way.

    When I was a child, and someone would give me a gift, I was somehow sad, and I can't really explain why.. partly because I was impressed by their giving. Christ gave His life for us. And I truly felt that it is better to give than to receive, but I didn't know that verse at that time. It was just something that stroke me deep.

    Sometimes (oftentimes) my mother and grandmother woukd cry when talking about the poor, or the poor children, or Christ and His sacrifice or birth (because His birth was also tragic). It was something simple, from the heart, without any theatricality, shallow frustrated guilt-related morality, superficiality, or superficial sentimentality involved: it was something direct, heart-felt, honest, humane, and divine, and holy and sacred, and pure, and beautiful, and transcendant, and uplifting.

  4. Lucian:

    Thanks very much for this; I think I'm going to dig it up and read it again next December, right before Christmas.

    (Also, yes, I know that those countries where the Old Calendar is the norm have the same problems — my reference was to avoiding those problems by breaking from the American norm)

  5. I run into the same problem as you, trying to somehow avoid the very secularized and overly economic Christmas and focus instead on the Christian Christmas. I think it would be easier if one is a hermit to escape American Christmas, but with children it is about impossible to avoid the massive importance of gifts and the like. My wife and I try to keep it simpler and try to enjoy those parts of the American Christmas that don't directly conflict with Orthodox Christianity. I figure (possibly incorrectly) that our children will be drawn to the Holiday through many of these “un-Christian” things – the carols, the presents, Christmas cookies and the like. Since we are sure to include the Christian aspect of the Holiday, especially the Church services, my hope is in time they will relate and be drawn to the greater depth found there and some of the more childlike parts of the season will fade in importance. I admit though, right now my 3 year old and my 4 year old relate much more to gifts and Alvin and the Chipmunks songs than to going to Church and focusing on the words of the Kontakia.
    – Jason

  6. Being someone in one of those “Old Calendar jurisdictions” in America, I definitely find it nice to forego television and going to stores during the official holiday season (that's pretty much all that needs to be done to not experience most of the hustle and bustle), exchange one meaningful present with each of my close ones bought during the after-Christmas sales, and then enjoy the feast of the Nativity in peace on the 7th. I'm not even exhausted yet, and Nativity as so much more meaning. 😀

    As a side note, enormous poinsettias are $3 apiece this week. Yay!

  7. I agree with you David, as Christian parents we have a responsibility to our children to educate them about the true meaning of the season. Yes, its fine to engage in the fantastic parts of it as a former JW I thoroughly enjoy my christian liberty to do so and it is harmless. But I cannot ever negate my christian duty to also take a bit of time every year to teach my children the importance of Advent, Why the tree is a symbol of what we lost and what we gained through our lord's sacrifice on a tree, and the red blood he shed on splintered wood as we place red bulbs on that tree. His sacrifice his awesome incarnation and visitation on this planet by divesting the glories of heaven to walk as a mere man so we can one day reap the true gift of being with him for eternity. Yes, on facebook one person from my church ignorantly tiraded about the x in Xmas instead of christ and I took the time to teach her the significance of the x as the chi ro Constantine was give as the Lord in a vision told him in this symbol you will conquer. For the most part it is a guilty burden for those who are the apologists and theologians of our faith to teach but it is a blessed gift we have that God has given us insight into the mysteries of his scriptures! Together we embrace this cursed gift and share it with those who do not know and our little ones.

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