This is my 60th Christmas Eve, maybe 55th as an Episcopalian. I started attending the Episcopal Church, another St. Mark’s, in Plainfield, Indiana when I was 5 years old. I remember several of my Christmases as a kid, including going to all those Christmas Eve services. For about 10 years I was an acolyte (carried the cross, or torch bearer, or assisted with the communion), along with my three younger brothers. Back then (in the 1960s), this service started at 11pm and finished about 12:15am—it was called the midnight service. Afterwards we would hurry home and Dad would tell us to go to bed right away and get to sleep so Santa Claus could come—meaning Dad would help out Santa by going next door and getting our gifts hidden at the neighbors and assemble and set them out and be in bed by about 2am. We boys would then get up early the next morning (one time almost right away!) and open our presents, until we were told to not open anything until our parents were up so they could get pictures. I also remember that at some point during Christmas Day we would take a present or two with us, and drive to our grandparents’ house about 100 miles away.
Those gifts and traditions were a main focus for us; for me the Christmas Eve services became really important over the years. Helping in this service gave me a special way to serve our church people on that important night, and the carols and the readings made a real impact on my faith during that time.
We have several Christmas traditions here at St. Mark’s!
1) Displaying the Christmas tree in the worship space—for many years supplied by the Stewart family. Why a Christmas tree in the church--actually a secular, not religious item? Because trees are symbols of life, and truly represents Montesano (the tree farm town). [I know our tree is artificial now—it is the symbol that counts!]
2) Buying poinsettias to decorate the church for Christmas Eve—in memory of loved ones from Christmas Eves in the past!
3) If 2 years counts as a tradition, having a short Blue Christmas service at the last Bible study day before Christmas to remind us and pray for those whose Christmas might not be so merry.
4) Preparing the cradle with strips of cloth and singing “Cloth for the Cradle” on the last Sunday before Christmas Eve.
5) Singing “Silent Night” near the end of the Christmas Eve service with the lights turned down and everyone holding candles.
These are all pretty unique traditions—they represent our own expression of faith and memories at Christmas.
This story of the birth of Jesus we all know about is uniquely told in the gospel reading from Luke we read each year at this service. Matthew’s gospel describes only simply that Jesus was born after giving a lot of detail about Mary and Joseph and how Jesus was to come into the world. The gospels of Mark and John do not even mention the story of Jesus’ birth.
Last Sunday before the service, Deacon Joyce noted that the Gospel reading for that day was about Mary being told by the angel that she, although a virgin, would become pregnant and have the baby Jesus. Joyce also noted that the Christmas Eve reading tonight would be about the birth of Jesus. Hey--only six days apart from conception to birth! This birth of Jesus IS truly a miracle, so I guess anything is possible!
Luke says that the angel told the shepherds all about the young child born in Bethlehem, and they hastened to go and see the baby Jesus and proclaim what they had been told. They indeed found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. They told everyone what they had heard about this child; and all who heard it were amazed. Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart, and the shepherds returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
I struggled with how to introduce this, so I’ll just say it: At times it seems like we are just a nation of complainers. We are at this “most wonderful time of the year”, the celebration of Christmas, and instead we hear way too much about the “attacks on Christmas”: Christmas commercialism--the early push to begin Christmas gifts selling, and displaying Christmas decorations very early--and then taking them down the day after Christmas. All those Christmas gift sales up to the last minute, and then the mega “after-Christmas” sales after Christmas Day. And, all those complaints about using Xmas instead of Christmas, and using Happy Holiday instead of Merry Christmas. I could bring up even more Christmas-related complaints, but that gets us into some political stuff, a place we do not need to go here.
These complaints are actually overblown and basically just distracting; they are not even new issues, as we’re led to believe. These issues have been around for about 200 years. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (popular from its first line—“Twas the Night Before Christmas”). This poem made very popular the tradition of exchanging gifts, and seasonal Christmas shopping began to assume real economic importance. This started the original conflict of the holiday's spiritualism and its commercialism that has escalated to this day.
The "X" for Xmas comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word spelled Χριστός, translated as "Christ". An early use of "Xmas", "X'temmas", dates to 1551. Lord Byron used the term “Xmas” in 1811, as did Lewis Carroll in 1864. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. used the term in a letter dated 1923. Since at least the late 1800s, "Xmas" has been in use in various English-language nations.
The word holiday derived from the notion of "Holy Day", and gradually evolved to its current form. It comes from the Old English word hāligdæg. Holiday originally referred only to special religious days, like Christmas, but can now mean any special day of rest or relaxation, as opposed to normal days away from work or school. I think that using “Holiday” instead of Christmas Day still recognizes the holy aspect of that day, and can allow for those of other faiths or no faith to participate without offense.
I even have my own complaint—why does celebrating Christmas seem to end on Christmas Day? What about the 12 days of Christmas—“the 2 Turtle Doves, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree”? Wikipedia tells it like it really is: “Christmas is an annual holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, celebrated generally on December 25 by BILLIONS of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it closes the Advent season and initiates the season of Christmastide, which lasts twelve days.” The Christmas season actually ends at Epiphany, on January 6th. [That’s why the Wise Men/Three Kings are in the back of our church on that shelf until January 6th.]
Regardless of all these so-called threats to the spiritual Christmas, just as Mary treasured and pondered in her heart the words of the shepherds, all who have been exposed to the Christian faith at all know in their hearts the real reason for this Christmas season, as compared to anything else we call it. [Almost 85% of people in America say they are Christian, and over a 1/3 of the entire world are Christian, and most everyone else has been exposed to the Christian faith at some time.] The reason for Christmas is because Jesus was born into this world to be one of us, to show us the true love of God, and the way to live and treat each other.
In America, and around the world, we all know why there is Christmas--and I do not believe that will change. Generally, what Americans might consider changing is our crazy focus at Christmas on all the spending for so many extra things not really needed. Last year people in America spent about $450B for Christmas; it only would take about $20B to provide clean water for the entire world. A similar amount of money would go a long way to find cures for most forms of cancer, or work with poverty and other social issues here at home.
We can change what we do at Christmas--our traditions, our customs, our gatherings and who we celebrate with—Christmas will always be in our hearts about the birth of Jesus, and we will continue to celebrate this holiday joyfully! So, let’s all just ignore that which frustrates us about Christmas—and enjoy this service, each other, our family and friends, pray for and help those with less to celebrate this season, and joyfully remember why we are celebrating this holiday--over the next twelve days!