Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, "When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?"
The King will answer, "Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me." .......Matthew 25

Monday, December 24, 2007

So why on earth do we celebrate Christmas???

Well, here I am, at 5am in the morning Christmas eve wondering why we celebrate Christmas. Someow as I get older, I seem to get increasingly scroogey about Christmas. Bah and humbug...and all that! After all the bible never tells us to celebrate Christmas. We don't even know when Jesus was actually born. Almost certainly, it wasn't on the 25th of December. And isn't it just some carryover of a pagan past? A celebration of the winter solstice? Even the icons of Christmas are all related to this pagan appreciation of the solstice. Christmas trees, snow, yulelogs, evergreens.... I must admit to being somewhat put off by this seemingly unthinking applications of these symbols to the celebration of 'Christmas'. I mean, what do these have to do with the celebration of Christ's birth? Even on a purely secular level, these symbols have nothing whatsoever to do with local culture...Shades of our colonial past! ...*sigh*

The winter solstice, something that we in the tropics have absolutely no appreciation of, is a big deal in northern hemisphere countries that are exposed to harsh winter conditions. All the way from Europe through to China. It represents for these countries, the day in the calender with the longest night and the deepest of winter. After this day, hours of sunlight get increasingly longer, and the land gradually recovers from winter sleep and moves towards spring. It was in these countries clearly a day for celebration. Things just gets better from that day on.

In China the solstice is called dongzhi 冬至. My wife tells me that in cantonese, they use the term 'guodong'. This festival is celebrated by the eating of a special desert call tangyuan 湯圓, which we enjoy in Singapore as well (the ahborling is a variation of this which I particularly like!). In Judaism, it is celebrated as the tekufah tevet. Cambodia doesn't have a winter solstice so there is no equivalent festival. The day that marks the reversal of the Tonle Sap is more important (Water Festival, Bonn Om Touk) as it signifies the beginning of the fishing season.

So what has all this to do with Christianity and my faith? Probably nothing.

On the other hand, there are only 2 definitive milestones for the Christian faith - Jesus' death and resurrection, during which the veil in the temple was torn and the barrier between God and man was dismantled forever, and Jesus' birth, when God became man. Jesus' birth was no random event in history, no quirk of nature. It was a fulfillment of prophecy. A most holy and critical moment in God's plan for His creation. 'In the fullness of time', the Bible says. In a sense, Jesus' birth was the winter solstice for all of creation. As the world got darker, and the nights grew longer and longer, God provided a solstice. When He sent His incarnate Son into the world, history changed forever. Winter will become Spring. Where there was certain death and destruction, there would be hope and life. And our days will one day become eternal Light and Life.

It is now 6.30am, and as I thought about all this, it seemed like such a holy moment in the history of creation needs to be commemorated. Doesn't matter if the bible does not mandate it. Common sense dictates that we should, as believers, commemorate such an important milestone in our history. And if we had to choose one day to commemorate this holy and critical moment in eternity when God became man, surely it should be the winter solstice. I can think of no better day. So even if it is not prescribed by the Bible, we should not feel inhibited in celebrating this wonderful moment. So let us eat, drink and be merry, setting aside all references to those icons drawn from past pagan celebrations, as well as all all that crass commercialization centred upon the over-romanticised nativity scene. Let us give our gifts, remembering how He first gave us this most wonderful gift of His only Son, that we might live and have life eternal.

And most importantly, let us not forget those who have not yet received.

God's richest blessings for Christmas.

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