"I have never been able to reconcile myself to the gaieties of the Christmas season. They have appeared to me to be so inconsistent with the life and teaching of Jesus." -- Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Many would completely disagree with Gandhi. 'What,' they may wonder, 'could a Hindu statesman really know about a Christian holiday?' It must be admitted, though, that Christmas has spread all over the world, affecting all manner of cultures. Each December, the holiday seems all-pervasive.
For example, some 145 million Asians celebrate Christmas, 40 million more than a decade ago. And if by "gaieties" Gandhi meant the secular side of modern-day Christmas, the frenzied consumerism that we all observe, it is hard to deny that this aspect of the celebration is often the most prominent. Asiaweek magazine notes: "Christmas in Asia--from the festive lights in Hong Kong to towering hotel Yuletide trees in Beijing to a creche in downtown Singapore--is largely a secular (mainly retail) event."
Has the modern-day celebration of Christmas lost sight of Christ? Officially, December 25 has been observed since the fourth century C.E., when the Roman Catholic Church designated that day for religious observance of Jesus' birth. But according to a recent poll taken in the United States, only 33 percent of those polled felt that the birth of Christ is the most important aspect of Christmas.
What do you think? Do you at times feel that in all the insistent advertising, the harried buying of presents, the decorating of trees, the organizing and attending of parties, the sending of cards--Jesus has somehow been left out of the picture?
Many seem to feel that one way to put Christ back into Christmas is by displaying a Nativity scene, or creche. Likely you have seen such groupings of figurines, representing the baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by Mary, Joseph, some shepherds, "three wise men," or "three kings," some barnyard animals, and some onlookers. It is commonly felt that these creches serve to remind people of the real meaning of Christmas. According to U.S. Catholic, "a creche gives a more developed picture than any single gospel can give, though it also emphasizes the nonhistorical character of these narratives."
How, though, would a Nativity scene suggest that the narratives in the Gospel accounts of the Bible are nonhistorical? Well, it must be admitted that quaintly painted little sculptures lend an aura of legend or fairy tale to the birth of Christ. First popularized by a monk in the 13th century, the Nativity scene was once a fairly modest affair. Today, like so many other things associated with this holiday, Nativity scenes have become big business. In Naples, Italy, rows of shops sell figures for Nativity scenes, or presepi, year round. Some of the more popular figures represent, not characters from the Gospel accounts, but modern-day celebrities, such as Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, and clothing designer Gianni Versace. Elsewhere, presepi are made of chocolate, pasta, even seashells. You can appreciate why it is hard to see history in such displays.
How, then, could such Nativity scenes give "a more developed picture than any single gospel can give"? Are the Gospel accounts not truly historical? Even hardened skeptics must admit that Jesus was a real, historical person. So he must at one time have been a real baby, born in a real place. There should be a better way to get a developed picture of the events surrounding his birth than merely gazing at a Nativity scene!
In fact, there is. Two historians wrote independent accounts of Jesus' birth. If you sometimes feel that Christ goes largely ignored at Christmastime, why not examine these accounts for yourself? In them, you will find, not legends or myths, but a fascinating story--the real story of the birth of Christ.
Appeared in The Watchtower December 15, 1998
Copyright © 1998 Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. All rights reserved.