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The Story of Christmas

by Diane Huie Balay

The story of the worldwide Christian celebration known as Christmas began some 2,000 years ago, when Mary--a young, unmarried Jewish girl living in Nazareth--learned she was going to have a baby.

According to the Book of Luke in the Christian Bible, an angel came to Mary and announced that Mary would bear a child who would be the son of the Most High God and he would save his people from their sins.

Mary was highly disturbed, so the story goes, to hear this news.

“How can this be?” she asked the angel. “I have never known a man.”

The coming of the angelic messenger is known as the annunciation, celebrated by many Christians in a feast of its own (March 25 in the Roman Catholic Church, April 7 in the Armenian Church) and depicted in many famous paintings. The young girl did indeed bear a son, whom she named Jesus. In Hebrew, his name was either "Yehoshua" or "Yeshua" meaning "God's salvation" or "salvation" respectively. The birth occurred in a stable in Bethlehem, in what is now known as the West Bank, then in Judea, now in the Palestinian territories. According to the story, a group of frightened shepherds, who were watching their sheep in the fields near Beit Sahour, learned of the birth when a voice from the heavens spoke to them and told them their savior was born. Far away, in the east, wise men, possibly Persian astrologers known as Magi, saw a bright light in the sky and they followed it to Bethlehem where they gave gifts to the baby.

When  Jesus grew into a man he became a rabbi, or teacher, and began his ministry of teaching and healing. His teachings formed the basis of a now worldwide religion. He became known as Jesus the Christ. Christ means “annointed” or "Messiah" a reference to Jesus as the Messiah, an annointed descendant of the house of Jesse, father of King David. In the Jewish tradition, kings were anointed by spreading olive oil on their heads. The word Messiah comes from the Hebrew word Meshiah, meaning savior, derived from Mashuah, which literally means "one who is anointed." The religion is known as "Christianity."

The miraculous story of Jesus’ birth is official church doctrine for all branches of the Christian faith—Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and most forms of Protestantism. The Muslim Qur'an describes the annunciation and the bearing of Jesus by Mary. However, the Qur'an teaches that Jesus is one of the special messengers of God, like Muhammed and the Hebrew prophets, but not the son of God. The celebration of his birth is known as Christmas or Christ’s Mass, meaning the “feast of the savior.”

The simple peasant girl, Mary, became venerated as the “Queen of Heaven” and the “Mother of God.”

Although the major feast of the Christian year is Easter, the spring day on which Jesus is believed to have risen from the dead, it is Christmas that most captured the hearts and imaginations of Christians. The image of the young mother and her baby inspired some of the world’s greatest painters, sculptors, and composers to create works of enduring import. Christmas itself has been the setting of numerous films, plays, musicals and television productions.

The exact circumstances of the beginning of the celebration of Christmas Day on Dec. 25 remain obscure. The oldest extant notice of a feast of Christ’s Nativity occurs in a Roman almanac, which indicated that the festival was observed by the church in Rome by the year 336.

Some scholars believe that Christmas was instituted in Rome, or possibly North Africa, as a Christian rival to the pagan “Festival of the Unconquered Sun” held during the winter solstice. That pagan monotheistic cult had been given official recognition by the Emperor Aurelian in 274. It was a popular feast in the armies of the Illyrian (Balkan) emperors of the late 3rd Century, including Constantine’s father. Constantine himself was an adherent before his conversion to Christianity in 312. It is not known if Constantine promoted the Christian version of the pagan winter solstice festival after his conversion.

From Rome, the festival of Christmas spread East and West and ultimately around the world, becoming popular with Christians and non-Christians alike in the West where the celebration has become highly secularized. In the United States and other countries, Christmas is associated with the jolly figure of Santa Claus, also known by many other names.

For practicing Christians, however, Christmas retains its religious significance. On the first Sunday in December (usually), Christians begin a period of anticipation and reflection called Advent, or “coming.” The Advent season is a time of preparation for the coming of God into the world. Advent ends on Christmas Eve when most churches hold a watch night service. These services are marked by candlelight, choir music, carol singing, holy sacraments of bread and wine, and—in some locations—a merry pealing of bells at midnight, signifying that the birth day has arrived.

An impressive service is held every Christmas Eve at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. According to tradition, the church is built over the spot of Jesus’ birth. Natives and visitors alike crowd the church’s doorways and stand on the roof to watch the dramatic annual procession of horsemen and police mounted on Arabian horses who lead the parade. They are followed by a solitary horseman carrying a cross and sitting astride a black steed. Then come churchmen in the regalia of their orders and government officials. The procession solemnly enters the doors and places an ancient effigy of the Christ child in the church. Deep winding stairs lead to a grotto where visitors find a silver star making the birth site.

Christian homes in Bethlehem are marked by a cross painted over the door and each home displays a homemade Nativity scene. A star is set up high in Manger Square.

Throughout the world similar Nativity scenes are displayed in homes, outside of churches, in pageants and, sometimes, in official town properties. In countless churches, the ancient story is reenacted as once again a young girl hears the angel’s announcement of the coming birth, the shepherds and animals gather around the manger to see the newborn babe, wise men bring gifts and angels sing, “Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth peace, goodwill toward all mankind in whom God is well pleased.”

For Christians, Christmas Day does not mark the end of Christmas. The season lasts until Jan. 6, or "12th Night," which is known as Epiphany, a celebration of the coming of light into the world.

The Story of Santa Claus and the Poem - "Twas the Night Before Christmas"



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Copyright 2001,  Diane Balay

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