Meaning of Christmas
Christmas gives us a chance to lend a helping hand to those in need. Why is it, then, that we hardly ever take it?
MOST of us who have seen the movie 36 Chowringhee Lane would remember how its director brought out the common understanding and interpretation of Christmas celebrations, as picturised in the rendering of the world's most famous carol, Joseph Mohr's 'Silent Night, Holy Night'. At the same time we are shown both the all-night festive celebrations of the sophisticated and well-to-do, and the innocent slumber of those who have no cause and no means for any celebration - the miserable and the wretched outcasts of society, sleeping on the platforms and on the footpaths, some having only the sky above and the earth below, and only rags to shield themselves from the biting cold of the December nights.
These are the two commonly accepted aspects associated with the annual remembrance of the coming of Jesus -Christ into this world, two thousand years ago, as a little babe, the child of a Blessed Virgin, in an obscure village called Bethlehem.
There is a vast mass of literature about Christmas in almost every language known to man, where the principles which constitute the ideals of Christmas are enshrined for all time. In the English language there are a number of such "Christmas Stories" - some of which have become classics of English literature.
There are a few which are known to almost all who are acquainted with the English language but a look into them, especially at this time of the year, would certainly enrich us and enable us to observe and celebrate Christmas with better understanding.
One of the best known of these classics is the century-and-a-half-old story, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It is said that the author himself confessed that he laughed and cried over it as he did over no other story.
The central theme of the story is that 'suffering produces a comprehension of beauty'. The story is about how the sufferings of a crippled child transforms the lives of the members of his family and even of those indirectly related to the family. The transformation is most apparent in the character of the miser, Scrooge, whose only purpose in living was the amassing of wealth. He realises that he can only find true fulfilment in assisting the crippled child find happiness in life.
How is the "cross-grained creature" converted? His conversion is brought about by a series of visions - of Christmases past, present and to come. Scrooge recapitulates his life as a school-boy, apprentice and young lover; he recollects the joy and warmth of the home of Bob Cratchit, his underpaid clerk; he is filled with apprehensions at the thought of dying heartless and 'despised. And ever present in these visions is the picture of the crippled Tiny Tim - to whom he becomes a "second father". All these transform him into a benevolent, cheerful, loving person who, in turn, becomes the beloved of all.
In the midst of temporal realities, the story points to eternal truths, that beyond the fiction of fact is truth, and that in a selfish world only selflessness - the denial of the self and acceptance of the other - brings true contentment, which is the source of all true joy and peace.
Another beautiful and appropriate story for Christmas, which continues the theme of sacrifice, is that well-known one by O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi. Containing perhaps the most famous of his surprise endings, this Yuletide narrative is about a modest husband and wife - the Dillingham Young’s couple, Delia and Jim. The story tells how this poverty-stricken pair are determined to buy each other a suitable present. They do buy the presents, but at what cost! Delia has to have her beautiful hair cut and the tresses sold to buy her beloved a watch fob. But Jim sells his watch, which had been an ancestral heirloom, to buy his wife a set of combs for her beautiful hair.
Perhaps only those who are immersed in the mysteries of their own hearts and in the sorrow and suffering of other hearts can fathom the wisdom of such an act. Have they Buffered a loss when they lose themselves in that spark of selfless, divine love in which the need of the self is subordinated to the need of the other? O. Henry writes: "But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give-and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi".
Nearly fifty years after O. Henry's story had seen the light of day (1906), Menotti, the Italian-born composer and librettist, commissioned to write a short opera for a television presentation, brought out in 1951 his one-act opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. Here again, the composer uses the age-old theme of a crippled child's suffering to bring out the message of Christmas, of how the handicapped child, hearing of the birth of Jesus and the purpose of his Incarnation, gets rid of hi? affliction and finds healing and wholeness of life. How does Amahl achieve this? He adds his crutch to the gifts of the Magi!
Probably less known is the Nobel Laureate, Pearl Buck's A Family Christmas, in which the theme of Christmas is brought out in a beautiful story, "Christmas Day in the Morning". Thirty years after his father's death. Rob remembers an incident which took place when he was just a boy of 15 - an incident which made Christmas meaningful to every member of the family. In the twilight of every morn, precisely at 4 o'clock, his Dad would wake him up from his sleep to help him in his daily chore of milking the cow. As usual on Christmas morning, too, his Dad made appearance in his bedroom, with the words, "Rob, we have to get up, son, even if it is Christmas", and moved it to get things started in the barn. But Rob made no attempt to get up and follow him. After few minutes his Dad bursts into the room, almost screaming, Rob, you son of a ..." But in the night
Rob had woken up before 20 times to make sure he was in the barn before his Dad could get there and had finished milking the cows, thus saving his Dad the labour for that day. "It’s for Christmas, Dad", he proudly says. Later his Dad tells Rob in the presence of his mother and younger ones, "The best Christmas gift I ever had, and I'll remember it every year on Christmas morning, so long as I live". Rob, too, learns a lesson that Christmas day, that he could give this gift again and again. And after all the years had rolled by, on another Christmas morning, when their children were not at home to cheer him and his wife, Rob moved towards his desk to write a love letter to his wife, "My dearest love..."
Is not this the magic of Christmas - a kind and thoughtful word - a helping hand - a little deed which shows you care, you will love - and always will?
There are also many legends, poems and carols which present the glorious theme of Christmas. The Little Stranger, an ancient legend, tells the story of a poor woodman and his family and the good fortune that comes to them as the fruit of their concern and kindness for a needy child. One Christmas eve as they sit, contented and cheerful, before their meagre meal, they hear a weak knock on the door of their poor cottage set in the deep forest. When the woodman opens it he finds a tired, shivering child, dressed in rags standing at the door step in the cold snow. Without hesitation or further thought, they bring him inside into the warmth of the indoors, dress him in warm clothes and feed him with the hot food from their own table. After supper they put him in the bed where their own son usually slept. In the_ middle of the night, the whole family awakes to the sound of heavenly music from a great angelic choir. But they cannot find the child, and when they run out in search of the little stranger, to their great astonishment, they see him standing in the snow, dressed in splendid, shining garments, and radiating in a golden glow. They recognise him as the Christ-Child and bow down in reverence before him. The little Christ breaks off a fir-branch, sticks it in the ground and tells them, "Because you have been so kind to me, this tree will always be green, and bear fruit at Christmas, and you will always have plenty to eat at that season".
The golden principle of extending help to the needy is carried forward and presented to us in the famous poem, How The Great Guest Came, by the American poet, Edwin Markham, best known for his protest against the exploitation of the poor in The Man with the Hoe. In this poem, Markham, depicts the simple story of how a cobbler entertains the Great Guest.
One night the cobbler has a dream that the Lord is coming as a guest to his shop the next day. Though the cobbler finds it difficult to believe that the Lord would grace his humble dwelling, he is jubilant that he has been chosen for this singalur distinction. He decorates the place with evergreen boughs to make ready for the Lord's arrival.
The next morning, while waiting for the Lord to arrive, a beggar without shoes comes to his door, and the cobbler's anticipation and eagerness in receiving the Great Guest does not make him neglect his duty to one in need and he gives shoes to the beggar. Later in the day, he gives bread to a poor, hungry old lady, and as the day seems well-spent, with no appearance of the Lord, he gives milk to*a starving little child. As the evening shadows lengthen and darkness creeps around him, the cobbler is greatly disappointed as he feels that all his hopes and dream have turned into disillusionment. But then in the night he hears a soft voice say, "I was the beggar with bruised feet; I was the woman you gave to eat; I was the child on the homeless street". And so, in helping those who came seeking help at his door, the cobbler realises the truth of the saying that in helping others one helps God.
A Christmas carol which brings out this principle of the need to have the largeness of heart to be sensitive to the sorrows and pain of the needy is the one which unfolds the concern of Good King Wenceslas for the poor peasant. The good king is seen pictured sitting down in his palace and looking out on the fields carpetted by deep and crisp snow and at the expanding horizon, when he sees in the bright moonlight a poor man gathering fuel. Learning from his servant that the man gathering firewood is a poor peasant staying quite a long distance away, the king asks him to bring "flesh, and wine and pine logs" so that they could take it to the poor man and see him dine. With these in their hands, the king and his servant start on their charitable journey in the bitter weather. After going a short distance the servant finds the cold unbearable and confesses his fear that his heart fails, and he can go no longer. But the king who is walking ahead of him, asks him not to lose heart but to plant his feet in the king's footsteps and the servant planting his feet in the king's footprints finds that "heat was in the very sod, which the saint had printed".
What a sublime royal gesture! What a glorious example for all to emulate!
When we look at these Christmas stories we find a remarkable unifying factor. The stories of these authors, each living in different times and in different places and under different conditions - separated by time and space - instead of being dissimilar - reveal a central theme which is extraordinarily common to all: "Love came down at Christmas". And do not these stories show how love is not abstract, but incarnates and manifests itself in consecration to God, commitment: to truth and concern for others, in and through a selflessness which accepts all suffering for its own? Does not counting the cost of sacrifice make ordinary men and women channels through whom the love of God flows out to those who are in sorrow and pain?
The central theme of Christmas is that in a world of injustices, inequalities are not weaknesses, are not merely negative, or hopeless resignation to an inevitable decree, but are the means whereby we attain dignity and grow in stature to true manhood and true womanhood.
Do we not need, then, to rediscover anew the theme of Christmas and ask ourselves whether, when we are anxious about a lot of things during Christmas, we are concerned about the right things? Do we not need to rise up and respond to the challenge of love? De we not need to look at Scrooge, of whom the author says,"... if any man knew the real way to keep Christmas, it was he", and pray in his words, "Help me to honour Christmas in my heart -help me to learn its lessons of love and kindness - help me to keep it all the year."
In the midst of our eating, drinking and revelry, do we not need to look at the other side of Christmas?