Many people look forward to Christmas with mixed feelings. There is happy anticipation of celebrations, good food, a break from work, and time relaxing with family and friends, but also the anxiety that comes from especially busy days of decorating, shopping, cooking, baking, and entertaining. Some also face the likelihood of friction when their family gets together, while others face loneliness.
No matter what our circumstances or expectations, we can all have a meaningful and truly blessed Christmas if we will take a few minutes each day for quiet reflection on symbols of the season like these.
From live reenactments to miniature models in an endless array of styles and materials, the figures of the Nativity are a visual reminder of the central characters of the Christmas story. Joseph stands tall and steadfast. Mary’s head is bowed in humility as she reflects on the Christ Child she has delivered. Shepherds kneel in adoration. Three kings in fine robes approach with gifts in hand. The donkey that Mary rode to Bethlehem stands alongside sheep and perhaps a cow. All attention is directed toward the tiny baby lying in a manger. He is at the center of Christmas, yet the scene would not be complete without each of those other figures.
Each of us also has a role to fulfill in the scene of life. With Christ at the center, the picture is complete.
Christ beside me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me—King of my heart;
Christ within me, Christ below me,
Christ above me—never to part.
Christ on my right hand,
Christ on my left hand,
Christ all around me—shield in the strife;
Christ in my sleeping, Christ in my sitting,
Christ in my rising—light of my life.
—“St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” adapted by James Quinn
One of the most universal Christmas decorations is the wreath, a circle of evergreen that is often adorned with ribbons, baubles, candles, or other trimmings. The circular shape reminds us that God’s love, which He sent to us in Jesus, knows no end. The evergreen reminds us that Christ lives forever.
Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.—Isaiah 9:6–7
Gingerbread was possibly the first treat to be associated with Christmas. It was first baked in Germany during the Middle Ages, and over the years other sweets have become traditional Christmas favorites in various countries around the world: marzipan and colorful Christmas cookies throughout Europe and North America; fruitcake and trifle in English-speaking countries; panettone (sweet bread) in Italy, Latin America, and with a slight variation in Romania, where it is known as cozonac; pan de Pascua (sponge cake) in Chile; vánoční cukroví (iced Christmas cookies) in the Czech Republic; stollen (fruitcake with marzipan) in Germany; cougnou (sweet bread) in Belgium; almond cakes in Spain; and ponche crema, a sweet hot Christmas drink in Venezuela—to name just a few. All can serve as reminders of the sweetness of God’s presence through Christ in our lives.
Sweet Jesus, is there anything sweeter than You? The memory of You is more delightful than anything else. Your name is joy; it is the true gate of our salvation.—Saint Anthony of Padua (1195–1231)
Twinkling lights, red ribbons, and shiny tinsel adorn homes and public places, announcing the arrival of the festive season. Candles, representing the light that Jesus brought to our world, are rarely missing among the decorations. They symbolize God’s light entering the world at Jesus’ birth.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.—Isaiah 9:2
Listening to Christmas carols or singing along while decorating the tree or baking Christmas cookies can relieve stress and lift your spirits. Singing carols together also draws family and friends closer and adds substance to the celebrations as you join the choir of angels who announced Jesus’ birth.
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!
“’Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.’”1 The jubilant sound of Christmas bells, proclaiming the arrival of God’s Son, is among the most joyful sounds we associate with Christmas.
Ring Christmas bells, merrily ring,
Tell all the world, Jesus is King,
Loudly proclaim with one accord
The happy tale, welcome the Lord.
—Mykola Leontovich (translation: Ray Conniff)
Many of us are busy right up until the evening of Christmas Eve, but we shouldn’t miss reflecting on the drama of that night 2,000 years ago. A young woman must give birth in a stable. Her newborn’s first bed is the animals’ feeding trough. But in the sky a new star has appeared, and on a nearby hillside angels proclaim to lowly shepherds that the Savior is born.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
Christmas shopping starts earlier every year. Although we may not enjoy the shopping process, there’s a special pleasure in tracking down something that will be a happy surprise for our children, other family members, and friends. While wrapping presents or arranging them under the tree, take a moment to remember the One who came to give His life for us.
Dear Jesus, it is Your birth I am celebrating this Christmas. The shepherds brought their wonder and worship; the wise men brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to honor You. I bring love and gratitude.
Sometimes the days following Christmas can seem anticlimactic. Presents have been given, and visitors have come and gone. We eat leftovers from Christmas dinner, and tidy up the house. In a few days a new year will begin—another round of ups and downs, happiness and pain. But the joy and magic of Christmas do not have to fade. We can keep Christmas every day by reaching out to God and being touched by His love.
Celebrate the feast of Christmas every day in the temple of your spirit, remaining like a baby in the bosom of the heavenly Father, where you will be reborn each moment in the Divine Word, Jesus Christ.—St. Paul of the Cross (1694–1775)
At a social event, I was pleasantly surprised to meet up with two colleagues with whom I had worked decades earlier. We chatted about the intervening years until our conversation turned to the joint project we had worked on. While we agreed on the sequence of events and the final outcome, each of us remembered different details. To get a clear understanding of what actually happened, someone would have needed to merge our recollections.
I thought of this recently when rereading the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the gospels. None is complete in itself, but together they tell an amazing story.
Matthew begins with the dilemma Joseph faced when learning from an angel that his wife-to-be was expecting a child of whom he was not the father.1 Matthew also tells us that certain wise men, or magi, followed a star from their homes in the East to bestow gifts on the newborn King;2 that the wise men and Joseph were warned in dreams about the evil intentions of jealous King Herod; and that Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus escaped by fleeing to Egypt.3
Mark adds nothing to the story. His gospel begins when Jesus is a grown man about to start His public ministry.
Luke provides many details that Matthew doesn’t, including how the archangel Gabriel visited Mary with the news that she would give birth to the Messiah,4 her initial reaction,5 and a later one—a passage now known as Mary’s Song of Praise, or the Magnificat—in which she extols God and His plan for the Son she will bear.6
Luke also explains how it happened that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, even though Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth; how it came to pass that the King of Kings, the Savior of the world, was born in a stable;7 how angels announced His arrival to nearby shepherds;8 and how the shepherds, after visiting Him, spread the news far and wide.9
John gives no details, but in one of the most powerful verses in the Bible goes straight to the heart of the matter: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”10
God sends a prophet to prepare the way.
An angel appears to the priest Zacharias and tells him that his wife, Elizabeth, will have a baby boy, even though she is long past childbearing age, and that they are to name the baby John. The angel also explains that the baby has been sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah. The baby grows up to become John the Baptist. (Luke 1:5–25)
The angel Gabriel visits Mary.
A young woman, pledged to be married to a
carpenter named Joseph, is visited by the angel Gabriel who foretells that she
will bear a son—Jesus. She wonders how this could happen, considering she is a
virgin, but Gabriel tells her that her child will be the Son of God.
Mary is saved from scandal.
An angel appears to Joseph in a dream, encouraging him to marry Mary as planned, foretelling that her child would be Jesus, the Savior. (Matthew 1:20–24)
A heavenly host announces Jesus’ birth to shepherds.
Shepherds watching their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem are visited by angels on the night of Jesus’ birth. First an angel tells them that the Savior has been born; then the sky is filled with more angels proclaiming God’s glory. (Luke 2:8–20)
The infant Jesus escapes an assassination attempt.
An angel appears to Joseph in a dream, warning him to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt because King Herod plans to have the child killed. (Matthew 2:13–18)
Back to Nazareth
Once again an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, advising him to return with Mary and the child Jesus to their homeland of Israel, as King Herod is now dead. (Matthew 2:19–23)
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”
The angels who sang praises on the night Jesus was born still sing today. Their voices are drowned out some by the noise and busyness of life, but if you take the time to listen carefully, you’ll hear them. Join them in singing praises to our heavenly Father.—Alex Peterson
CHRIST, the gift of CHRISTMAS day
Christ, the Gift of our Christmas Day,
Come afresh to our hearts, we pray!
Of Thy fullness may we receive,
Every promise may we believe;
Richer treasure than this world’s best
Thou dost offer—Thou Royal Guest;
Unto those who thankful hearts uplift
And take Thee—the Father’s wondrous gift.
Christ, the Light of our Christmas Day,
Shine into every heart, we pray!
Dearer art Thou than Bethlehem’s star
To those who see Thee, though afar.
Onward still in Thy pathway bright
Lead us as children of the light,
Till the morning breaks, and shadows flee
And we find the perfect day with Thee.
Christ, the Peace of our Christmas Day,
Fill our hearts with Thy rest, we pray!
Though sin and sorrow surge around,
Yet is there peace where Thou art found—
Peace in the calm of sin forgiven,
A Father’s smile, and an open Heaven;
Though clouds should gather, and fears increase,
Thou wilt keep Thine own in perfect peace.
Christ, the Joy of our Christmas Day,
Fill our hearts with Thy joy, we pray!
Dear ones missed from our loving throng,
Voices hush’d in our Christmas song.
Can we rejoice? Oh, yet the more
For them we bless Thee and adore.
Lord, grant us all at length to see
Fullness of joy with them—with Thee!
—From The Fireside, published 1889, anonymous ■