Two weeks ago, I began moving into my new home. If you were to visit me today, it would not look like Christmas in my house. And how would you know that? What makes Christmas, Christmas? If you could describe Christmas in one word, what would it be? I think you would probably describe Christmas with words such as: snow, presents, trees, decorations, kids, advent, family, fun, white, green and red, lights, Santa, elves, reindeer, sleigh, holly, angels, stockings, poinsettias, wreaths, or manger scene.
When I look at these descriptors, I am struck by how many are bound by location and culture. For instance, we were in Indonesia, snow would not be on the list. In Papua New Guinea, poinsettias grow year round in large tree-like bushes. And Australians might have seafood barbecue, camping and boomers. Christmas crackers are an important part of Christmas in the United Kingdom! You see, much of what we do to celebrate our Savior’s birth is culture bound. Let me illustrate by sharing several vignettes of Christmas around the world.
As you probably know, I grew up in Papua New Guinea. It never got below 60 degrees where we lived. So the weather on December 25 was the same as any other day. My mother attempted to add the familiar trappings of Christmas. We had a pine tree with mostly homemade decorations, and we enjoyed a limited number of gifts and lots of good food. She made a tasty cinnamon roll tea ring each Christmas morning and I was sure to find an orange or apple and a chocolate bar in my stocking. We lived in a village that had a small church. When people have no Scripture in their own language, drama becomes a vital method of sharing the Christmas story and capturing the attention of all ages. Let me quote Vida Wolter, a single missionary teacher who shared a particularly memorable pageant with us one year.
As the last light of evening faded into a star-splashed Christmas Eve, we left the house and joined the crowd which gathered from all seven villages.
Lighted torches provided flickering illumination and smoky heat into the already warm and humid night, while masses of unseen but fragrant blossoms provided tropical incense. Muted drums hushed the excited chatter as the narrator shared the ancient story. Scenes progressed from Elizabeth and Mary’s reunion, through the journey and the arrival in Bethlehem.
Out of the darkness teenage shepherds emerged herding village children covered in burlap and crawling on all fours. Most had never seen live sheep but they had learned well how to baa-aaa. Suddenly the angel appeared, and not only the shepherds, but also the sheep, were struck down in amazement and terror, only to be encouraged by the heavenly visitor to go to the stable and see the child.
Next arrived the wise men from the eastern sector of the village. Dressed as sophisticated explorers in boots, pith helmets and sunglasses, with cameras slung over shoulders, three coal-black men peered through binoculars made of bamboo as they followed the star which sailed majestically over our heads. When it stopped its journey above the simple stable, the three searchers pointed with enthusiasm to the goal of their journey. There, lying in a wooden box filled with dry grass, the newest village infant voiced his complaint at his role as the Christ Child.
Off in the shadows a growing commotion caused a wave of fear to sweep over the village children as soldiers appeared sent by King Herod. Brandishing long machete knives, the young men shouted, “Ol pikinini man it go we? Mi laik kilim i dai.” (“Where are the little boys? We must kill them.”) So real was the play to wide-eyed young children, that they cowered in terror trying to hide, while parents and friends called out, “No young boys here; search elsewhere!”
The final scene that night portrayed the less accurate demise of wicked King Herod. He had come to Bethlehem himself to check on the progress of his soldiers in carrying out his evil command. Instead, they turned and began beating him and carried him, kicking and screaming, off into the shadows beside the rushing river which flowed right behind the pageant site. Beyond reach of the pungent torches, darkness hid the last act, but all shuddered as a boulder splashed into the angry river and a scream faded off into the night.
Later, I became a missionary myself to Indonesia. I felt right at home in the tropical heat on Christmas Day. It was so warm that many years we spent the afternoon by the beach or a resort pool. Christmas in Indonesia is mostly celebrated in churches with big programs on Christmas Eve and a service Christmas morning. A movie about Jesus is also often shown on television around this time even though Christians are a minority in Indonesia.
Part of our ministry was to develop local forms of art and music for use in church worship. The Christmas Eve I remember most vividly was when my husband worked with a local artist to make wayang puppets to tell the Christmas story. These two dimensional paper figures were silhouetted behind a screen by a light shining on them. It ranked right beside the village pageant as one of the most unique Christmas pageants I have ever seen. The puppet show was followed by a Sasak dance set to a Christmas carol played by the traditional gamelan orchestra. This orchestra is made up of gongs, and xylophone type instruments. I believe that the familiar story of Christ’s birth takes on new meaning when communicated through unconventional means.
Although the way Christmas looks and is celebrated is very different around the world, there are some things about it that are universal. Perhaps one of the words you first thought of was: love, joy, peace, merry, festive, reverent, glorious, light, togetherness, family, giving, helping.
These words point to what Christmas really is. No matter where you are in the world, Christmas is love, joy, peace—in other words—the Gospel! God loving us so much he became human to die in our place. It is not the lights, the snow, the gifts, the music, even the manger scene itself. We could every one of us celebrate Christmas without all these. But what we cannot do without what is described in Hebrews 2:14–17:
Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying… it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people.Hebrews 2:14–17
What is essential about Christmas is that we know the Savior. That we recognize Jesus gave up his rights as God to become a human being made of flesh and blood. That we acknowledge that while he was uniquely God, he also cried and needed feeding and changing and educating because he was human.
You see, only someone who was made of flesh and blood was able to fulfill the requirement for a blood sacrifice to take away our sin. And only One who was also God could fulfill the requirement for that sacrifice to be perfect and without sin. God took on the only form that could die, and once and for all, died in my place. He died a public death so that there would be no doubt that he had died. And he died with arms outstretched so that all the world would be embraced (James Bryan Smith). That is Christmas the world over!
So as I close here, think again of that word that you came up with to describe Christmas. How can you use that—whether it be the tree or the lights or the decorations or the food or whatever—to remind you of what Christmas really is? How does or can that point you to the Savior this year?
For instance, while I don’t have many Christmas trappings in my house today, I did make sure I found one thing in my boxes—a wreath made by a dear Indonesian friend out of Sandalwood. Seeing this wreath on my front door reminds me of Nella who made it for me and who is now with Jesus. It reminds me to pray for Muslims in Indonesia to know Jesus as their Savior. It’s scent points me to fragrant gifts that I can give to Jesus this year.
I encourage you to enjoy the trappings of Christmas by making them into symbols that remind you of deeper meaning so that not just Christmas, but JESUS is celebrated around the world.