Shoppers brave crowds to find the perfect gifts for everyone on their list. People spend money they don’t have to give their loved ones what they want. There are presents to be wrapped, cookies to be baked, pantries to be stocked and feasts to be cooked up to entertain family and friends.

For many, the chaos and commercialism of the holidays can take much of the fun out of them.

But it’s important to take time to reflect on the reasons behind these labors. The true meaning of Christmas is not the tinsel or the twinkling lights, the tree or the turkey. It is the feelings of hope, love and kinship the holiday elicits. 

Finding this deeper meaning may be easier said than done. But it is a worthwhile endeavor.

Meaning can be found in the wonder experienced by children who believe in Santa Claus and anticipate his arrival. Their delight in the traditions of Christmas can be a source of joy. When Christmas is about togetherness and shared experiences, giving more than getting, the magic of the season can be rediscovered.

Meaning can be found in the religious origins of Christmas. For Christians who lead secular lives and those who attend church every week alike, there is a solace that can be derived from contemplating Jesus’s birth. The belief that the son of God was born of the Virgin Mary in a humble stable under the guiding light of a star is an enduring mystery with the power to inspire the faithful.

It is a day steeped in tradition that means many things to many people around the world. Yet what unifies them on this day is the biblical Christmas story:

“Mary brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger; for there was no room for them in the inn.

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown about them. And they were sore afraid.

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

“And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

There are other versions of the story, of course, depending on what book of the Bible is used. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful, inspiring story that brings hope and comfort to those who ponder it in this complicated and sometimes uncomfortable world.

The story of Jesus speaks to us still this day.

He was born under occupation. Joseph and Mary were ordered to go far from home to register with authorities. The innkeeper told Joseph there was no room at the inn. Jesus was born on a cold night, in a stable, lying in a manger. He was an “at-risk” baby. His earthly father was a carpenter, a worker, not a prince or a banker.

He was born at a time of great misery and turmoil. Prophets predicted that a new Messiah was coming who would rout the occupiers and free the people. Many expected a mighty warrior like the superheroes of today’s movies. Fearing the prophecy, King Herod, whose authority stemmed from the Romans, ordered the “massacre of the innocents,” the slaughter of all boys two and under in Bethlehem and the nearby region.

Jesus confounded both Herod’s fears and the people’s fantasies. He was a prince of peace, not of war. He gathered disciples, not soldiers. His ministry was guided by Isaiah 62:1: “the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” We will be judged, he taught us, not for our wealth or our finery or our armaments, but by how we treat “the least of these,” how we treat the stranger on the Jericho Road. He called on us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, comfort the refugee.

He became a great liberator, by his teachings and his example, not by his sword. He converted rather than conquered. He threw the money lenders from the temple. He did not accumulate worldly wealth. His brief ministry led to his crucifixion. And yet he succeeded beyond all imagination to transform the world.

Today his teachings are more important than ever. 

Once more the practical imperative of Jesus’ teachings is clear. Jesus demonstrated the astonishing power of faith, hope and charity, the importance of love. He called upon us to care for the stranger on the Jericho Road. In an age of global pandemics, good will to all is not merely a holiday slogan, it is a survival imperative.

In this secular age, we should not let the deeper meaning of Christmas be lost in the wrappings. Jesus called us to turn to one another, not on one another. He demonstrated the power of summoning our better angels, rather than rousing our fears or furthering our divisions.

This Christmas, this surely is a message not merely to remember but to practice. 

And regardless of one’s religious beliefs or cultural background, Christmas has become a time for all of us to join in helping the less fortunate. For those who are alone, those who live in poverty, those who are refugees fleeing conflict, those who have experienced the trauma of loss, the holiday season can be a painful occasion that amplifies their difficulties. But making charitable donations or volunteering one’s time to help those in need can enrich the lives of both those who give and those who receive.

The spirit of Christmas cannot be bought or made. It does not appear in a stocking hanging over the hearth or come gift-wrapped under the tree. The true meaning dwells within people’s hearts.

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